Adrienne Leinwand Maslin
A Few More Thoughts on Choosing a College
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
In my last blog post—and the first in the series on choosing a college or university—I essentially told you to choose the college that suits you the best. To go where you feel the faculty and staff have a commitment to your success. To go where you will thrive regardless of where your friends are going or what would look good on a resume. Now we’ll get a little more granular. However, before continuing, it is important to understand that many students attend high schools with excellent college counseling services. High school counselors are so very helpful in this process. Unfortunately, some students attend schools that don’t provide such in-depth counseling, and, with more students being home-schooled, not everyone has access to a counselor. So, this blog post is written with these students in mind.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of books on the market today to help young people and their parents negotiate the maze of college choice, admissions, and financial aid. Many people are familiar with the college and university rankings of U.S. News and World Report. For better or for worse, whether justified or not, those rankings are out there and many people take them seriously. There are rankings based on academic rigor, size of the endowment, student SAT scores, and number of students who were high school valedictorians. There are even rankings based on the quality of the food served in the dining halls—a measurement not to be taken lightly. Many books go well beyond rankings and discuss the college choice and admissions process quite thoroughly. So, there’s lots of great advice out there and I don’t wish to duplicate any of it. But I’m sure I will. I certainly have not read every single one of those books and articles, those I have read are already duplicative, and most parallel my own knowledge and experience. So, there’s bound to be overlap.
Go slower, Mom. I’m confused about something. Sometimes I hear the word “college” and sometimes I hear “university.” Are they the same thing?
That’s a good question, Roxanne. Many people do use these words interchangeably to refer to an institution of higher education but there are some differences. Universities are typically larger and offer degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Colleges typically offer only the bachelor’s degree and, in general, have fewer students and smaller campuses. And community colleges generally offer only the associate’s degree which, if a student is going full-time, can be completed in two years.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, there are about 3500 colleges and universities in the United States. I won’t even get into the many excellent universities in other countries. So, where to start? How do you get it down to a manageable 20 or so to really focus on? Let me give you a couple of suggestions.
Many students and parents have just one thing on their mind. And it’s not the same thing. Some families zero in on cost as the single most important factor. Which universities are in their price range? Or, possibly, they only want to focus on the public universities in their own state. Other families focus on distance. Many young people want to leave home for college. What do you consider to be a reasonable driving distance from your home? Two hours? Ten hours? (One thing many students don’t anticipate when choosing a college is homesickness. It can happen to anyone when starting off in an unfamiliar place. Feeling homesick when you’re two hours from home may be less difficult than if you’re 10 hours away.) Climate is a big factor for some students. I have a neighbor whose daughter wants nothing more to do with New England winters and she’ll soon be starting school in Florida.
Other students and their families focus on prestige. Can I get into an Ivy League* school? The University of Chicago? Stanford? Any one of a number of small, selective, liberal arts colleges? There’s nothing wrong with this and if you have the academic ability and drive to attend a prestige college or university, more power to you. Elite universities have extensive alumni networks and are well-endowed. It can certainly be advantageous to put a big-name university on your resume and connect with alumni who have “made it” in their disciplines. And top-tier colleges are excellent places of learning. But, college is what a student makes of it and if you feel uncomfortable reaching out, taking the initiative, or taking on leadership roles, prestige will count for little. Combining factors like prestige and distance can be very helpful in narrowing the list. Just don’t let a college’s prominence be the overriding factor.
Many students know right away that a small college in a rural location is the right place for them. And an equal number know right away that it is the wrong place for them. For these students, a large, urban university is the place to start. And some want to be able to play a particular sport or be in the marching band or write for the campus newspaper and, therefore, select a college that will allow them to do that—perhaps even give them a scholarship to do that. I think these gross categories—listed below--can be a realistic starting point.
5. Geographical location/climate
7. Sport or activity
8. Community college vs. four-year institution
9. Public vs. private institution
So let’s talk about cost for a minute—or more. Please don’t assume that a college is prohibitively costly until you’ve done some research into financial aid. Institutions that seem out of your price range frequently offer generous financial aid awards that include scholarships and grants in addition to loans.
Scholarships and grants? What’s that?
Scholarships and grants are “free” money.
Whoa! Hold the phone! Did you say "free" money? I want some of that!
Yup! That’s exactly what I said! Free money is money that does not have to be paid back, unlike loans. Grants are typically awarded by the federal or state government based on financial need whereas scholarships are typically awarded by the college or university or a private organization or association and are based on academic merit. Scholarships often have strings attached such as requiring the student to maintain a particular grade point average or major in a particular academic discipline. Until you complete a FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, you will not know if you qualify for any kind of financial aid package. So, it’s always to your benefit to complete the FAFSA. Completing a FAFSA has become easier in recent years but you will need your or your parents’ tax information. Keeping a copy of your tax returns handy will be helpful when it comes time to fill out the FAFSA.
When it comes to cost, there is a general hierarchy. Community colleges, which are usually state supported, are the least expensive. This is followed by state colleges and universities. Many states have numerous state institutions or “systems” of state universities. California, for example, has the California State University System (Cal State) which serves many locations around the state. It also has the University of California System, which includes such institutions as the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley). The tuition at University of California institutions is approximately double that of the California State University institutions. Similarly, in my home state of Connecticut, tuition at the University of Connecticut is higher than that of the Connecticut State Universities. Although they are all “public” universities and receive some funding from the state, they are not part of the same cluster or “system” of universities. Please know, however, that if you are attending a state university in a state other than your home state, you will pay a higher tuition rate than in-state students. At some state universities the out-of-state costs are equal to those of a private college.
Private institutions, whether a small liberal arts college or a large university, are generally the most expensive. However, as I said above, never assume it is unaffordable. Don’t let the “sticker price,” the price quoted on the website, deter you.
Once you’ve made a couple of decisions—I must go to school in Boston! I need a bike-friendly college! I want to join the swim team!—the college website is the next best place to visit.
College websites vary in their navigability. Most, however, will have links on their homepage that take users to information on Academics, Campus Life, and Admissions. In these three sections you will find information on available majors, whether you can design your own major, degree requirements, the faculty, what kind of extracurricular activities are available, where the students are from, whether living on campus is required of first-year students, the kind of food served in the dining halls, and what you need to do to apply. Of particular importance are the pictures. You’ll want to see what the campuses look like. Who is in the pictures? Do the students look like you? If the pictures show a diverse student body, are the pics truly reflective of the student body as a whole? (The answer to this question may require some more in-depth research or a phone call to the college.) Ask yourself the question: “Can I see myself here?”
Of course, any research you do must include the academic requirements for admission. Does the college require SAT or ACT scores? Many no longer do and others are “test optional.” But if the colleges you are considering do require such scores, are yours within their desired range or reasonably close? What academic average do admitted students have? Is yours close? What high school coursework is required for admission to college? Are you on target to meet the academic requirements for admission?
I dream of a small college in a big city, with fun things to do on and off campus, that serves steak, seafood, cheese, and milk bone every day, with state-of-the-art biology labs, located on a lake or river so I can join the crew team, and . . .
Biology labs? Crew team? Since when are you interested in biology and crew? I thought you wanted to major in theater! Sing in the choir! And star in all the drama productions!
Well, college is for trying new things, right?
You are right, Roxanne! College allows us to meet new people, have new experiences, explore new academic and personal interests, and try out a new sport.
Are you allowed to visit a college before applying?
Absolutely! Visiting a college is always worthwhile. It's good to see where you might be living and eating, what the classroom buildings look like, what activities are posted around campus, and what the architecture is like. But campus visits are not always doable. Distances and personal finances frequently interfere with a student’s ability to personally visit a campus. If a campus visit is out of the question for you, you might consider calling the admissions office and asking to speak with some current students or faculty. No one better than a student to paint a picture of the college—the good, the bad, the quirky. If you’re interested in student government, ask to speak with a student who is closely involved. If you are thinking of majoring in a particular discipline, ask to speak to a faculty member in that discipline. And while some who work in college admissions see the campus visit as a true indication of one’s interest, I believe you can give a strong indication of your interest through a Zoom or telephone interview, or by meeting with an alumnus who lives closer to you.
Following the steps above should enable most students to reduce their list of “serious” schools to a reasonable number. And, there are some excellent online platforms to help facilitate your choice of college. The College Board (www.collegeboard.org) is a terrific place to start. Many high schools participate in Naviance (www.naviance.com) which is another very useful tool. However you choose to go about this task, treat it as an adventure. As daunting as it can be, it will lead you to a wonderful next phase of your life. Ask questions and tackle the process with confidence. And choose the school that is the right one for YOU.
*The ivy league schools include Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. The term "ivy league" was originally coined to reflect the fact that these eight schools were members of a particular athletic conference. Today the term largely denotes that these schools are academically excellent and rigorous, extremely selective in their admissions, and, perhaps, have an air of elitism.
Coming soon: information on
For profit colleges
Services for students with special needs
Religiously affiliated institutions
What to do when things go wrong
Words you hear in college