How to Choose the Right College

High school students email me several times a year asking for tips and strategies that will help them choose the right college. I usually email them a thoughtful response based on their interests and other intangibles. However, in the hopes of helping a more significant number of students, I decided to write a general piece listing the most important things to consider when choosing a college. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Affordability and access- How much does it cost to attend this institution? How does the cost of attendance stack up with that of its peer institutions? Is there a cheaper yet comparable alternative? Does the institution provide access to people from all walks of life and not just the elite?

Graduation/retention rate- I don’t know about you, but I measure the success of a university with student outcomes, and in my opinion, the most critical student outcome is a university’s 4-year graduation rate. Simply put, with all of the resources that you have, what percentage of your students graduate in 4-years? For high students and those transferring from community colleges who are reading this article, if that number is below 70%, stay far, far away. I stand by this line of demarcation. I mean, if a school has not proven that it can help students matriculate through college in 4-years, why do you think you will be the exception?

In the same vein, paying attention to an institution’s retention rate is equally as important. A university’s retention rate is the percentage of students who choose to return to the university in any given year. Pay close attention to the freshmen and sophomore retention; if less than 85% of freshman and sophomores chose not to return to a university in any given year, stay far away. You must think to yourself, if this institution is so great, why do so many people choose to leave? Keep in mind that only a small percentage of students leave because of issues outside of the universities control.

Reputation- Good, bad or ugly, every university has a reputation that precedes it. It surprises me when a student complains about the quality of the university that they are attending when they consciously chose to attend it. There is enough quantitative and qualitative available on the web about the reputation of every university in the world. One only need to perform a cursory Google search to find this information.

Faculty and staff resources- Do the faculty and staff have the resources that they need to do their jobs and help you matriculate? Or are faculty and staff constantly fighting for scarce resources? When students need help with a term paper or math problem, where can they turn to for help? Is there a dedicated writing or tutorial center where students can get help? Or are they left to their own devices, and forced to figure it out? Believe or not, students have to figure things out for themselves at a lot of universities. Student support is nonexistent. You are your own. A quick check of the universities website will tell you what type of student support the university and its schools, colleges, and departments provide.

Student selectivity- Are there standards of excellence that students need to meet to gain admission, or can anyone attend the institution? You want to choose a university that has high academic standards and is selective in their admission’s process. I take it that if you are reading this, you don’t want to attend a university that anyone that graduated from high school can attend?

Financial resources- Is your university financially solvent? I mean do they have a healthy endowment, and enough assets on hand to cover their expenses? Or are they constantly borrowing monies from their endowment and moving cash around just to make payroll? Although this information is harder to find online, there are a ton of signs. How comparable is their endowment to other institutions their size? Are faculty and staff constantly complaining about a lack of resources?

Accreditation status of the university and its degree programs- Is the university and it is schools, colleges, and programs accredited? Accreditation is a regional or national stamp of approval and is an affirmation that the school’s educational programs meet quality standards. A university may seek accreditation for its overall academic program, but it doesn’t stop there. Colleges/schools and their departments/programs must also become accredited. For instance, a college/school of education worth its salt will seek CAEP accreditation, and its departments/programs will also seek accreditation via CAEP. Ultimately, accreditation can assure potential students that the university and its colleges are respected institutions of higher learning.

Employer and student success surveys- University departments send out employer success surveys to gauge how well their graduates are faring in the workforce. If the university did an excellent job of preparing their students for their perspective fields, then it will be reflected in the surveys. Also, university departments send surveys out to students to find out how well students feel their programs prepared them for the workforce. Be sure to ask your potential college department to furnish you with this information for at least the last two years. If they can’t then this in itself is a bad sign.

Alumni giving and engagement- One way that colleges generate revenue is through alumni giving. Simply put, they ask students who either attended or graduated from the institution to donate money, materials or time towards the universities mission. If former students had great experiences and received a great return on their investment (time and tuition), then they usually leap at the chance to give back. But if they left the university with a worthless degree and no employment prospects, bitterness may cause them to ignore their universities requests. Visit the universities website to find out their alumni giving rate.

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