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10 Things to Consider When Choosing Colleges

By Jonathan Sparling

  • March 11, 2022
  • 4 min read


Three students walking up steps together

With a little over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, your child has plenty of options. But choosing colleges would be near impossible if you started a few thousand schools deep. Instead, paint a picture of your ideal school with this list of things to consider when choosing colleges. You’ll get a good idea of what’s crucial and what’s not.


1. Academics

This is the best and most obvious place to start. Does the college have the major your child wants to pursue? Does the college’s overall catalog match your child’s interests and strengths?


2. College types

There are three basic college types: not-for-profit public, not-for-profit private, and for-profit. From there, colleges can be further categorized into two-year, four-year, specialty focus, career/vocational training, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), among others. What’s your type?


College will be your child’s home away from home, so where it’s located is just as important as what it offers.


3. Size and location

Large or small? City or rural? Close by or far away?

College will be your child’s home away from home, so where it’s located is just as important as what it offers. If your child prefers the bustle of city life and yawns at the thought of country living, you may want to skip small college towns. That said, the best way to get a feel for a college’s location is by visiting it. A website only tells half the story.


4. Real cost

How much will it cost your family for college? When choosing colleges based on cost, make sure you consider the net price (your family’s cost after grants and scholarships are factored in) vs. sticker price (the cost published by the college).

Since private colleges tend to have higher sticker prices but offer more financial aid, your net price might end up lower than the sticker price.

Learn about the real cost of college from an associate vice president of student financial services >>


5. Getting in

When choosing colleges, consider whether your child will be accepted. Are the schools a slam dunk or a long shot? To ensure your child has options, include a mix of safety, target, and reach schools when building the college list.

  • Safety schools — colleges your child is confident they’ll get into based on their academic profile.
  • Target schools — colleges where your child falls within the average range of admitted students, looking at things like GPA and SAT scores.
  • Reach schools — colleges where your child falls below the average range. Still, they’re happy to give it the old college try.


6. Retention and graduation rates

How many students stay at the college? How many students graduate?

  • Retention rate looks at the percentage of students that stay beyond freshman year. Most schools will measure the retention rate between first and second-year students and publish the finding.
  • Graduation rate looks at the percentage of students that graduate with a bachelor’s degree (or associate’s) and how long it takes them.

Both numbers give a glimpse into the programs, services, and resources on campus by showing how committed a college is to ensuring students graduate.

Search colleges and retention and graduation rates >>


7. Average student debt

Average student debt gives some insight into the financial support offered by a college. With any average, outliers can skew numbers higher, so take it with a grain of salt.


Life after the degree is an important and sometimes overlooked piece of the pie.


8. Job placement rate

How employable are graduates? The job placement rate gives you an idea. Digging deeper into this stat, you can learn how quickly graduates are employed, what types of jobs they land, who their employers are, and what the pay range is.

Life after the degree is an important and sometimes overlooked piece of the pie.


9. Alumni network

It’s all who you know, right? Not always. But having an advocate on your side can help. Many times, college alumni support new graduates with career advice and networking help. It’s not uncommon for a college to dedicate an entire office to alumni and student connections.


10. The X factor

Whether it’s the chance to work with renowned faculty, the opportunity to conduct research in a world-class laboratory, or that jolt of excitement you get when stepping on campus — the X factor is different for everyone.

While we don’t advise making a college decision based on the X factor alone, there might be something even the best-designed list can’t capture. As you move through the college process, keep your eyes peeled for that X-tra-special something that speaks to you.

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