Is UF better than FSU? What about Georgia Tech or Amherst? Or Ohio State or Harvard? The answer is it depends. There are 2,000 to 3,000 four-year universities in the U.S. And the range of that mix is incredibly broad, perhaps just as broad as the annual crop of graduating high school seniors. Given that about 60 percent of college students transfer, how can you be sure that your student will be able to make a good choice?
The key to selecting the right college for your child lies in finding the very best “fit” in three ways: academically, socially, and financially. Exploring these three factors (which will differ for each individual) is an effective way to help you construct your family’s roadmap for the college search journey to come. And though it may be very hard, please work to tune out all the self-proclaimed experts who will want to shower you with their advice. Relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances are notorious for inflating statistics like SAT scores and weighted GPAs. They frequently offer their commentary without the benefit of complete information, contact with the college admissions offices, and all the other aspects of professional experience your school’s college counselors possess. They also are not parenting your child. The college search process ought to be highly individualized so it finds the best fit for your child.
First and foremost, academic fit is about making sure that the colleges your child shows interest in have the programs your child seeks. For example, if your daughter wants to major in dance, dance education or business, for that matter, only look at schools that offer those majors. You can find out about the majors and programs that colleges offer on their websites. You also can purchase one of the enormous books that list all the four-year colleges, such as Peterson’s Guide. Do not be shy about directly asking the college departments about internship opportunities and employers that interview and hire through the programs.
Academic fit also involves the nature of the classroom experience, which can differ widely. Is your child well-suited to the non-interactive enormous lecture hall experience common in large universities? Is she capable of handling the small classes and frequent interaction with professors (and the resulting inability to fly under the radar) that are part of the smaller, private college experience?
Consider that FSU has a very strong and competitive school of music that UF might envy. Amherst does not offer an engineering major, while Georgia Tech’s holds much prestige. Finally, you cannot major in Business as an undergraduate at Harvard. Thus, better really is subjective.
Of course, every college has its own social flavor. That’s one reason why an overnight visit is a powerful and informative experience for your child. Almost every college will welcome your child’s request to be hosted in a dorm room by students selected by the admissions office.
An important area that your child should consider is Greek life. At some colleges, fraternity and sorority life is chosen by a preponderance of the student body. If your child doesn’t want to be a member of a fraternity or sorority, will it be uncomfortable on a Friday night when the dorms empty out to frat houses and Greek activities? Similarly, many schools have very limited Greek life. If your child really wants the Greek experience, choosing one of these schools may not be optimal.
Further, some schools have a commuter population, where many students go home for the weekend, leaving the campus social life to take on a different character than at schools where the majority of students stay.
Another social aspect to consider is the school’s religious life or style. Many colleges have religious support organizations or centers that serve as a home away from home for a range of denominations. Still, some schools have a more prominent religious aspect to their programs. How much that affects the daily life of the student varies based on both tradition and the administration of the university. Many colleges have student populations that are predominantly one religion or another. You and your child may have to consider whether it will be uncomfortable to be part of a small minority or, in some cases, sharing an affiliation with many.
Another aspect of social life at college involves style of dress. Do students wear sweat pants and T-shirts to class or do they dress up? Some schools have very casual styles and others are more formal.
Though this may seem like a counter-intuitive statement, college is not very expensive. One can get a college degree by starting at community college and living at home. After successfully completing the associate degree, a student can go on to finish at a four-year college that also provides the opportunity to live at home. Of course, the other side of coin is that many college experiences are expensive and those are likely the ones you want your child to have.
The college search process is a time that requires open, adult conversations with your child about the financial realities your family faces. I would advise you to have these conversations early in the process so they help inform the direction of your child’s search. If you tell your child any place you get in to is appropriate, you may well be facing an annual bill of more than $50,000 per year. If that’s not doable, then saddling your child with tens of thousands (or even a hundred thousand) worth of debt may be the result.
One way to make college more affordable is to have different levels of selectivity included in your family’s search. For example, if your child has built a record that will make him a serious candidate for admission at highly selective colleges such as Duke or Northwestern, he likely will be very attractive to less selective schools such as Stetson or Mercer that will offer him scholarships.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed an increase in this kind of strategizing as a means toward seeking the best value for your money. The less expensive option may have a bit less prestige, but it may offer other attractive attributes, such as the opportunity to stand out academically and thus receive more favorable attention from professors and departments. This may have the added long-term benefit of helping your child craft a stronger application for graduate schools or recommendations for employment.
The college search process may appear quite daunting to those who are experiencing it for the first time, but with research and guidance from articles such as this one, you can better navigate the process.
Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3-12th grade independent school in the North Tampa area. For more information, visit Academy at the Lakes