Choosing a College or University

My sister and niece are in Florida this week, checking out potential universities for the niece. I thought I’d take today to address those of you in my audience looking to attend college or university for the first time. This is for my American students, as I have no idea how things work elsewhere…I gather they’re a lot more rational and focused, though. Best of luck, wherever you go!

What is Your Goal?

If you are still in high school and have no idea what you want to study, you might be better off with a local community college while you take your “gen eds” (general education courses required of all students). Or, if you are eager to get away and live on your own, as I was at 18, you might just head off to the four-year university of your choice.

I still hear jokes about students being on the “five-year plan” trying to figure out what they want out of life. However, higher education in the U.S. has gotten a lot more expensive since I got my two degrees (1991 and 2003), so time wasting is not a good idea. Even if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, while you’re in college, you should at least be aware that you’re there to acquire some sort of useful skills and get a credential (diploma) that shows you’re able to complete a two- or four-year degree. It helps if you do know what you want to do with yourself. I changed majors twice (first business, then psychology, then English literature), picked up a minor in history, and probably took enough science classes that I could have gotten a second minor in that. I wanted to be a science fiction writer.

If you’re one of those people who know what you want to do, you can focus your search by looking up schools that have academic programs best suited to your interests.

How Do You Like to Live?

Colleges and universities come in multiple sizes and locations, from small farm towns in the middle of nowhere (my first alma mater, Northern Illinois University, was situated in DeKalb, Illinois, home of “flying ear” corn, Cindy Crawford, and not much else). Do you like large crowds of people and lots of excitement or do you prefer a small-town feel where you can get to know everyone? I split the difference, attending a large school in a small town, figuring that a larger school would better enable me to find people with like interests.

Another decision to make is how close to home do you want to be? This decision affects things like how well you function on your own, how prone you are to homesickness, and how easily you can get in touch with someone from home in the event of an emergency. You might decide you can handle things yourself and move out of state or even across the country. You might stay home with your parents and attend the local community college until you get your feet under you and know what you want to do, as my sister did. You might move just far enough away that you have to live on campus, but close enough that you can get back home easily if you need to, as I did.

What Can You Afford?

Financial aid has changed a lot in the last 20 years. When I got my first degree, there were still multiple institutions providing loans. Now pretty much all education loans are handled by the federal government. You might be fortunate enough to have enough family resources or resources of your own to pay directly without much need for assistance–good for you! You might still consider a school that provides the best value for your dollars. School is a major investment in your future. For most of the rest of us, loans are the way to go.

Or, if your grades or athletic abilities are really spectacular, you might obtain an academic or sport scholarship, which is basically an incentive provided by a school to entice you to come study/do sports with them because they feel they can get some value out of molding the future of a promising student/athlete like you.

Another, long-term consideration with student loans is the career you plan to pursue and the likelihood of your paying them back once you graduate. The good news is that student loans have very low interest (2.75% for first-time undergraduates at this writing) and long payback terms. The bad news is, depending on the economy, your job prospects, and how long you spent in school (and where), those loans can become a serious financial burden. I’m not dissuading you from pursuing a degree that you love, just reminding you to be aware of the realities once you graduate. There’s a lot of demand on social media for students to be forgiven their student loans. Rather than jump headlong into that political fight, I will just suggest that you don’t count on that as a solution to your problems. Assume that it’s your debt and your responsibility. That will help you better shape your choices during and after college.

Culture and Feel

It’s important that you try to visit the college or university you plan to attend. This helps you with determining your level of comfort. You learn what the culture is like (you can ask). Is the campus full of engineering students when you’re a free-style, artsy sort of person? Do you have physical challenges and the campus is widely spread out, or is it disability-friendly? Do the students have similar backgrounds to yours, or are they wildly different? Do you want difference or similarity? Does the school have a strong fraternity/sorority culture, and is that something you enjoy? Did your parents or siblings go to the school? How’s the weather? What’s the architecture like? How’s the nightlife? Can you see yourself living at that school for four years? Those are questions you will likely only be able to answer by being on site, much like buying or renting a new home, which is essentially what you’re doing.

Bottom line: you need to find a school that meets a constellation of needs, from academic to social. May your journey be a fruitful one.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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