Sunday, October 16, 2011

Some thoughts on choosing a college.

Over the summer I began a series of posts about getting to college.  I wrote about planning your high school classes, thoughts on choosing a major, and college entrance exams.  Today I want to write about choosing a college or university to attend.

While a lot of parents seem focused on Ivy League schools, like Harvard, the truth is that right now the U.S.A. has tons of good schools for most college majors.  And some of the best schools are public universities, with lower tuition than the private schools.

For a full rundown of what is available, and things to consider, I recommend the U.S. News and World Report annual edition on best colleges.  My parents started subscribing to the magazine while I was in high school, but much of the information is now available online.  Some of it is behind a paywall.  If I were looking at colleges today I would consider paying for one or two years of their "College Compass," but probably not much more than that.

Here are steps I recommend taking:

1) Have an idea what you want to study.  Different schools are better at different subjects.  Most colleges and universities offer a wide range of majors, but they don't all offer the full range.  Keep in mind that many, many, many college students change majors during college.  So I would encourage you to think about 2 or 3 possible majors while looking at colleges.
To give an example, the state of Indiana worked out a deal.  Indiana University (I.U.) has a School of Music, but no School of Engineering.  Purdue University has Schools of Engineering, but no School of Music.  If you live in Indiana, and want to be a music major, you should keep I.U. in mind.  If music is something that you enjoy but not where you want to focus your career, then Purdue has opportunities for you to study music, perform, but major in something else.

2) Have an idea where you rank academically.  The SAT / ACT scores will give you some idea where you rank nationally.  You do not have to be valedictorian to get into a good school.  Good grades (A-B average) will help considerably, but each school is looking for a particular balance of students: in-state, out-of-state, international, majors, diversity, etc.  Grades are only part of the package.  There is a U.S. News article for B students.

3) Take a look at school rankings in your preferred fields of study.  Only 100 schools will be listed as "Best Colleges/Universities" all around.  But when you start looking at fields like Liberal Arts, or Engineering, the rankings shift.  Harvard may be #1 overall, but their school of Engineering is ranked #18 for undergraduate programs this year.  Purdue tied for #9 in undergraduate Engineering programs, with a #63 overall.

4) Take a look at costs.  Do not let cost prevent you from applying to a school you really want.  If your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and overall package are good enough, schools will do what they can to bring you in.  But do think about what colleges cost.  There was a time when federal financial aid included quite a bit of grant money.  By the time I was in college, that age was essentially over.  My Federal Financial aid package came primarily in the form of student loans which must be repaid.  There are scholarships, if you apply for them.
I focus on engineering because that's what I studied.  A glance at the top 10 schools for undergraduate engineering, shows the private colleges all charging $40,000 per year.  Out-of-state tuition for state schools is between $27,000 and $35,000.  In-state tuition at state schools drops to about $10,000 for this year.

5) It doesn't matter how good a school is, if it's not good for you.
If you can visit the campus, I strongly encourage it.  Even if not, do talk to people on campus, talk to alumni, ask a lot questions about the things that matter to you.  Each campus has its own culture and a number of subcultures.  Finding your "tribe," a place where you have the support you need to get through college, is important.

6) Pick your top three to five schools, and apply.  College applications cost money.  They were between $35 and $50 when I was looking at colleges, and have probably increased since then.  I paid for my college applications from my own savings account -- so if you're still in high school, or younger, I encourage you to have a savings account for this purpose.
If you think Ivy League is impossible, don't give up too soon.  I would include one "stretch school," ranked higher than you think you can get into.  Two favorite schools that meet your criteria.  And possibly two "backup" or safety schools.