Choosing a College
March 29, 2022
One of the most common misconceptions among prospective students is—aside from the size of the school; its colors, and beloved mascot—that universities are more or less the same. Almost like comparing a brand-name detergent versus the generic version, “it’s just a different price, but it’ll get my clothes washed all the same, right?” Right.
Well...yes and no. But mostly no.
It’s more like: you want to go to the beach that is 6 miles away from home, but you have $10 and no car. Do you take the bus? Ridesharing service? Taxi? Your bike? Ask a friend for a ride? As you can see, there’s a lot of factors to consider as you decide the best way to get from point A (right now) to point B (the beach, A.K.A. your college degree). The more you reflect on your preferences and situation, the more likely you are to have a successful and fun college experience that fits your unique preferences and goals!
College Shopping List
With about six thousand post-secondary institutions in the country, it’s good to figure out what to rule out from your college search. We don’t know about you, but looking at 2,000 college websites is not our idea of a fun summer. Let’s start with the items that should be on your shopping list, to help narrow down your college search.
Right Program of Study ☑
For Those Who Know Their Major
“What do you wanna be when you grow up?” That old and tired question is finally relevant and possibly as daunting as ever! Knowing your major or program of study is a great way to seperate the schools that will work versus those that will not. .
If you’ve always known you want to be a mechanic because you love working on cars, for example, then you don’t have to waste your time researching ivy leagues. No matter how prestigious those schools may be, they simply won’t offer what you’re looking for. A community college or technical school with a motor vehicle program will for sure be your go-to place!
If you know what program of study you’re interested in and are open to leaving your hometown, a quick internet search may help you. Simply try “best _______ programs in the country” to start exploring!
If you’re a current student, your instructors may be great resources in your search. For instance, if you want to be an interpreter for the United Nations, then you can ask your foreign language teacher for recommendations about approaching the study of languages. Another great idea is to ask professionals in the field you’re interested in. Want to be a dentist? Pop the question at your next dentist’s appointment! Most people are often willing to give tips and share their educational experience when it’s a topic they’re passionate about or spent years studying.
For Those Who “Kind of” Know Their Major
On the other hand, your experience may be more like Sandra’s. Sandra knows what topics interest her, but isn't sure about what career to pursue. She loves biology and other life sciences— but does she want to be a veterinary technician or a marine biologist? Maybe a researcher working in a lab? She also loves kids, so maybe a science teacher? So many options!
Sandra should probably look into schools that offer internships or service learning programs outside the classroom to further explore her interests. These experiences will allow her to explore different careers, meet potential mentors in the field, and try out different classes within her field at large.
For The “I Am So Lost, Help Me” Crowd
It’s okay to be “undeclared” when you start college; more than half of students change their major at least once! In the meantime, here are some pointers to consider when finding the right college for you:
- Favor institutions that have a wide variety of offerings in different fields. Meaning, try to avoid going to a highly-specialized school, especially if it is expensive for you! Unfortunately, there are many horror stories of students enrolling in expensive for-profit programs that train them in something highly specific, only to find out within a years time that they don’t like the potential career. The horror begins when they discover their courses are too specialized to transfer to another school. Worst of all, they will still owe thousands of dollars in student loans!
So, don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. Instead, take your time and have a general idea of what you’re looking for and how to ensure it’ll be the most cost-effective option .
- Look into state schools and community colleges. These two types of institutions are generally less expensive than their private counterparts,and feature wide selections of program and degree paths.
- Take 10 to 15 minutes (or more) to do a career or aptitude assessment! Request one with your school’s career center or with your guidance counselor. For
example, Delgado’s CNET Career Services Offers 1-1 appointments for career exploration. You can also do an internet search for free
assessments, or consult our toolkit at the end of this chapter. Be sure to check out
Chapter 4, where we provide lots of information and tips to help you find the right major.
Regardless of how certain you are about your major or program of study, it is also important to know your career’s path: all of the stops, and the final destination. Aren’t majors and careers the same thing? Not quite. Your career path is the sequence of jobs or experiences you have that will lead you to your ultimate career goal, your college degree is the starting line of this path, and it isn’t always linear.
Example: Jessica and Juan are both theater majors at the local state school. In the future, Jessica wants to teach theater in a university and publish books about theater. To attain her goals, Jessica will get her Bachelor’s degree in theater, then go to graduate school to obtain her Ph.D. in theater. Meanwhile, Juan wants to be a lighting designer and does not need an advanced degree to secure a job as one. This is why after getting his Bachelor’s degree in theater, Juan will have the education and experience needed to start working with theaters and venues as a lighting designer.
As a college student, it is a good idea to think about your career goals, but know that changing careers multiple times is common.
Right Institution Type ☑
Once you know your major or career choice, it becomes a lot easier to find the right type of school to attend. The following table outlines degree types sought out at different types of institutions:
Students seeking a...
Technical or Community College
Technical or Community College
4-year University (and in a few cases, Community College)
Because of flexibility and the ability to transfer credits, two people with the exact same job can have two very different academic histories. Let’s look at the paths of four different nursing students who achieved their career goal.
Notice how Kai knew they loved being an RN and ultimately wished to become a nurse practitioner (NP). This path requires both a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, in addition to either a master or PhD in Nursing. So after working as an RN for a few years, they went to graduate school to become a NP.
Community College & Technical Schools
Often, people think that if something costs more, it must be better...right? Not exactly. In the model above, Sam and Rachelle chose to attend a community college to get their RN degree. Why didn’t they just go to a 4-year university? Whatever the reason, it’s likely that they liked the fact that they saved thousands of dollars per year compared to students who only attended 4-year institutions. The truth is that the rising cost of a higher education has made community colleges more valuable than ever before compared to 4-year institutions.
Community colleges, also known as 2-year schools and junior colleges, are open-enrollment public institutions that offer both workforce education and college-transferable academic preparation. Open-enrollment describes institutions that simply require a high school diploma or equivalent in order to gain admission. Workforce education or workforce training, are short-term technical programs that train people within the high-demand fields. Meaning: you will receive instruction in a specific job for a few weeks and expect to find a job immediately. No degree is earned.
Especially because of their low-cost tuition and fees, community colleges offer a way to obtain a degree or certification for a fraction of what a student may pay at a for-profit or four-year institution. In fact, most community colleges now (including Delgado Community College) have transfer agreements in place with four-year colleges in their area. That’s exactly what Jonathan did! This path allows you to transfer from a two-year college to a four-year university —seamlessly— which is not often the case with for-profit institutions
Many for-profit institutions are technical schools that offer short-term programs and Associate’s degrees, and in some cases, Bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Unlike community colleges, however, for-profit institutions are schools that are privately owned and operate with the goal of making a profit from the services they provide. That is, they are a business like any other, selling a product to maximize revenue. Unfortunately, many for-profit institutions have been involved in scandals and lawsuits pertaining to charging exorbitant fees, graduating students with immense debt, and making promises about job placements that are not met.
Technical schools offer a variety of certifications and technical training, which generally last from weeks to 2 years. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), cosmetology, barbering, home health aide, and practical nursing, among others, are some common technical careers. Technical schools can stand alone or can be part of a community college’s academic offerings. This means that someone looking to get a quick IT Certificate can attend community college alongside a Political Science student who is preparing to go to law school someday.
Private v. Public
In the next chapter we break down the difference between Private and Public institutions, especially as it pertains to cost. In general, it makes sense to be open to both private and public institutions as long as they offer the programs, activities, and services you seek. Once again, don’t let the sticker price shock you until after you see what kind of financial support you can expect.
Right Location ☑
Location seems obvious, right? Well, you may have questions like these to ponder before you make your decision :
- Distance from home: Do I want to drive to my family’s home every weekend to do laundry or only fly in twice a year for the holidays and summer? Do I even want to relocate at all, or would I much rather commute every time I have class? Do I even want to do in-person classes at all or do complete my coursework entirely online?
- Weather and setting: Can I be happy in a town that snows several times a year? Do I need access to plenty of serene outdoor space with fresh air? Or do I prefer the vibrancy and hustle and bustle of a big urban city? It may sound like trivial preferences, but if you know that sunshine and swimming in the ocean is essential for your mental health, for example, a rainy town with no coastline is probably not going to be your favorite place to spend 4 years.
- City attractions and industries: So maybe you’re an open-minded, totally adaptable type of person and you’re ready to go anywhere! Great! Another criteria you can look into are the type of industries or fields that are prominent in certain cities. For example, if your dream is to work in international relations some day, D.C. would probably be a great college destination for you. Maybe filmmaking is your thing-- check out colleges in Los Angeles or Albuquerque. Again, try an internet search! “Best cities for _______” and enter your field.
Right Cost ☑
In the next chapter we will do a careful overview of the expenses that follow a college education. Especially when it comes to working-class families or first-generation college students, many prospective college students use cost as the number one criterion for selecting and ruling out their higher education institution options.
Though we understand that being able to afford college is the #1 concern for many, be aware that the big price tag can lead to an opportunity of a lifetime! Does an annual cost of $35,000 sound as bad if I give you $35,000 in scholarships? Of course not! As we will learn in Chapter 5: Understanding Financial Aid, the cost of attendance for a school is only half of the story. How much financial aid you are offered to attend that particular school, is the other half.
Right Size ☑
Here’s the three main sizes of higher education institutions:
- small: of 5,000 students or less
- medium: of 5,000-10,000 students
- large: of more than 10,000 students
Aside from the number of students at each type, what do these sizes say about what you can expect?
Class size & student-to-faculty ratios
Small colleges usually offer smaller classes of about 10-20 people. This helps students and faculty get to know each other by name. You can expect to engage in class discussions as early as your freshman year. This can be a good setting for people who feel uncomfortable speaking up in settings with a lot of people, or who would never dare raise their hand to ask a question in a lecture hall...with 60, 100 or even 200 other students!
For medium and large schools, it is common for first- and second-year students to take their general education courses in big halls of more than 100 students. These are often paired with smaller discussion or lab components made up of about 12-15 students. For students that thrive in settings that allow them to meet different people constantly, make new friends, and who don’t mind asking for help, this is a good option.
Student-to-faculty ratios are the number of students per faculty member at the school. A large school may have about 18 students per faculty member (18:1 ratio); a smaller school may have 9 students for every one faculty member (9:1). Students on more of the shy side might prefer a small student-to-faculty ratio to make it easier to build relationships with faculty members.
It’s probably not surprising that the population of 30,000 students is going to feel different compared to a 3,000 student population. If you like the idea of knowing most of your classmates and seeing familiar faces routinely, a small institution would be a great place for you. Small campuses are able to provide more individualized and ongoing attention to each student, so it’s easier for students to know what staff or faculty can help them with a specific need.
However, if you like meeting new people every time you take a class, then a medium to large institution may be a better fit. Students in large schools tend to build friendships through their involvement in student organizations or student activities. Just keep in mind that at a larger school, you must be willing to navigate a big campus to get the baseline of support needed for individual support or resources.
Other Factors to Consider
Student Activities & Sports ☑
Medium to large schools have a wider range of activities-- like affinity clubs, career-oriented student associations, sports in different divisions, and year-round activities like concerts, greek life, exhibits, or well-known guest speakers. For some students, this is like a college Disneyland! Others may find it too overwhelming, or just not in their list of priorities.
It is to be noted that smaller colleges still have a vibrant campus life. They also host a variety of student organizations, traditions, activities, and sports, but at a smaller scale. If you’re at a small liberal arts college, for example, it may mean that you start the Women’s Skateboarding Club you have always dreamed of organizing, but you might not get dozens of people to show up. And that 's okay. On the other hand, if you have always wanted to get involved with student government but have felt intimidated to do so, a small school may be a great place to take the plunge. After all, running a Student Body President campaign for 2,000 students sounds a lot less intimidating than doing so for 20,000 students, and the challenge, communication, and experience is just as legitimate.
Student athletes usually know of top schools for their sport of choice, so these will already be on their list. You might rule out a school entirely based on not offering your sport. For those who simply enjoy playing a certain sport, you might want to check out what intramural sports or facilities are available to all students, such as gyms or swimming pools, and teams or casual recreational clubs.
Student Services ☑
Being a successful student takes a lot more than just being admitted to a school and making the first tuition payment.
What if I have a physical or mental disability and adequate accommodations are crucial to my ability to attend classes?
What if I’m undocumented and I am afraid to seek services at the student clinic?
What if I’m a trans student and I was discriminated against on campus?
What if I’m a foster youth and am feeling overwhelmed, with little or no support at home?
How important these matters are for each student varies widely. Owen, for example, needs access to affordable mental health services on campus—it is crucial—as he has experienced mental health crises in the recent past. Angela, on the other hand, is not concerned about mental health services, but as a recent English learner, having access to free tutoring is very important. We recommend making a list of the support that is crucial for your success. This will help to find your unique deal-breakers, sort to speak, and inquiring about these services with your prospective schools ensures your needs will be met.
Demographic statistics are usually found on not-for-profit college websites, and may give you a lens into how the diversity looks and presents itself among the student and faculty body. Diversity may add another layer of enrichment to one's college experience.
For people seeking to connect with students and faculty who have historically shared a similar background—whether racial ethnic, or cultural—these marginalized campuses do exist. There are American-indian,Alaska Native, Asian American, Native American Pacific Islanders, Historically Black Universities, and Hispanic Institutions. What do these designations mean? That these institutions pride themselves in serving a large number of students from their specific demographic target area—as a result— particular programs and services are already in place to support their success and retention.
There are also a few dozen women only colleges across the U.S. As the name suggests, these institutions only admit female students, with several of them also welcoming individuals who identify as; non-binary, transgender, or gender-fluid.
Religious Affiliation ☑
Many private higher education institutions have a religious affiliation. There is a misconception that you must identify with an institution's particular religion in order to attend it, but this is rarely the case.
However, religious institutions may have certain expectations and requirements that reflect their values, and which they do expect all their students to abide by. Taking a certain number of religious courses is often a requirement, for example, though this may mean “take one theology course in any religion or focus” or “take 12 credits of Biblical studies.” Attending certain events or religious services may also be expected in some schools, and a more conservative student code of conduct is also common at religious insititutions (which may prohibit substance use, interaction with the opposite sex, or set curfews.)
For this reason, students that are not religiously affiliated may feel perfectly comfortable at a liberal Jesuit school that has few religious requirements. Whereas others may actively seek an experience that allows them to practice their religious values regularly.
Selectivity and Prestige ☑
A “big name school” is often a big selling point. But big names are often paired with a high cost and are“highly selective,” meaning you will be competing with hundreds, if not thousands of students, for a chance in their upcoming classes. Desiring to attend a prestigious, well-known institution is a personal preference, but we do recommend keeping these points in mind:
- Does this “big name school” offer quality courses and experiences for my career path?
- How much do I really know about this school and what are 4-5 specific features that will help me thrive there?
- If I cannot attend these highly selective institutions, what are other great schools that I can likely be admitted to?
- Am I overlooking other great institutions that would be a great fit for me? What are they?
- Does the cost of attendance justify what I will be obtaining in exchange?
These questions are not to discourage you from attending a highly selective school, nor to forget about reaching for the stars. A good round of college applications should always include a mix of selective, as well as the more “safe” prospects. These questions serve as a reminder to keep an open mind and help you to construct a list of prospective schools that reflect your needs or things important for your success.
So many things to think about, right? Its okay to feel overwhelmed, but hopefully breaking the steps into smaller chunks can ease the process. Now that you have your list(s), you are more equipped to ask your tailored questions, and can quickly assess whether certain institutions are for you or not. This is taking the first step. Take your College Shopping List as you browse through websites and go on college tours. Just like when you go to the grocery store to make your favorite dish, you need the base ingredients.What are your college essentials?
Good luck on your search!