In trying to decide what type of college will best meet your wants and needs there are many things to consider. Listed below are some of the factors you will need to consider in deciding where you want to go to college.
Type of institution — Private or Public. College or University. Church sponsored.
Colleges can be either public or private. Public colleges are those that are supported by the state in which they are located. Many highly ranked colleges in the United States are state-supported institutions. These colleges can often provide an excellent education at a price for an in-state resident that is much less than comparable private colleges. At the early stages of your investigation, I would encourage you to consider both private and public colleges.
While private colleges frequently cost more than comparable state institutions, they often have the financial means to offer generous need-based or scholarship-based financial aid. This aid can make the cost of a private college the same or less than attending your state college.
Many of the more selective private universities and colleges have a religious affiliation. The extent of spiritual influence varies. But at the beginning of your college search, we strongly encourage you to investigate all private colleges, regardless of religious affiliation.
Academics — What courses and majors are you looking for.
The most important reason for going to college is to get an education. The type of academic atmosphere and variety of courses studied is an important factor to be considered when choosing a college. Be careful, however, of choosing a college based solely on it having a particular major or field of study. Research shows that 90% of all college graduates do not major in the field of study they originally had intended. This happens for several reasons.
First, most colleges have majors in subjects you have never before studied such as political science or anthropology. Second, as you gain experience and maturity in college, your interests may change. Take time to explore your options and be realistic about your talents. Be sure to pursue a course of study that is of genuine interest to you, not just one you think might lead to a good career.
If you do have a strong interest in a particular area, such as science, it is important to evaluate a college’s facilities and offerings in those areas to make sure they have adequate resources. Remember that many smaller colleges may not offer majors in certain professional fields, such as engineering, business, or physical therapy. If you are certain of a specific field of study, be sure that the colleges and universities you are considering offer that major.
Don’t exclude a smaller college, however, simply because you think the resources may be inadequate. Remember that all of the resources of a college are available to its undergraduate students whereas at a large university, many of the specialized equipment might be reserved for graduate students only. Some of the largest producers of PhD’s in this country are small colleges.
Atmosphere — Liberal, conservative or something in between.
Each college has a particular atmosphere or environment that affects the “feel” of the college. Many factors go into creating a college’s atmosphere including such things as how the colleges handle student questions, concerns, and scheduling; whether there is an academic or less serious mood among the students and the level of campus activity regarding social issues.
Every campus will have a different feel. What is important is to determine if the campus atmosphere will be comfortable for you as a person. The best advice regarding “student life” is to look for an intellectual and social climate in which you will feel comfortable and challenged.
The type of atmosphere a college offers can best be discovered by visiting the campus and talking to as many people as you can. Until you have an opportunity to do that the next best option is to read everything you can find about the college in which you are interested.
Student body and gender — Co-ed college or single sex.
A student body can be comprised of all men, all women, or both men and women. Students who may worry about a single sex college should know that today virtually all colleges have exchange programs with other colleges whereby a student from one college may cross register at another college to take courses for credit. Also dorm privileges, social activities, and extracurricular opportunities will vary by the composition of the student body.
Setting — Where do you want to live.
The physical environment of the college may be very important to you. Some people prefer the social and cultural activities of a large city. A major metropolitan area can offer many benefits, but a student must adjust to the lifestyle of a big city. A college or university that is located in the heart of a city is often comprised of multi-storied classroom buildings and high-rise dormitories.
Others want to go to college in a more rural setting. There are many colleges and universities that are in rural settings with campuses located many miles from the nearest large city. Many institutions are located close to, but not in large cities. The decision of a location and campus setting should ultimately include those colleges where you will be most comfortable living the next four years of your life.
Other factors to consider are the expense of travel, the need for independence versus the desire to stay near your family, and the effects of living in a particular climate.
Size — Large university or small college.
The following are generalizations, so if some of these areas are of concern, ask questions at the colleges you are considering:
A large university (15,000-50,000+ students) may offer a variety of academic opportunities including elaborate facilities and large libraries, as well as the stimulation of a large faculty, graduate students and undergraduates. However, housing may be more difficult to obtain, more courses may be taught by graduate students, lecture sessions may be very large, and opportunities for leadership in campus organizations may be diminished.
A medium-sized university (5,000-15,000 students) may offer fewer majors and more modest facilities than a large university, but also may offer greater opportunities to participate in the activities of your choice.
Small colleges (under 5,000 students) usually offer smaller classes, earlier opportunities to take classes with well-known professors, and more chances for participation and leadership in campus activities. However, facilities and classes may be limited and options for activities and diversity reduced.
Location — Where do you want to spend the next 4 years.
When considering the possible locations of your future colleges, consider questions such as:
How important is it for me to attend college close to home?
How much do I value attending college with students of different geographic backgrounds?
How frequently do I anticipate going home during the academic year?
How extensively does the weather affect my studies or quality of life?
Consider whether you would prefer a geographically diverse student body, or a regional community of students from more homogeneous backgrounds.
Campus life — What happens on campus when people aren’t in class.
Whether you enjoy your college years will often depend on the experience of living on a college campus. Learning in college comes not only from your class work but also through interacting with your college friends, extracurricular activities, and just hanging out in the dorm. Here are some factors that can affect your college experience.
Housing — Living on-campus for the first few years of their college experience is important for many students. Dormitories can become a focus of college campus life and the easiest way to meet new friends. If it is an important consideration for you, remember to ask any college in which you are interested about the availability of on-campus housing for all four years. Some colleges only have enough housing for the first year or two of the college experience.
Extracurricular activities — The extracurricular activities you engage in are not only fun but can be part of your learning experience. Look at the view books of the colleges to see what activities are available. Talk to people at the colleges you are considering to find out what activities are popular on that campus. Many colleges have 100 or more groups for students with a variety of interests. Also ask about how easy it is to start a new group if you have a particular interest not currently represented on the campus.
Fraternities and Sororities — The presence of a Greek system can have a dramatic effect on campus life. Ask people on campus about how the fraternities and sororities affect the social life of any college in which you are interested. Do they dominate the social scene or is it spread between many different groups? Can anyone go to a Greek party or are the limited only to certain students?
Campus Employment — Many students will hold a part-time job on or off campus while enrolled full time in college. Talk to current students about the availability of jobs and what types of jobs students typically get. With budget cutbacks, some colleges are starting to limit the number of jobs available to students on campus. If you need to have a job but have to seek one off campus, think about the time involved in getting to such a job and the additional costs of transportation.
Athletics — Are big time athletics important to you.
Many students who engage in high college athletics may want to continue to play that sport in college. College students participate at three levels: intramural, club, and intercollegiate. Intramural play is most common. Intramurals allow students to compete at a variety of different levels of competition with a primary emphasis on enjoying the sport for personal fitness, relaxation, and fun. Club sport teams are usually jointly sponsored by students and the college, and may compete against other colleges’ club teams.
Intercollegiate athletics is the university equivalent of varsity-level sports. These programs are categorized by the NCAA into three divisions of varying degrees of competition: Division I, Division II, and Division III.
Selectivity — How hard is it to get into a college.
Your academic performance in a challenging, rigorous program of study is the most important factor in determining your admissibility to colleges. Admission committees value a consistent level of achievement over four years, but they also give strong weight to students who demonstrate significant improvement over the course of their academic career. While your grades are the most obvious indication of potential future success, colleges also want to see that students have challenged themselves in a competitive, demanding academic program throughout their entire high college career. The more honor and AP courses you are able to take successfully, the stronger candidate you will be. Does that mean that you should take AP courses even if the material if too difficult for you? No. But most admission committees will give more weight to a B in an AP course than an A in a much simpler course.
Standardized testing also plays a critical role in admissions. Virtually all colleges will accept either the SAT I or the ACT. Many of the highly selective colleges also require or recommend SAT II subject test. The most important thing to keep in mind for each of the colleges you are considering is their ‘middle 50%’ range of testing. While a quarter of admitted students have scores either above or below this test range, such a median range will give a general indication of the strength of the applicant pool and how you compare.
After looking at your academic performance and your test scores, most selective colleges will then look at subjective factors such as your recommendations, your essays and your extracurricular activities. The amount of weight given to these subjective factors varies from college to college.
Financial aid — If I do get in, how am I going to pay for the college.
Financial aid may consist of grants or scholarships, loans and work study. Grants and scholarships are money that does not need to be repaid while loans need to be repaid. Work study is generally a job offered on the campus of the college offering the financial aid although it may also be a job off campus.
There are many forms of financial aid available. The most basic financial aid offered at all colleges is need-based. Need-based financial aid is given to families who demonstrate financial eligibility using nationally standardized needs-analysis forms, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile. Demonstration of financial eligibility is determined through detailed review of a family’s net assets, salary, investment income, liabilities, home equity, and other factors.
Some colleges also offer merit-based assistance. Such financial assistance comes in the form of scholarships for students who have achieved superior levels of academic excellence or offer some special talent in the performing arts or athletics.
For more information on financial aid, see our article on Financial Aid Basics and the Questions to Ask Colleges.
While cost is undoubtedly very important, do not limit your choice of colleges to only those you can afford without financial assistance. Many of the more expensive private colleges have substantial financial aid programs, which may cover much of the cost, and ultimately result in a cost to you the same as a cheaper state college. A good plan would be to choose several colleges, including one you can afford and several for which you need aid. Although financial aid may seem uncertain at times, limiting prospective colleges on a cost basis alone may exclude some excellent colleges from your list.