When college application season comes to an end, acceptances — and perhaps a few waitlists or rejections — start rolling in. This could mean having to make the decision between more than a dozen colleges — each with different financial aid options, campus cultures, and a thousand other variables that can leave you scratching your head.
As a senior in college, I remember how stressful the post-application haze was. I had seven different acceptances, and they all had different scholarship options, majors, and costs.
By the time I whittled down my options, I was left making a decision between Hofstra University, which had offered me a scholarship that would have covered half of my tuition, and a local commuter college that promised to cover it all. Making the decision between those two schools was the hardest part of the entire process.
I had to make the choice of which I valued more: the college experience or a life I could start debt-free.
Like me, many students may have some idea which schools they’re interested in, but a single glance at the cost of tuition can be enough to change minds. With American student debt at $1.51 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, it’s no wonder students may be hesitant to approach schools with high costs.
To help alleviate some of the concerns that come with selecting a school, here are 10 things that I considered when deciding which college was the best option for me:
For many students, the day you leave for college is the first time you ever really leave home. Students from heavily populated cities may find themselves in a small town for the first time, and students from small towns may be shocked by the busy streets of cities like New York or Chicago.
Though you may overlook the importance of the school’s location, keep in mind that it can make a difference. “There are things beyond academics and careers to consider,” says Allen Koh Bio, educational consultant for Cardinal Education.
“Do you hate the cold? Maybe not a school in the far north. Do you hate, or can’t live without, a major city nearby?” Bio adds. “While these considerations shouldn’t inform your entire decision, make sure you choose a school that will support your personal well-being, too.”
You should also be sure to visit a potential school’s campus before sending in your deposit.
When you make your college decision, consider the distance from the campus to your hometown. Though many students choose to stay within a few hours of home, others choose schools across the country or even around the world.
There are benefits to each option. Staying close to home can mean that you can always count on your parents if something goes wrong (or if you need to get laundry done), but many students enjoy some added distance. College is the first real taste of independence, so having extra miles can be much more freeing.
2. Available Majors
If you know what field you are interested in after graduating from college, it is important to consider what majors the school has available. For instance, if you’re interested in pursuing a career in filmmaking, ensure that the school you’re considering actually has a film major.
Of course, while some schools may have certain majors, the quality of those options may not be as high as at other schools. A newly established business department at a regional college will not have the same “wow factor” as a degree from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Be sure to research your school’s specialties. Some schools, like Georgia Tech, may have a higher emphasis on STEM, while others, like Washington and Lee University, may focus more on liberal arts.
To help you evaluate the school’s strengths, if you’re interested in grad school, see what percentage of students from your anticipated major are accepted into a corresponding graduate program. If only 20 percent of a college’s pre-law students end up in law school, you may want to reconsider.
3. Prestigious Schools
For better or worse, the name on your degree can make a big difference when it comes time to apply for jobs. An Ivy League degree and its alumni network may open up a lot of doors for graduates.
“An Ivy League degree is impactful especially in providing opportunities to graduates as far as finding jobs, earning high-paying salaries, and earning seats in graduate programs,” Bio adds. “Of course, you can succeed without an elite pedigree, but the additional opportunities you start receiving from the age of eighteen compounds tremendously over time.”
These schools benefit from large alumni networks that can help during your job search.
“[This is a] time to start thinking about careers, and college should at least in part be viewed as a transactional relationship,” says Bio. “What are you going to get out of your college? A robust alumni network? The power of institutional reputation? A mentor in your field?” If you’re seeking any of the above, a prestigious school may be for you.
It is important to remember, though, that those willing to put in the work and the time to succeed can still work their way to success at a smaller, less prestigious school.
Every school has alumni that will be willing to help you, if you’re willing to seek the help. At smaller schools, you may even benefit from smaller class sizes that allow more personal instruction from the professors, which can lead to better reference letters or help during the job search.
Expected salaries after graduation should also come into consideration. The median annual salary for someone with a computer science degree is $88,240, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On the other hand, graduates from Yale University with a computer science degree earn a median starting salary of $110,000 per year, according to the school’s website — over $20,000 more than the average computer science graduate can expect.
4. Costs of College
College is expensive. Before making your decision, make sure you know the college's cost of tuition, fees, room and board, and any other expenses that may come with attending.
It is also important that you note how much the cost will rise with each year that you’re there.
At many schools, tuition increases annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which can mean that students are forced to pay additional expenses that they may not have accounted for.
To help with this, the College Board offers a free calculator specifically designed to show students just how much rising costs will affect the price of their degree. In addition, the LendKey calculator allows you to determine just how much private student loans will cost you on a month-to-month basis.
Financial aid may help you cover some of the cost, but given that schools like New York University can charge as much as $60,000 per year, the remainder may be putting you in debt for longer than you can realistically handle.
If you do want to attend a prestigious institution, you may want to consider making the decision to attend a community college for two years before transferring to the more expensive school for the final years of your college career.
Work colleges, which are schools in which students attend classes while simultaneously gaining working experience by helping out on campus or by working a part-time job, can also be a helpful — and cheaper — alternative.
These options can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars, while still allowing you to attain that expensive degree.
5. Financial Aid Offerings
Each school may offer different financial aid packages, so be sure to consider each option carefully. Scholarships and grants can make a huge impact in the affordability of a school.
Thankfully, even if a school offers poor financial aid options, it is possible to negotiate your financial aid package. At a bigger school, it may be less likely, but it is still a possibility that can help you attend the school of your dreams.
Still, if your number-one school doesn’t offer the financial support you need, look into whatever scholarships you can find. There are many resources available that can help you afford a school, even if it seems out of reach.
Make sure to remain organized, so that you can avoid the panic that comes with filling out a scholarship application at the last minute.
Scholarships.com, specifically, has a page that lists scholarships in order of their deadlines, so that you can make sure you have enough time to complete each application. Fast Web also has a service that emails you when deadlines are approaching, and deadlines are listed beside every scholarship option.
Scholarships aside, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year. This form can help inform you about which financial aid packages you qualify for, and it allows you to receive student loans. If your degree is worth more than you can afford, student loans are going to be your best option for affording it, which can make your college decision easier.
If you do end up taking out student loans, keep an eye out for potential careers that offer loan forgiveness. Depending on the path you take in the future, the government may be more than willing to forgive debt in exchange for public service, which could be a huge help.
6. Campus Culture
Remember, your college experience doesn’t have to be only academic. Campus culture can make or break your enjoyment of college.
If you are looking for a party school, universities without much in the way of Greek life may not be right for you. If you are interested in living in a dorm, it may be best to research what percentage of your fellow students live on campus. If 90 percent of the school commutes, that school may not have the dorm life you desire.
To determine whether the campus culture is a fit — visit beforehand. If you’re going to spend four to five years on that campus, you want to be sure that you will actually enjoy those years.
Speaking of Greek life, consider extracurriculars. Some schools may have football, basketball, hockey, or other collegiate sports. Others may focus on academic teams like Moot Court for pre-law students or Vex U for those interested in robotics.
Some schools may also have different research opportunities. For example, pre-med students may want access to a hospital or lab they can work in.
8. Student Reviews
The smartest thing to do before making a decision about your future college is to ask current students what they think. Details about day-to-day activities, campus culture, workload, and dorm life won’t be advertised on school websites, but current students will know better than anyone else.
If you know anyone who is a current student or recent alum, ask them their opinions. If you don’t, check out websites like Niche and Unigo that allow students to review their colleges — anonymously or not.
You can also use Rate My Professors to find out more about the professors in the department that you’re most interested in. These resources can provide a ton of insight into college life, on or off campus.
9. Consult Others
Family and friends will be your greatest ally in your college search, but guidance counselors can also be a big help. If your high school has a college or career office, be sure to explore your options, considerations, and concerns. Counselors may focus on other key metrics: graduation rates, student retention, and salaries of alumni.
If you’re having trouble finding this information, make sure to visit the College Scorecard, which collects much of this information. The National Center for Education Statistics could also be a great help.
10. Avoid Rushing
Choosing your college is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, so don’t feel pressured to choose too quickly.
Take the time you need to make the decision that’s right for you.
When I was making my decision, I visited both the Hofstra campus and the campus at my local college. I spoke with students, checked reviews for each institution, and I researched everything that I could about financial aid options and scholarships. I took my time, so that I could really be sure which school was right for me.
In the end, I decided that I couldn’t turn down a full scholarship, even if it meant losing that full college experience. The opportunity to graduate debt-free was simply too enticing for me. Now, as a commuter student, I still take part in extracurriculars with my friends, and I’ll still be able to graduate with the major I wanted.
The Bottom Line
When you’re deciding on which college you plan to attend, consider all of these factors. It might be that, like me, you’re presented with a financial offer you can’t turn down. Maybe you value the college experience more than I did.
Choosing your college is a deeply personal decision, so make sure that you don’t rush it. Consider your options thoroughly, and remember: No matter where you go, make the best of your experience. Your college career is what will start you on the next stage of your life, so be sure to enjoy it.