What to Consider When Choosing a College

Everyone knows that selecting a college is a major decision, and generally an extremely difficult one to make. But if you have the resources to narrow down your search to a few key factors, it can really help simplify the search process.

To help you with your search, we've selected a few important pieces of criteria to consider. But first lets take a step back and look at how people tend to choose a college in the U.S.

How people choose a college: High school guidance counselors are the first formal point of contact for most students considering college. The average high school guidance counselor in an American public school is overwhelmed (loads of 400+ students per counselor are common) and as a result only marginally helpful. In response, a large number of test preparation services and private educational consultants have cropped up to fill the void. Most of their customers tend to be middle or upper middle-class or richer. The best tutors and consultants can command charges of up to $500 an hour. In New York City, where millionaires are 9% of the population, the obsessiveness of some rich parents has reached another fever pitch.

Many parents and students also learn about various colleges through peer networks. This often involves rules of thumb, guesses, and other highly imprecise methods. The one-third of college students who transfer schools before graduation do so not only because many are moving from two-year to four-year institutions, but also because many make poor or uninformed decisions and find themselves in places unsuited to their interests, goals, and personalities. Typically, a student will attend a state-run college or university in their home state or a neighboring one because of financial constraints and because they are following their friends. Student bodies and the quality of instruction both across and within state schools tend to vary widely in quality.

The very poorest families as well as many recent immigrants often have little or no experience interacting with the American postsecondary education system and know few people who have. Many lack the personal networks and cultural literacy that middle class and richer families take for granted. A great many poor but gifted students fail to apply to elite colleges despite preferential admissions treatment and the high likelihood of generous financial aid. Even when they are able to attend, there are often serious cultural barriers and a strong sense of alienation.

Other students have the opposite problem and focus on "brand-name" institutions (the Ivy League and peer institutions) at the exclusion of more specialized or unique institutions better suited to them. The "brand-name" problem is amplified by the U.S. News and World Reports, the most famous school ranking system. There is a fairly explicit,formulaic approach to climbing the rankings that colleges easily game and manipulate. Top colleges will spend tens of millions of dollars in admissions changes, student activities, infrastructure growth, and vanity projects in order to move one or two places in the rankings. The information is highly reputational, incomplete and somewhat misleading; professional preparation and employment outcomes are basically not reflected.

Consider for instance the disjuncture between the position of the University of Chicago in the U.S. News Rankings for academic quality and the Payscale rankings for median salaries.For the more practically-minded, [LinkedIn] (http://www.linkedin.com/college/alumni)and Payscale do publish some employment information. For those who care about the actual learning that takes place in colleges, the Collegiate Learning Assessment appears to reliably measure progression in critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, and other higher-thinking skills but has not been adopted by all institutions; in addition, the results by institution are currently not published.

Here are some factors to consider when choosing a college:

Cost: The cost of a college education in the U.S. varies, but is typically very high, especially when compared to our international counterparts. Consider thistableand the fact that the median income for an American household is close to about $50,000 a year. However, few students pay the full sticker price. Colleges have mastered the art of price discrimination and the ones with the most generous endowments will often offer full, or near full scholarships, to low-income but academically gifted students. Most students will use some combination of financial aid from the college itself, work-study, scholarship funds, government and private, and family savings to pay for college.

Aptitude/ability: The SAT and ACT are the standardized tests for mathematical and verbal reasoning used in college admissions. In addition, the typical college application process will include open-ended essays and various questions about a person's past, experiences, plans, and other aspects of their personality and interests.

Fit: Most colleges have distinct cultures, specialties, and student populations. Some colleges have reputations for hard partying; some for hard studying; some for both. Some have strong athletic reputations, others are known for community service, others for professional preparation, etc. People of certain temperaments and interests are more likely to be happier - and learn more in some places thanothers. Schools themselves frequently choose students for specific personality attributes - maturity, intellectual curiosity, athleticism, service-orientation, etc.

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