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8 Tips for Choosing the Right College

Continuing on After High School
Part 3 of 3

Part 1 of this series discussed the reasons you might pursue higher education and the benefits that such an education can deliver. In Part 2, we broke down the primary types of higher education institutions in the U.S., and discussed  reasons why you might choose to attend a particular type of school. In Part 3, we’ll look at factors that you should keep in mind when choosing a school, some of an academic nature and others, non-academic. Consider hese three articles as your higher education “decision-making toolbox” and use them as you work through your plans for higher education.

Why Is Where I Go to School Important?

“A certificate, diploma or college degree, whether in English, math, science or history, will better equip me for the future and make me eligible for more job opportunities…right?”

Right.

So, as long as I can obtain the degree, diploma or certificate that I’m wanting, why should the school I select, as long as it’s a good one, be that important?”

Logical questions, no doubt. But, all schools are not alike, all degrees are not alike and the higher education experience can vary widely from one school to another. There are other factors besides just having that diploma to hang on your wall that you should consider. We will address eight of these considerations later in this article. But, before we do, there are a few things that you should keep in mind as you do your research.

Go to the Best School Possible

Whether you select a college, university, vocational, trade or other specialized opportunity for higher education, try to find and go to the best school that you possibly can. Granted, the term “best” is subjective, but the facultiess, accomplishments and reputations of schools vary and, to some extent, your diploma will reflect these factors as well.  Potential employers tend to be more aware of these differences (than your friends, for example) and these will come into play as actual employment decisions are made. This is one of the reasons high school grades are so important – typically, the better your grades, the better your chances for getting into the school of your choice and ultimately landing the job you want, not to mention gaining all the other benefits of higher education as discussed in Part 1 of this series.

Look Inside the School and Consider Your Field of Study

The institution overall is important, yes, but your planned area of study is even more so. If you want to be a mechanical engineer, for example, dig a little deeper and compare one engineering department with another. Find out about the Dean of Engineering, the teaching staff/professors, how much research/consulting is done by the faculty and some of the accomplishments of their engineering graduates. If you can, visit multiple engineering programs, talk to individuals who are involved in various ways and compare them to each other. This same example will apply to almost any major that you are considering.

Remember, College Is More than Books – It’s People, Too

Some of your best friends, best experiences and best times will come from your years in school. We’re certainly not implying that “party schools” should be shown any favor in this regard. But, the campus life, the availability of school activities and even the city or location of the school will contribute to these experiences. You can decide how best to include these considerations in your decision, but it is very important that you do.

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Outlined below are eight factors, presented in no particular order, that will help you research and round out this decision-making process. There are probably others that you can add, but these are some of the more important ones:

  • Accreditation
  • Rankings and Reviews
  • Success Rates
  • Academic Support
  • Cost and Financial Matters
  • Social Environment
  • Extracurricular Offerings
  • Community Resources

#1 Accreditation

Whichever type of school you’re looking to attend, it’s important to make sure that the one you choose is accredited. Accreditation is a process that institutions of higher education go through to ensure that they meet certain quality standards.

There are different types of accreditation, including some types referred to as licenses or certifications, so you will need to dig in and do some research work in this regard – both about the types of accreditation as well as the specifics that apply to schools that you are considering.

Colleges and universities generally receive regional accreditation based on their location from one of six accrediting associations. These are:

  • Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia).
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming).
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington).
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Texas.)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges (California and Hawaii)

If you're considering a college or university, you can start your accreditation research by visiting the appropriate website above to determine how you will compare schools that you are considering. Beyond these college and university accrediting groups, there are many other accrediting associations or agencies that rate community colleges; vocational or trade schools; medical, dental and nursing schools; art schools and other specialized forms of higher education. Some of these accreditations are in the form of licenses or certifications. One of your first steps should be to determine the accreditation or certification process that applies to the schools that you are considering.

Obviously, you can do a lot of your initial research on the internet. As you begin to identify specific schools or programs, more detailed information is available on almost every school’s website. After you have a preliminary understanding of a school’s profile (and credentials), pick up the phone and contact the school’s admissions office (that’s what they are there for). There you can not only obtain the latest information about the school’s accreditation status (and the programs/courses it currently offers), but you can obtain information about their enrollment process as well. You’ll learn a lot about accreditation as you get serious about this research, and here are some very helpful resources to get you started:

College Accreditation Guidebook
www.accreditedschoolsonline.org

Find the Best College for You (report title)
www.consumerreports.org

College Selection Guide
www.collegereview.com

Choosing a Vocational School (report title)
www.consumer.ftc.gov

#2 Rankings/Reviews

One of the best ways to get a feel for the quality of a school (and the specific program you want to enter) is to research rankings. U.S. News and World Report is one of the most extensive and reputable resources for this.

On their website, students will find rankings separated into several categories, including universities, liberal arts colleges, regions of the country, distance learning (online) programs and specific program areas of focus, such as engineering and business. The rankers use 16 pieces of data, including retention rates, graduation rates, financial aid packages and faculty quality.

Another helpful resource is Niche, where prospective students can find reviews from students who have attended or are attending a school. While more objective rankings are certainly valuable, first-person experience can lend insight into things you won’t likely read about in U.S. News and World Report, such as the school’s culture, faculty availability and social life on campus.

#3 Success Rates

For community colleges and vocational schools, there aren’t as many resources for rankings. However, it’s good to focus on “success rates” for these schools, which can be found either online or by contacting the school and asking for this information. Generally, “success” in one of these programs is defined as graduating within a certain period of time. The research group College Measures put together a chart that lists success rates – defined as graduation within three years or transfer into a Bachelor’s program – of dozens of community colleges. Prospective students should contact the school and ask about success rates for the specific program they plan to enter as well – a good school could have some weak programs and, on the flip side, a school with a low overall success rate may have a few stellar programs. 

#4 Academic Support

Some students need additional academic support services outside the normal classroom, such as remedial courses in math and English, or tutoring in writing, etc. Students needing such assistance should look into whether the schools they’re thinking about offer these services.

For students who need a substantial amount of remedial coursework, community college may be the best option, as these schools tend to feature this aspect of academic support.

#5 Cost and Financial Matters

One thing that affects the cost of attending an educational program is whether the institution offering it is public or private. Public educational institutions are financed, in part, by the government, meaning that they don’t have to rely primarily on tuition to cover all the expenses of running the school.

Most vocational or trade schools are private, for-profit schools, and the average cost of a program is over $30,000. Most students leave these programs with a significant amount of debt. The College Board reports that the average for-profit tuition rate for the 2014-2015 school year is $15,230, compared to $3,347 at a community college. That’s why many opt to attend certificate and diploma programs at a community college, where costs are consistently low and programs may be just as good.

About two-thirds of universities are public compared to 90% of liberal arts colleges being private, meaning that universities tend to be cheaper. Another factor is location. Average total cost of attendance at a public state university is significantly lower for those who live in the state before enrolling (average: $18,943 a year); and even for out-of-state students, costs are substantially lower (average: $32,762 a year) than the cost of attending a private school (average: $42,419 a year).

It’s important to factor in an institution’s financial aid offerings when assessing the cost of attending. While many institutions offer approximate financial aid award calculators, to find out what your award would be for sure, you’d need to apply to the school, fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and wait to hear back about your award package. Federal student aid consists of a variety of things, from federal loans (that must be paid back) to grants (that do not need to be paid back) to work-study programs in which the student finds a job at the educational institution and works off part of the cost of attendance. See the Federal Student Aid website for more information on different types of financial aid.

Many students end up taking out private loans, which come with several disadvantages. Federal loans come with deferment periods (in times of financial hardship or if you return to school at a later date, for example), are eligible for lower monthly payments and loan forgiveness programs and, finally, have lower interest rates. The Institute for College Access & Success pulled together some data to show what types of schools require the most and the least private loans of students. They report the following:

  • People who attend public 2-year institutions are least likely to require private loans; 38% of all students enrolled in higher education attend a public 2-year school, but they make up only 10% of students with private loans.
  • Students enrolled in for-profit schools or private 4-year schools are most likely to need private loans. While only 13% of students enrolled in higher education attend a for-profit institution, they make up 25% of students with private loans. While 11% of students enrolled in higher education attend a private for-profit school, they make up 23% of students with private loans.
  • Public 4-year institutions fall in the middle, as roughly the same percentage of students enrolled in higher education attend these schools (28%) as require private loans (31%).

You should also research possible scholarships, which, like grants, do not have to be paid back. While grants are generally awarded on the basis of financial need, scholarships are more often given to students for achievements or abilities; some scholarships are for members of underrepresented groups or for people studying particular fields. Students should investigate the schools they’re interested in for scholarships they might offer, as well as outside sources. Check out scholarships.com for a searchable database.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the financial aspect of higher education, but young people should keep in mind that it is one of many factors to consider. Passing up the school or program of your dreams because you will have to take out student loans isn’t likely to be a choice you’ll be happy with. So keep financial matters in mind, but remember that they aren’t the only, or even necessarily the primary, factor. 

#6 Social Environment

Do you love meeting new people all the time? Or do you prefer a small, close-knit community? The social environment of a school is of particular importance for students attending 4-year programs, as they will likely be living on or near the campus of the school they choose, and four years is a big chunk of time to be part of a community.

As mentioned in Part 2 of this series, universities tend to be larger than liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges average between 1,000 and 2,500 students, with some having only a couple hundred. Universities average 15,000 graduates and undergraduates, though some have nearly 50,000 and others are the size of a liberal arts college. The population of a college or university, and its likely impact on the social atmosphere, is something young people should consider.

#7 Extracurricular Offerings

As with a school’s social environment, the types of non-academic opportunities offered at a school are of particular importance to those planning to attend a 4-year program. Many colleges and universities provide students with a range of opportunities to develop themselves outside the classroom. This includes participation in student government, sports, the school newspaper, activities planning committees, resident assistant (RA) positions and more.   

In general, sports are more highly emphasized at universities, though liberal arts colleges often have sports facilities and teams as well, but on a smaller scale. It might be harder to get involved in student government or other committees at a large university, simply because there are more people trying to get those spots. However, their committees might be a bit larger. If you’re interested in a particular type of extracurricular activity, you should see if the school you’re looking into offers it. Contact the school to ask for specific information about the groups, committees, teams, etc. you’re interested in.

#8 Community Resources

If you’re going to be living on campus at a 4-year school, you’ll want to know that you have access to things you’ll need. What hours are the library and computer lab open? Can you access health services on campus (including mental health services)? If you’re religious, you may want to know if there is a church, synagogue or other facility on or near campus. What about transportation? Think about what you need – or might need – and find out if the school you’re interested in offers it.

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This series was written to provide young people with important information and considerations about continuing their education after high school. Higher education requires a commitment of your time, energy and money; you owe it to yourself to make sure that the school and program you choose can fulfill your goals and meet your expectations. Do your research, and don’t hesitate to contact someone at your prospective institution with any questions you may have.

Written by Amée LaTour and Michael Nelson

- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -

Part 1:
Top 4 Benefits of Higher Education
Continuing on After High School

Part 2:
Quick Guide: The Many Types of Higher Education
Continuing on After High School

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle