According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States Department of Education expects to accredit nearly 4,000 colleges and universities by 2022. With so many options, choosing a college can be difficult especially when you consider how much your alma mater will influence your future.
The best way to make this process easier is to divide it into manageable chunks. So, before you start making a list of colleges, ask yourself these 17 questions to narrow your options and determine which college is best for you.
What are my goals?
People pursue higher education for a variety of reasons, including pursuing a passion, expanding their network, or acquiring the skills required to enter a specific career. Ask yourself why you want this as you begin your college search. (Make a written list of three to five things you hope a college degree will help you achieve.)
If you know what you want to study, look for a college or university that offers that specific academic program. If you’re unsure, you might consider attending a community college until you’re sure. Alternatively, you can attend a liberal arts college, which offers a wide range of degree programs.
Perhaps your primary goal is to obtain an education without incurring debt. Consider in-state schools or other public universities, which are generally less expensive. You can also look for schools where you are more likely to be offered a generous financial aid package, such as less competitive colleges and universities with large endowments. If your ideal school has higher-than-average tuition, compiling a list of valuable scholarships is also beneficial.
What are my priorities?
While your goals will assist you in determining your needs, your priorities will assist you in determining your wants. Aside from academic programs, each school provides a distinct set of opportunities that can play an important role in your college search.
To determine your priorities, sit down and write for 10 minutes about your ideal college experience. Do you want to be a part of a sorority or fraternity? Do you want to study abroad? Do you want to live in a dorm or in a house with your friends? How close to a major city do you want to be?
A larger school may be preferable if you want a strong alumni network or a vibrant college sports scene. Larger schools typically offer a wider range of extracurricular activities and intramural sports. A smaller school may be a better fit if you prefer a quieter or more intimate atmosphere — or the educational benefits of smaller class sizes.
How does the school stack up in my area of study?
Different colleges have different strengths, and the specifics do not always correspond with the overall prestige of the school. A school known for its science departments, for example, may have a mediocre visual arts program. In contrast, a college with a poor academic reputation may have an excellent degree program in your field of interest.
You can look up college rankings online to determine a college’s strengths. One of the most notable is the list of best colleges published by U.S. News and World Report. While overall ranking is important, finding a school with excellent opportunities in your chosen academic program is critical.
What career resources does the school offer?
One of the main reasons students pursue a bachelor’s degree is to advance their careers. However, having a degree isn’t the only way to get a job.
Some schools have extensive career counseling programs. Some organizations prioritize placing students in internships prior to graduation or matching each student with a mentor in their chosen field. Before applying, prospective students should peruse college websites to get a sense of the school’s approach to career preparation.
Find out the counselor-to-student ratio, which is a good indicator of how much attention you’ll get as a student. You can also get a good sense of the availability of career resources by asking current students during college tours.
Do I care about location?
Getting away from home is an important part of some students’ college experience. Others may find comfort in being close to family members. If you fall into the former category, think about how far away you want to be from home and how much out-of-state tuition you can afford. If you fall into the latter category, make a list of in-state schools and begin narrowing your options from there.
If location is unimportant to you, consider attending school in-state, which is frequently less expensive than attending school out-of-state.
Can I afford it?
The best college is sometimes the one you can afford. According to CollegeBoard research, the average cost of college tuition in 2021 was $10,740 per year for in-state public universities and $38,070 for private schools. One of the reasons so many graduates today are saddled with student loan debt is because of the high sticker price.
Do some math before you begin the college application process. Make a rough estimate of the maximum amount of college tuition you believe you can afford. To arrive at this figure, you must first answer the following four questions.
How much financial aid am I being offered?
Once you’ve been accepted to one or two schools, evaluate the financial aid packages you’ve been offered. Some schools have large endowments, allowing them to provide more financial aid, whereas others provide very little. Then total the following:
- The financial assistance provided by your school
- Any state-provided assistance (apply by completing your state’s grant application)
- Any federal financial aid that you are eligible for (apply by completing the FAFSA®)
- Subtract this total from the sticker price of each school to determine the actual tuition cost. Based on this figure, make your decision.
Am I willing to apply for scholarships?
You’ll need to figure out how to pay for the rest of your education after you’ve calculated the actual cost of college tuition for each school you’re considering. Scholarships are an excellent option because, unlike student loans, they do not require repayment. Scholarships can be used to cover the majority of educational expenses.
The first step is to do some research on the different types of scholarships available to you. Going Merry is an excellent resource for sorting through available options. On the Going Merry platform, you simply create a profile and then receive scholarships based on your race, gender, location, field of study, and a variety of other factors.
Am I willing to supplement with student loans?
Financial aid and scholarships do not cover the entire cost of tuition for many college students. Many of those students take out student loans to help fill in the gaps. As you go through the college application process, consider how much (if any) debt you’re willing to incur.
Student loans can help with the cost of attending college. However, unlike scholarships, they must be repaid in the future, and most have interest rates, which means you will be paying more than the amount borrowed. Despite this, student loans remain a viable option for many students.
Am I comfortable attending a community college first?
When looking at a list of college rankings, you will rarely see community colleges listed. However, just because community colleges do not have national-level prestige does not mean they aren’t an excellent option for all types of students.
Most community colleges provide core-requirement courses at a lower cost than state or private colleges. These credits are then transferable to other universities. This allows students to complete their coursework at more prestigious institutions, resulting in a brand-name diploma without having to pay the full price.
If you need assistance with any of these calculations, you can use Going Merry’s College Cost Insights tool. It is a school comparison calculator that allows you to compare and understand your financial aid packages as well as the true cost of each college.
Do I prefer a certain campus size?
Enrollment size is a significant differentiator between colleges. Many public colleges and universities are larger, whereas private colleges and universities are typically smaller. Students may prefer one size over another for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps you graduated from a small high school and want to broaden your horizons by experiencing life on a large college campus with a diverse student body. If you perform better with individualized attention from teachers, you may want to look for a school with smaller class sizes so you can have more access to your professors both in and out of the classroom. (If you’re unsure whether a school is large or small, consult the Carnegie Classification of Institutions: schools with 5,000 or fewer students are considered small, while schools with 15,000 or more students are considered large.)
Does the school have the extracurriculars I want?
College is a time to let your imagination run wild and pursue new interests, from academic subjects to extracurricular activities like fencing or pottery. If you were a high school student who fell in love with a particular sport or activity, see if your prospective college offers it.
If you want to try a lot of new things, look for a college that has a diverse range of extracurricular activities. While it is not always advisable to select a college based solely on club sports or recreational hobbies, these activities can be an important part of campus life. If you can’t decide between two schools, consider extracurricular activities as a tiebreaker.
Does prestige matter to me?
This question may elicit an automatic response from you. But, before you dismiss it completely, it’s important to understand that your university’s ranking isn’t just something to brag about at parties. A degree from a prestigious university may give you an advantage in the job application process in some fields.
However, prestige is less important than many students believe. A bachelor’s degree, regardless of which university’s name is on your diploma, can help you get a job if you pursue challenging coursework and maintain a high GPA. (To determine a school’s prestige, consult college rankings lists or examine statistics such as acceptance rates and test scores. A school with low acceptance rates and high test scores is likely to have a prestigious reputation.)
Is the school accredited?
Before deciding on a college or university, ensure that it is accredited, which is a certification that ensures the rigor of education and the quality of the degree. (The US Department of Education maintains a list of accredited schools that you can consult.)
Accredited schools must follow strict guidelines when developing curricula and hiring professors. It’s also easier to transfer credits between accredited schools, which is useful if you need to switch institutions in the middle of your degree. Most importantly, only students attending accredited universities are eligible for federal financial aid.
What do the numbers say?
Assessing hard data can assist in removing some of the irrational emotions from the college application process.
- What is the student retention rate at each school?
- How many students graduate in a given amount of time?
- What percentage of students get full-time jobs after they graduate?
Creating a chart or spreadsheet with these types of statistics for each of your prospective schools could be a useful exercise. Most universities will post this type of information on their websites, typically under a section titled “Facts” or “Data.”
Remember to keep national averages in mind as a guideline. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduation rate for U.S. undergrads was 64%. If your prospective school has a higher graduation rate, you’re in good shape. And if it has a lower graduation rate, you may want to factor that into your final decision.
Can I see myself here now that I’ve visited?
Campus culture is important to your college experience, but it’s one of those “x-factors” that’s difficult to pin down, let alone capture through a college website or a set of statistics. Try to schedule a campus visit and tour if it is financially feasible for you.
When you get home, ask yourself if you can see yourself flourishing there. Did you feel at ease? Did you meet any students who gave you a taste of campus life? Could you picture yourself on campus, walking those halls and taking classes? If you answered yes to all of these questions, put that school at the top of your list.
What does my family think?
If the college admissions process becomes overwhelming, consider contacting family members to help you weigh the pros and cons of various schools. Perhaps your parents can give you some insight into campus life at the type of school they attended.
Alternatively, if you have a parent who graduated with student debt, inquire about how it impacted their college experience and the first years after graduation. Then, using that knowledge, you can decide whether or not to take out student loans. If you’re thinking about attending a school far away from home, talk to your parent or guardian about how you’ll manage travel and transportation.
Get scholarships delivered to you with Going Merry
The college admissions process is exciting, but many students feel pressure to choose the best college for them. There are numerous important factors to consider, ranging from financial aid packages to extracurricular activities and academic programs.
The good news is that there is rarely a single ideal school for every student. You’re more likely to find a great fit for your needs if you do your research, weigh the pros and cons, and create a comprehensive list of schools, including “reach” schools and “safety” schools.
Of course, the more colleges you can afford, the wider your net will be. Scholarships can be a great way to reduce the cost of college while also expanding your options. Consider signing up for Going Merry to quickly and easily find scholarships that match your qualifications.
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