Acceptance letters are beginning to roll in and soon seniors everywhere will be faced with the important, life-changing decision of choosing which college to attend.
With so many factors to consider and advice being tossed at them from every direction, chances are they’re beginning to feel some serious pressure.
Although the decision of choosing which college to attend can be overwhelming, it’s important to first understand that your child certainly isn’t alone. Nearly every college-bound student struggles with the decision to some degree often second-guessing themselves over the course of several months until they finally narrow their selection and reach a decision.
Rather than stressing out about it, which is what many kids (and parents) do during this time of year, now is the time for your child to take a deep breath and give some serious thought to their “needs” and “wants.”
What criteria is at the top of their priority list when choosing a college? What do they envision their day-to-day life to be like on campus? And, because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” college, what compromises are they willing to make in their “wants” to get what they “need” out of college? Most importantly, what type of college environment will make them happy?
Ask any college student out there and they’ll tell you, the quality of the academic program is important, but it’s equally as important, if not more important, to choose a college where your child will be happy. Your child’s success depends on it. Why? Because college is tough.
The adjustment period during the first semester and oftentimes straight into the second semester is hard and if your child is miserable, it makes the entire adjustment period even that much harder.
Just as your child has his or her own personality, so do colleges. The trick is to find a good match that offers both the academic program your child is looking for while taking into consideration the “happiness factor.”
Here are a few of the more important things your child should think about that will not only impact the quality of their education but also how happy they’ll be throughout the next four years.
Size of the Campus
Size does matter…college life on a big campus versus a small campus is quite different and it all boils down to personal preference. Would you prefer the small-time feel of a campus with 5,000 students where getting to class is just a few steps from your dorm and everyone knows everyone, big college life with more than 30,000 students all scrambling to get to class with activities at every turn or would you be more comfortable somewhere in the middle?
Smaller schools with fewer students also often equate to more personalized attention, whereas, on a large campus your professor may not recognize you if you pass him on the street. Each has its own share of benefits and drawbacks that deserve consideration.
In-State vs. Out-of-State
The decision to choose an out-of-state college versus an in-state is a complex decision since there are so many varying factors that come into play. Although out-of-state tuition typically carries a higher cost, it may be worth it if the college is a great fit. Aside from cost considerations, choosing an out-of-state college gives kids a chance to branch out, experience life in a different part of the country and expand their horizons. Plus, being so far away from home they’re forced to become more independent and resourceful. On the other hand, choosing an in-state college offers kids the chance to come home more often without the high cost of a plane ticket or a long drive.
If you’re adventurous and cost isn’t a factor, taking the out-of-state route might be the option for you. However, if you relish in the comforts of home, freak out about the idea of being 1,000 miles away from home and the idea of coming home every weekend intrigues you, perhaps attending an in-state college is for you.
Do you envision yourself skiing, snowboarding or playing in the snow in January or would you rather be basking in the Florida or Arizona sun when everyone else across the country is freezing?
The location of a college is a big factor that will impact your happiness, especially if you’re a warm-weather person and you’re stuck in freezing temps wearing five layers to keep warm. Aside from the weather factor, many colleges have certain religious, racial, or socioeconomic groups that make up their student population. If you would prefer or need a certain “like-minded” group to offer you a sense of belonging or make you feel more at home, this is certainly a factor worth considering.
Academics / Course of Study
If you already know your major (hooray for you, because a lot of college-bound kids don’t), then this is a place to begin. Every college has its strengths and weaknesses. Some colleges offer a stellar agriculture or engineering program while others are most notably known for their business program.
Even if you don’t have a specific major in mind, give some thought about what interests you (and what doesn’t) and focus on those colleges that offer strong programs (majors and minors) in your area(s) of interest. Do some research to also determine the reputation of the college in terms of how challenging the school is. If you don’t want to spend the next four years of your life with little to no social life looking at the pages of a book, you might want to reconsider a college known for the challenging rigor of its class programs.
Although on-campus housing is typically an afterthought for most students, housing is actually a huge consideration that can greatly impact your happiness. After all, you’ll be spending far more time in your dorm than you will in any other place on campus.
Some colleges have absolutely fantastic student housing that mirrors the comforts of apartment living complete with your own bathroom and walk-in closet. Other colleges literally have small “cracker boxes” that barely fit two beds, two desks, and a few clothes (and they happen to smell like sweaty socks). Although nearly every college has varying levels of housing options that are all priced differently based on the location on campus, the age of the building, and any perks the building offers, it’s always important to check into your options so there won’t be any unfortunate surprises on move-in day.
Before you pick a college, decide if you plan to get involved in Greek life. While most kids are lost in the frenzy of college rankings, campus size, and the cost of tuition, many aren’t considering whether they want to join a sorority or a fraternity. Greek life is just as much about the dynamic of campus life as it is about personal preference.
Greek life on some campuses is so big that choosing not to join a sorority or frat can have a negative social impact. Some colleges have as much as 100% Greek participation while others are much lower at 18%. Essentially, if you have no interest in joining a sorority or frat, you might want to steer clear of colleges that have a huge Greek life.
Cost of Tuition
Probably the most important factor that’s agonized over by both students and parents alike is the cost of tuition. But, it shouldn’t be. Don’t get caught up in the “sticker price” of a college without first doing some research. Call the Admissions Office and the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid at colleges you’re interested in and find out if they offer any programs, scholarships, grants, or need-based financial aid that can bring the cost down.
Some colleges are very generous while others can be quite stingy. This is one area that is going to require some legwork, but in the end, if you ask all the right questions, you may find you can afford a college with higher tuition by offsetting the cost with institutional (and oftentimes outside) funding.
Local Transportation for Students
Statistically, most college kids don’t take a car to school during their freshman year. There’s nothing worse than being accustomed to going wherever and whenever you wish and finding yourself stuck on campus day in and day out with no escape, and every college’s transportation offerings are different.
The University of Arizona, for instance, offers a trolley car that makes a five-mile loop around campus with several stops on campus and in downtown Tucson. Virginia Tech students can hop on any city bus and go virtually anywhere for free simply by showing their student ID. If you have dreams of getting off campus and exploring the surrounding area and you’re not planning on bringing your car, you may want to check into the transportation system offered to students.
Financial Aid Opportunities
Choosing a college is easy compared to the all-important question, “How do I pay for all this?” First and foremost, complete the FAFSA which will not only offer you the ability to potentially qualify for need-based funding, it also (in some cases) alerts the colleges that you’re looking for and in need of funding.
Contact the Admissions Office and Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid to determine what you may qualify for. Ask them if they have a “no-loan” policy that is being adopted by many private and Ivy League universities, ask what percentage of financial need they typically meet, and find out if they have a student Work-Study Program which allows students to earn money for college expenses. Do your homework and you may find that those higher sticker-price colleges are actually much more in your financial reach than you realize.
Job Opportunities Post Graduation
Walking onto campus as a freshman, you may not be giving much thought to the idea of graduating and getting a job. However, you should. Four years fly by all too quickly and before you know it, you’ll be on the hunt for a job.
Find out if the college has programs in place to assist students with securing internships and assistance in securing a job post-graduation. Many colleges will go to great lengths to ensure their students are placed in a position after college, while others don’t put forth quite the effort. If you don’t want to end up with a fancy, high-cost degree that doesn’t land you a job, this is one consideration you may want to keep in mind.
I can’t tell you how many kids choose a college based on the ranking of its football team. And, I can understand why… the energy of a college campus often weighs heavily on its athletic programs and campus social activities. But there’s more to consider. Of course, you want to feel proud of your team and it’s exciting to be part of the tailgating and social activities that take place on game day, but it’s important to weigh this factor among all the others that impact your happiness.
If a college has a stellar football team or their basketball team is nationally ranked it’s a fabulous perk, but in the end, it won’t matter if you’re miserable because you chose a college that doesn’t fit your academic goals or personal preferences. It’s all about balancing your needs and wants.
Campus Social Activities
If you love hiking, playing ping pong, or love to build rockets and you have dreams of joining an on-campus club with other students who hold your same passion, you may want to check your college’s list of clubs. Some of the larger colleges have literally hundreds of clubs from which to choose – something for everyone. Other colleges, on the other hand, offer a sparse selection of clubs from which to choose. Being involved on campus, putting yourself out there, and meeting new people is a critical factor in getting adjusted quickly when you head off to college. To make certain the college you’re considering offers clubs and social activities you might actually be interested in, check their online listing or call the campus directly.
Finding a “best fit” college doesn’t have to be stressful or difficult providing you first do a little soul-searching to think about what you “need” and “want” in a college.
Evaluate your priorities and make your selection based on the criteria that meet your goals and personal preferences. When making your final decision keep in mind that in the end, your happiness will have a big impact on your ability to succeed.