There are nearly 19.7 million students enrolled in public universities in the United States, and another 5.1 million attending private institutions.
That’s a lot of bodies in a lot of schools. In fact, there are 5,300 colleges and universities for those nearly 20 million students to choose from. Career choices also vary from chemical engineering (very lucrative) to social work (very rewarding).
So figuring out how to choose a college with all these choices from coast to coast — and abroad, for that matter — is dizzying and difficult.
Some colleges specialize in specific career paths and technical careers, while other colleges and universities offer various higher learning classes.
And still, some schools are set in locations that you dream about every night, while others offer programs outside of academics that make you want to attend.
In the following article, we’ll discuss seven considerations for choosing a college you should not ignore.
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1. Choosing a College Major
First of all, realize that nothing in life is set in stone. The career you choose now or in university may not be the job you retire from.
With that pressure out of the way, let’s look at what you should consider when selecting a major and how to pick a college that suits you.
Start by evaluating your hobbies and interests, as well as your passions. Do you love the written word? Are video games and code your passion? Or do the STEM disciplines get you out the door to school every morning?
Self-reflection is key to choosing a university and choosing a major. Also, consider how long you want to attend higher education for. Pursuits like the law and medicine require a four-year degree before you even enter a post-graduate degree program.
Other degrees, like nursing or engineering, take specialized internships or practicums. Even many teaching careers require a master’s degree within the first few years of practice. If they don’t require a post-graduate degree, you may need one to get paid at a higher rate.
One of the biggest things to consider when choosing a major is whether the career will lead to a professional license or not.
A certification or license comes with higher pay and eliminates laypeople. It’s the difference between working in a craft like journalism, where anyone can do it, and as a medical technician, where states license your specialty.
A good way to weigh your passions and your career is to visualize your post-graduate life. Can you see yourself helping the people you’ll train to work with? Also, can you see yourself working in the environment — an office or otherwise — for years on end?
After you’ve narrowed down your choices, consider a job shadow or an interview with a person in the profession. This is a great way to make sure that you are on the right path.
Also, these professionals will give you the benefit of their experience on how to choose a university. It would be best if you didn’t underestimate how valuable this insight will be. Finding the right professional path is one thing; getting to your career destination is another.
2. The Price Is Right
Higher education is astronomically expensive, and these prices have only accelerated over the last decade. Per year, the average cost of a public college and university is $23,290 for in-state tuition and $40,940 for out of state. The average tuition for a private college is $50,000.
To put that in perspective, the median 2019 salary in the United States is $35,977, according to the Census Bureau.
Granted, the sheer number of low-wage, service, and commission-only positions pull that salary range downward. Still, few college graduates will escape a significant debt when leaving school.
So, before you fill out that college application, consider the price of the school you plan to attend. Make sure that some of your applications are heading to schools and programs that you can afford.
Also, remember there’s not just tuition to consider in the college search. There’s food and room and board. Coastal states with a large population are significantly more expensive to live in. New York, California, and Massachusetts — home to some of the country’s best colleges — are also some of the most expensive places to live in the country.
On the other hand, states like Florida, South Carolina, and Texas are very affordable. These states also have a wide array of top-notch schools, including four-year universities and community colleges.
College admissions experts say that prospective students should send out applications in three tiers: dream schools, practical schools, and in-betweeners.
Dream schools are the schools you want to attend regardless of cost. Practical schools are satisfactory schools at the right price. “In-betweeners” are just that: schools that will stretch your budget but have several extras that elevate them to just below your dream institutions.
3. Financial Aid
If you’ve already been accepted into a few colleges, take a hard look at the school’s financial aid proposals. Speak to your parents about how your family will need to manage the tuition bills.
Ask the colleges if they offer other ways to help pay for the school, like student-work programs.
Also, weigh the prospective salary for the career your training for. Look at how much you can expect to make (and in which state) over the first 2 to 10 years.
When you mix these figures with the financial aid packages, are you in a good position to pay off the debt, and when?
Money matters, so weigh these financial aid packages carefully when choosing a college.
4. Go Big or Go Home?
From classroom size to campus life, the size of the school you attend has a big impact on your education.
A small, private school is typically only about 5,000 students. Medium schools run anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000. The largest public schools in the United States and have more than 15,000 students enrolled.
In these medium and large schools, you will be a number to a certain extent. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be treated fairly by the college or university, but you will need to self-advocate.
However, large schools offer something that small schools don’t — a robust campus life. Fraternities, academic clubs, athletic leagues, world-class research facilities, theaters, concerts, and various cultural programs are all a part of the big school experience.
Also, big schools have a wealth of majors to choose from if you are still undecided.
On the other hand, smaller schools often offer better-personalized instruction. This can be very useful who students who don’t want to sit in massive lecture halls. Students at these smaller schools get to know their professors and get an education tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.
This is also true of the student body. Expect to know many people in your class and to see familiar faces at sporting events. A smaller school can fill a community void that a larger school sometimes can’t match.
5. Are Academics Everything?
Many jobs, especially those in public service, require you to state your GPA on job applications. This is also true for graduate schools. So, yes, your overall academic performance is crucial to your college search.
However, academics is not all that colleges offer.
Attending a school with a nationally recognized athletics program, say like a football or basketball team, builds pride for a lifetime. You may already be a fan!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to attend a school because you’ve always been a fan of the Clemson Tigers or the Ohio State Buckeyes.
If your dream is to be a creative person, schools with top-notch music and performance spaces may satisfy your cultural enrichment needs.
However, when weighing these schools with top-notch athletic or cultural programs, don’t get carried too far away from your career path. Make sure the academic and career prep at these schools matches your needs.
One last thing to consider beyond academics is the alumni association. Many schools, such as the University of Michigan or Boston College, for example, have a lot of weight on a job application. There’s a good chance your employer may have attended these well-regarded schools.
Many a career was made by having a college in common with a hiring supervisor. It may not seem fair, but it’s reality. Schools with strong alumni organizations can help your future career.
6. Location, Location, Location
Are you sick of the cold? Looking to ski the Rockies? Want to live in a picturesque New England town?
The location of your school factors into campus culture and the price tag. As we stated above, where your school lives could impact your living expenses and what you can do on your downtime.
It’ll impact how much you pay for housing and what cultural events you can attend.
In Florida, for instance, you’re never more than 60 miles from the beach — anywhere in the state!
7. Can You Get It?
The last factor you need to consider when selecting the right college is whether you will pass muster. Call the school directly and ask to speak to an admissions counselor.
Ask how much the school’s admissions process weighs your academics, your personal traits and interests, and your ability to pay. Inquire about their campus, graduation rates, and resources available to you.
You might be surprised how one of your traits gives you an edge in the admissions process, even in schools with rigorous academic standards for new admissions.
Take Your Time
Learning how to choose a college is no simple task, so don’t rush. Take all the time you need to make this life-altering decision.
Ask for advice from your parents, friends, family, and even network acquaintances.
If you need to revisit the school to make your final decision, take the time to do so. You won’t be sorry for giving yourself some room to ponder this big decision.