Sensible Perspectives

Choosing the Right College

Posted by on August 24, 2015

Congratulations! You are about to launch your student into his or her first year of college. One down, perhaps one (or more) to go. Hopefully, your child will cherish their time at the college of their choice. Or will they? According to Todd Weaver of Strategies For College, Inc., a nationally recognized college planning firm, fewer than 66% of students who enroll in a four-year college or university will return to that same institution for a second year. The reasons vary, but a common one is that they chose the wrong school.

So, what is the “right” school? Many parents want their child to attend a very competitive college because they believe successful completion of a degree at a competitive school is essential for having a good life. It turns out that this isn’t true. What really matters is finding a school from which your student will graduate (hopefully in four years), that challenges without overwhelming, and that adds significant experiential and practical value, including after graduation. Actually, there isn’t one right college. Many schools can be a great fit, but students must first figure out who they are and what they want. (Not so easy when you are a teenager!) They must then find schools to which they are academically suited, and that fit their criteria along many dimensions, keeping costs in mind.

First and foremost, it is important to select schools to which you have a reasonable chance of being admitted. Students should match their academic record with the academic requirements of the schools. A little academic “stretch” is reasonable in some cases, but it would be a waste of time to apply to colleges that require much higher grades and aptitude test scores than your student is capable of achieving. (Even if they could get in, they might not finish if the work demands are too great.) When it comes to extracurricular activities, there is no such thing as the “right” activities. Colleges don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to extracurricular activities. They are looking to build a student body that can handle the work load, but who have diverse interests and talents. So they try to find individuals who are genuinely interested and talented in something, even if that something is unique or unusual.

Once your student lists their potential alma maters, they should jot down all the possible criteria, such as school size, location, distance from home, available majors of interest, career placement opportunities, housing options, makeup of student body, etc. Then, decide not only how each school under consideration ranks among its peers for each set of criteria, but how important it is to your student. For example, a school under consideration might not have state-of-the-art athletic facilities, but if your student’s favorite athletic activity is skiing, the fact that the school has half the number of squash courts compared to its competitors probably shouldn’t affect its ranking.  Parents and guidance counselors should be on hand to discuss the pros and cons of each item under consideration, but tread lightly here; this really needs to be your student’s decision.

It is also important to keep an open mind and only finalize these rankings once they have visited the schools under consideration. Always visit the schools, sometimes twice for those that are among the finalists. Talk to admissions, professors, career center staff, financial aid counselors, students, and alumni. Find out what the four-year graduation rate of a college is, as well as the average amount of student debt each graduate has at the end. Take a closer look at the academic departments of interest. Is there sufficient breadth and depth in course selection? What inventions, breakthroughs, or other notable works is the department known for? What does the career center offer? How plentiful are on-campus job interview opportunities? Will there be sufficient access to the alumni network? What is the counselor-to-student ratio? Prepare a list of questions for each interviewee ahead of time, and take good notes. Then determine how each school stacks up relative to its competitors in each area under consideration. Finally, compare aid packages among your top contenders. How much of each package is an award and how much is a loan? Do the math (or have your financial advisor do it).

It is also important to avoid common mistakes in choosing a college. For example, don’t make superficial criteria a part of the decision-making process, such as which schools her boyfriend is looking at (this could end up being a disaster!), where siblings or parents went, whether or not the school is Ivy League (unless she has the right academic profile), or the fact that he is a die-hard fan of the football team. Also, don’t choose a college solely because it is strong in a specific major that matches the student’s current high school academic concentration. Many college students end up changing their major, sometimes more than once. Instead, look for schools that offer breadth and depth in several academic disciplines in which the student might choose to concentrate. Most importantly, don’t rush the college selection process. Start a couple of years early if possible (this is also important for applying for financial aid), and use time wisely when high school is not in session.

College should be an amazing experience, academically and socially, that leads to a lifetime of memories and future opportunities. Students owe it to themselves to do the groundwork necessary to find the “right” match for them.