Finding the Right College for You

By Kelley Jacobs

Choosing a college will be one of the biggest decisions in your life. Once you've decided to take the plunge into higher education, you must decide which school is right for you. College is a huge investment of both time and money, so choosing the right school is essential in meeting your personal, financial, and professional goals.

There's more to choosing the right school than just the name or status of a college or university. You need to consider cost, which will include the complete financial aid package the school may provide to help with covering at least part of the cost. Aside from cost, let's look at four other factors that are important in choosing the right college for you. By selecting the right school, your chances for success in college are much greater.

Big College vs Small College

The size of the school is an important factor to consider when selecting a school. There are unique attributes of both large and small schools that can help you decide which type might be the best fit. Here are some advantages and disadvantages of each that can help you decide which is best for you.

  • Big colleges typically have over 15,000 students enrolled in both undergraduate and graduate programs.
  • Big colleges typically have a large selection of programs and majors, some of which are not traditionally offered by smaller colleges.
  • The cost to attend a bigger school can be less than a smaller school because of the number of students attending.
  • There are more clubs and activities to choose from because of a more diverse student population, which can be great for those who like to be social and stay involved.
  • Research facilities are often state-of-the-art and fully funded, which attracts distinguished faculty from all over the world.
  • Athletic programs are also well funded and extremely competitive, which helps attract top athletes.
  • Big colleges typically offer less individualized attention to undergraduate students because of the sheer volume of students. To get attention, students need to be assertive and persistent, which can be challenging in those first year or two of college.
  • Students who are struggling academically or personally may not get the help they need and get lost in the shuffle. While big colleges are working to overcome this through program offerings tailored to first generation college students and freshman, the feeling of "getting lost in the crowd" can be very real at a big college.

  • Small colleges, by comparison, have fewer students on campus and smaller class size.
  • Small colleges are typically close knit with plenty of familiar faces.
  • Classes are taught by professors who are more focused on teaching rather than research.
  • Undergraduate students can write more papers (and practice makes perfect!) because of the smaller class size and time it takes to review and grade the class.
  • Sports can be less competitive since there isn't a huge student population to draw from.
  • Students who want to pursue a non-traditional major can often work with an advisor at a small college to design their own major to meet their professional goals.
  • Small colleges can be ideal for students who want a close-knit student community, but can be isolating-especially in a rural area.
  • There are fewer majors available to choose from and fewer research facilities. This could possibly put students at a disadvantage if they want to continue on to doctoral study.

Of course, size is only one factor to consider when selecting a school, but it can be an important factor in terms of comfort and a sense of well-being. Students who are outgoing and like to be involved in many activities may prefer a big college. Students who do better in a smaller environment with a more personalized approach may prefer a small school. Once you determine your preference, you can explore individual schools to learn more about their culture and value systems.

Urban Setting vs Rural Setting

To some students, attending college in a large, urban setting can feel exciting while other students seek schools in a quite rural setting. There are advantages and disadvantages with each, so how do you determine what's best for you?

Urban schools are those in cities of more than 200,000 people. Sometimes urban schools are located right in the heart of the city (think DePaul University in the loop of Chicago), and others might be on the fringe.
  • Students of urban schools have access to plenty of off campus entertainment including clubs, bars, movies, plays, concerts, and sports events.
  • Urban schools can have more variety in their internship opportunities due to their proximity to a variety of companies and corporations. Students who want to pursue a career in social services can find plenty of volunteer opportunities in areas such as child care, at risk programs, homeless services, and human rights.
  • Urban schools offer students the chance to learn about many different cultures both on campus and in the community.
  • Big cities tend to have multiple colleges, giving students the ability to freely interact and network with students from other schools.
  • Students at urban schools may not even need a car to get around since there are typically public transportation systems in these areas which can get students around town, to a variety of housing options, or to bus and train stations.

Rural schools are those in communities of less than 25,000 people.
  • Rural schools can be great options for students who want to study environmental science and agriculture since they provide access to natural laboratories.
  • Need to clear your head before a big exam? Rural schools can offer an easy getaway to hiking, biking, walking, surfing, hiking, or a scenic drive.
  • Events are usually held on campus, allowing students to get to know each other and develop on campus friendships.
  • While there may be less variety in internship opportunities, rural schools often partner with larger organizations outside the area to offer professional development opportunities.
  • Students who don't have a car will need to check to see if buses run in the area if they plan on traveling home.

The decision to attend an urban or rural setting is purely a personal choice and depends on lifestyle and future career plans. Students who want to work in an urban environment after they graduate can use their time in college to become acclimated and develop their professional network. Students who plan to work in a career with job opportunities more prevalent in rural settings may feel more comfortable taking their coursework on a rural campus.

Public vs Private

As you develop your "short list" of colleges and universities, your list will likely include both public and private institutions. It's important to understand the differences between the two and the benefits and drawbacks of each to find the best school to meet your needs.


Private schools

are those which are not operated by the government.
  • They may be faith based or secular or may even specialize in a specific area of study.
  • Because they're not operated by the government, they rely heavily on tuition and private donations.

Public schools

receive most their funding from the government and are more susceptible to funding decisions at the political level.

Other differences include:

 

Generally speaking, public schools are larger than private schools. Public schools typically have a bigger campus, more students, and larger class sizes than private schools. They also offer more majors, sports, clubs, organizations, and social opportunities for a wider range of students.

  • Students at a private school are typically close knit and dedicated to academic success. Students may be more focused on coursework and academics to graduate on time and not take on additional debt load, which may be higher at a private institution.
  • Full time students at private schools may find it harder to work while going to school because of this increased academic demand and will fill their down time with school activities. While public schools also offer a rigorous curriculum, larger class size means fewer papers and projects, which can free up time for work opportunities.

On the surface, private schools typically cost more to attend than public schools. However, they also provide extensive scholarship programs and financial incentives. Students have their test scores and grades from high school or prior academic institutions closely reviewed during the admission process which allows both the school and the student to negotiate cost. Cost of a private school should not be a deterrent to apply.

Public schools often offer significant discounts for students who attend a school in their home state. Out-of-state tuition at a public school can rival some of the most expensive private schools. Thus, public schools will have more students attending who live in the same state but may come from diverse ethnic or economic backgrounds.
Private schools bring in students from all over the country since there is usually no in-state versus out-of-state tuition rate. Diversity is also impacted by size of the school since a larger school will naturally be more diverse, so if diversity is an important factor in your school selection, be sure and research demographic data.

Distance

The decision to attend school close to home or on the other side of the country is often a decision made as a family. Do you want to be close to home or within a few hours driving distance? Do you want to attend a school in a completely different area of the country to experience something new? These decisions are important and will greatly influence which schools make your "short list".
One of the biggest factors that determines how far away you have to be from home base is your area of study. Are you from the Midwest but want to become a marine biologist? You would probably need to find a program located on a coast to get the hands-on training your career demands. Do you aspire to be a Broadway actor or actress? A school located near a thriving theater district is going to be desirable.
Have a more traditional major and need to decide just how far away from home you should go? Consider the obligations you have toward your family.
If you know you will be traveling back and forth from school to home often, it may be more time and cost effective to select a program within driving distance. If you have minimal family obligations and seek a more traditional college experience (traveling home during breaks and over the summer), you could attend a school further away and rely on bus, train, or airfare to get you back and forth. With the advances in technology, students can maintain close family connections throughout their time away at school via phone or internet. Parents and loved ones are no more than a FaceTime away!
For many students, college is their first time living away from family and friends. Being far from home allows students to develop independence and a sense of self. Not relying on family and friends back home to be physically present can help a shy student pursue new friendships and opportunities they might have shied away from if they attended school close to home.
Outgoing students attending school far from home will be excited by the opportunity to make new friends and explore new terrain.
Whether you attend college in your hometown or travel across the country, college will be an exciting adventure filled with new friendships and opportunities. Make sure you are comfortable with the distance schools are that you include in your short list.

Conclusion

Many factors will play into which colleges make your personal short list including:
  • Urban/rural
  • Size
  • Public/private
  • Distance from home
While this article discusses what you can expect to find when considering each factor, please note that there are always exceptions. Doing your own research on an individual school is critical when deciding if it's a good fit. Great ways to get to know the culture of a school and what it brings to the table include:
  • College day visits
  • Overnight trips
  • Reviewing catalogs
  • Watching videos produced by the college/university
  • Interviewing current and former students. 
Thoroughly researching your opportunities, and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each, will help you make a more informed decision which can lead to greater success and happiness in college.

About the Author

Kelley Jacobs is passionate about education and helping others
navigate the higher education system. Kelley is an avid researcher
with experience in qualitative and quantitative research as
well as program evaluation.