As a young person, I can remember being told that I had to go to college. My mother had finished high school. Dad flunked out of first-year engineering. World War II was raging. They signed up in the Royal Canadian Air Force. That experience shaped their adult lives in profound ways. That's really what a college education should be about. It can shape lives in profound ways. To make sure that happens you must consider five metrics when choosing a college. Yes, there are more than five metrics involved in selecting the right college, however, let's keep it simple for the moment. Choosing a college can be an overwhelming process.
I am assuming that your child is in a private school with grades 9-12 or 13. That being the case, you will have the advantage of a professional guidance counselor to help you choose the best college for your child. Instead of dealing with hundreds of seniors as a public school guidance counselor does, your school's guidance counselor will be able to allocate enough time to help you with the process of choosing the right college. You can enhance the process further by hiring an education consultant. We did that for one of our daughters and it was worth every dollar we spent.
These are the metrics that I recommend that you discuss and explore thoroughly as you search for the right college for your child. Please include your child in the discussions. She will not appreciate being told that she has to attend a specific college because you have decided that it is best for her. The result which you want is for her to think that attending Vassar is her idea and that you agree with her.
The discussion of location usually boils down to your child's being ready to leave the nest. If you have sent her away to summer camp, for example, traveled widely with your children, or sent her to boarding school, your daughter will be more than ready to leave home to go to college a couple of hours away from home.
The issue upon which you all must agree is how far away from home should the school be? Family circumstances will influence your decision and they should trump everything. I am thinking of situations such as the poor health of a close family member or a divorce. In the former, she may well decide to attend a college close to home. In the latter, the further away from home, the better, could be her thinking.
In this video, admissions experts from Drew University, University of Maryland, and UC Irvine give the inside scoop on what makes a great applicant.
In any case, once you have decided on the geographics, start searching for colleges in that locale. Draw a 50-mile circle around the location you are considering. Then explore the colleges virtually. You will be able to eliminate the ones which don't meet your requirements, leaving three to five institutions worth exploring in depth.
A large school works for some students. For others, small is what they need and want. Of course, some large schools have figured out how to develop a sense of community. That helps to offset the fact that over 30,000 students are attending the university. When the school has less than 3,000 students, you really have a chance to get to know people. When considering the size of a college, you also have to examine the academics. It is possible that the smaller institution offers precisely the degree program your child needs. Of course, the opposite can be true too. The location also becomes critical if your child has an athletic or artistic pursuit which will determine where she should be. For example, if she is a virtuoso flute player, you might want to be in an urban area that will offer lots of performing opportunities. If she is a cross country skier, then a school up north or out west somewhere might have the programs you are looking for.
In many ways, this is one of the toughest metrics to understand. It is even more difficult if your child happens to be one of those brilliant students who excel in both the arts and the sciences. Put both the courses and the teachers under your microscope. A great person may head a department but he probably won't teach those freshman courses your daughter will have to take. Drill down and understand who teaches those first and second-year courses. While I generally avoid faculty rating websites as I believe they tend to be beauty contests, you can start with RateMyProfessors to get an idea of what students are saying about their professors. Be sure to take those opinions with a grain of salt.
The College Board explains how colleges use SAT scores in the admissions process.
With college expenses being so very high, you should factor financial aid into the equation. Some colleges have very strong financial aid packages available. But you must ask. That involves submitting all the financial information and documentation which the colleges require. Several colleges offer a tuition-free education for children from families below specified income thresholds. Ask. The other approach to the college expense issue is to look for colleges with low tuition combined with the academic programs your child wants and needs. Organize your search. Document the results so that you can have some serious discussions with your family about the pros and cons of the institutions which you are considering.
In this video, Personal finance expert Beth Kobliner addresses 6 questions that parents often ask about paying for college.
The right fit?
Like the academics metric, this metric is intrinsically tough to analyze. How do you know if the college is the right fit for your child? The other four metrics will more or less align. Your campus visit will confirm your findings. You will all have that wonderful "Eureka!" moment as you leave the campus. It is in the location you wanted. It has the courses and teachers you insisted on having. It has offered you a generous financial aid package. It just feels right.
One last piece of advice: don't leave everything to your child's guidance counselor or your education consultant. You must manage the process. Use these professionals as assistants. You are in charge. After all, who knows your child better than you do?
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