If you’ve been watching TV perhaps you have heard of Dakota Root, she’s the homeschooled girl who was accepted to Harvard, Stanford, Yale Columbia, Penn, Brown, Duke, Chicago, Cal-Berkeley, USC and several other elite schools in America. So how did she choose which college to attend? According to Fox News, she picked Harvard because it’s the school everyone in the entire world knows about. For the record, Harvard is so elitist that only 1% of the best high school seniors dare apply (30,000 applicants) and out of that number about 1,700 will get to attend (less than 6%).
Dakota’s story is exceptional, the average student candidate does not get accepted to 10+ of the most selective colleges in the country. But with more than 4,000 higher education institutions in the US, there are plenty of great options that will cater to your individual needs. And then, the question is – which one provides the best fit for me?
There are many things to consider when evaluating college options. Here are things to think about and thoroughly consider when making your original and final selection.
1- Small vs. Large
Want a school where you know everybody or do you long to have the diversity and social environment offered by a school with 40,000 students? There are great colleges in both spectrums of the balance, so your job is to examine the benefits and drawbacks of all. For example, a large school is more likely to have more student organizations, more student activities, more majors and more classes. A smaller school offers a more intimate environment, more personal attention, and more direct access to your professors, among other benefits. Think then in which type of school you would be able to perform your best in every aspect of college – academic, social, personal, and professional (looking towards the future).
According to Forbes Magazine, “Small liberal arts schools shine in our rankings, probably due to both the quality of their faculty and the personal attention they can provide. Williams and Swarthmore both rank in the top five, while Pomona, Smith, Middlebury and Amherst all come in the top 20, ahead of such schools as Stanford (23rd) and Brown (27th).”
2- Public vs. Private
The main difference between public and private universities is price. Just compare the cost of attending a top public university like UC-Berkeley ($8,353 in-state, $31,022 out-of-state) versus top private universities like Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Boston College and Cornell where you can expect to pay more than $50,000 a year without need-based aid. With need-based aid chances are you’ll still have to pay more than $20,000 a year, and that’s not counting room and board which can cost you another $10,000+.
Think about what will happen if you graduate with a huge college loan debt, consider the salary prospects of your chosen career and how you will feel when you’re making $900+ a month in loan payments for a job that pays $50,000 a year. Remember, you don’t need an expensive private school to succeed in life, Suze Orman got a BA in Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign at a low price tag, look at her now!
So if you can’t afford a respected and extremely expensive private school, consider that “according to the 2009 Academic Ranking of World Universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign ranked 25th out of the more than 1000 international institutions recognized. It is home to some of the highest-ranked Engineering, Computer Science, Library and Information Science, and Accounting programs in the United States.” And here’s the best part, it only costs about $9,000 a year for residents and $23,000 for non-residents.
Sometimes the best decision is the least expensive. Not having the financial burden when it is a burden for you and your family can be positive in many ways. Having the extra money and no debt will take you far, especially when considering affording graduate school. Attending a good public school can cost less and make no difference in terms of the quality of your education.
3- Campus Activities
I heard from a graduate from a renowned urban university in Florida how he described it as a weekend cemetery. He explained that there was nothing going on for students in the weekend, who literally left campus almost as a migration only to return on Sunday evening. With no university facilities open during the weekend, the school became a ghost town, certainly not fun for him, as he had nothing to look for outside of the school in the city. He felt so bored and isolated that his full college experience was not the best. However, this environment made sense to the many students wanting a life outside of the college environment, wanting to keep close ties with their family and friends in the area.
Other schools offer great life on campus 24/7. They bring film festivals, concert series, offer many options of coffee shops which remain full of students any day of the week almost at any time. In these schools, we can find libraries servicing students until 4 am, closing for one hour and then reopening at 5 am. So if you’re a bookworm, a jock, a philosopher, or just a person who’s drawn to a certain social environment make sure to find a campus that fits with your lifestyle. Check out their individual websites and see if the school has fraternities, student clubs, fitness facilities, sports, and so on. For example, Penn State University recently dethroned the University of Florida as the top party school according to the Princeton Review. You can also check studentreviews.com which lists Tulane University as the #1 school for social life, and if you’d rather be volunteering, US News & World Report recommends Duke, University of Maryland, Stanford, and other colleges where you can learn and make the world a better place at the same time.
4- Campus Politics
They say you should never talk about sex, politics or religion if you want to avoid making people uncomfortable. In college however, you’re likely to meet people who will discuss all three so if you’re a progressive who voted for Obama or a conservative who voted for McCain, you should think very carefully about what kind of people you want to study with.
While some schools encourage vigorous debate, others censor students that hold unpopular views and there are cases of teachers who are openly hostile to conservatives, members of the military, Zionists, etc. Some universities even have “speech codes,” or other draconian laws that stifle the First Amendment of the US Constitution. For example, according to FIRE, an organization that fights for individual rights in education, Binghamton University suspended a student for making posters criticizing the Department of Social Work.
That doesn’t mean conservatives or libertarians have to study at places where they’re not welcome, consider options like Hillsdale College which currently ranks 89th in the 2010 U.S. News & World Report listing of best American Liberal Arts colleges and 76th in the 2009 Forbes report of America’s Best Colleges. It ranks second in the Princeton Review’s The Best 371 Colleges 2009 listing of colleges where students are “most conservative” and among the fifty “best value” private colleges.
Of course, if you’re a progressive or liberal, you might feel comfortable at Duke, NYU, Columbia, Oberlin, Ohio State University, Princeton, Tufts, Berkeley and lots of other great schools, some more politically correct than others.
5- Religious vs. Secular
Nietzsche said that God was dead, yet almost every school in the nation has at least one religious student group. Catholic and Protestant schools have their own chapels, even orthodox Jews can attend top-rated schools like Baruch College, Yeshiva University, and Brandeis, where the food follows Jewish dietary restrictions. The question for you is how much or how little religion you want in your life, there are top-rated Christian schools like Wheaton College, ranked 59 in U.S. News & World Report (2008) and 11th in total number of graduates who go on to earn doctorates. Other options include Baylor University with over 146 undergraduate degrees, Pepperdine University, Calvin College and others.
One thing to consider about religious schools is their standards of conduct, many of them don’t tolerate smoking, drinking (even if you’re over 21), drug use, premarital-sex, homosexuality, and in the case of Bob Jones University, interracial dating used to be against their laws. At Liberty University for example, students are not allowed to have TV’s in their rooms and the televisions in public areas are tuned to family-friendly programming.
The rules of conduct are less strict at top-rated Catholic universities such as Georgetown, Loyola, Boston College, Creighton, and others.
If you are religious and choose to attend a secular college find out if they have college ministries, a college-age Sunday school class or youth group, worship services, and churches near campus.
6- College Rankings
Not our most favored way to choose a college, but certainly one of the most popular. Google “college rankings” and you’ll find that schools are rated by organizations like US News & World Report on a wide variety of categories such as “Highest (and Lowest) Acceptance Rate,” “Top-Public Schools,” “Best Nursing Programs,” “Most Students in a Fraternity,” “Most International Students,” etc. However, BEWARE! College Rankings should be only a guide and never the reason why to choose a school – it would be the wrong decision to make your college decision based solely on the ranking of a specific school vs. others. Remember, rankings change every year, and they are measures that cannot directly point your fit with the programs. They try to assess college proficiency in many areas and far too often fail at being accurate by not taking under consideration the “soft” aspects of the college education.
As quoted by College Confidential, here is another comment on “Rank vs. Individual Fit: College admissions counselors universally agree that a school must “fit” the student in terms of academic environment, social environment, athletic and other extracurricular opportunities, urban or rural location, etc. A good fit will result in a great college experience and, most importantly, maximum personal growth and achievement. Rankings can be a negative influence when students or parents look more at how highly a school is ranked instead of how well it will serve the needs of that particular student.” http://collegeconfidential.com
Example, say you’re a passionate outdoorsman who enjoys kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, etc. If that’s the case, the rankings of Outside Magazine are going to suit you perfectly. Perhaps you’ll love Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. At Warren, “The Bent Creek Experimental Forest offers miles of singletrack, road riders convene every Tuesday at Liberty Bikes for a morning ride, and runners can join the Asheville Track Club. Prefer solitude? Hop onto the Mountains to Sea Trail…Hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders don’t even have to leave the 1,200-acre campus, as more than 25 miles of trails cut through the grounds.”
Of course, you’ll also want to know how Warren and other schools rank nationally, in your major, cost, and other categories relevant to you. For example, if you are a vegetarian you should check the PETA’s college rankings, did you know Yale, Oberlin, NYU and University of Florida are among the top-ten options for vegetarian students? Rankings however, are also a tool for selling magazines. Each organization that has developed a ranking has a different way to calculate results, and they are not infallible. This is mainly the reason why many often do not agree with results. However unfair and miscalculated results are, having lists of colleges that distinguish themselves for one reason or another can make it easier to find options for a student. If nothing else for this, rankings become a valuable resource when seeking college information. With this said, use rankings as a tool to learn more about the school’s areas of strength, but make sure not to believe all you read…
How not to choose a college
Believe it or not, sometimes people pick the wrong college for the wrong reasons. Some may say “my boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend” is going there, others are impressed by the football team (which makes no sense unless you’re going to be on the football team), some pick a prestigious school even if they don’t have the major they want, others want to go where their parents went, or they want to live in a specific city where a college is located, and so forth.
Choosing a college based on factors that have nothing to do with your education and fit with the program/environment of the college could become a disaster. Remember, these four or more years could affect the rest of your life, and unlike Suze Orman, most of us don’t get to turn a B.A. is Social Work into a lucrative career as a Television Financial Adviser. So when it comes to your college choice, research, research, research and focus on fit by considering your needs and how the college meets them.
Outside Magazine Top-40
Top Vegetarian Colleges
Best Social Life
Best Colleges for Volunteering/Service Learning
Top Catholic Universities
Top Christian Colleges
Foundation for Individual Rights in Academia
How Not to Choose a College