There are so many considerations to keep in mind when choosing what college or university to attend, it can be hard to keep it all straight. Many students and parents start by narrowing down schools by academic offerings and then scheduling college visits to their top choices. But there are many things to consider beyond classes and campuses.
We asked parents what they wish they had explored when their students were searching for the right school and compiled their responses.
10 Things To Keep On Your Radar When Choosing a College
Distance and transportation
Going away to college may seem like a romantic notion, but the reality of being far from home can be difficult for some students. If your student likes spending time with family, living across the country is a huge change, and the inability to come for a weekend here and there can be hard. In addition, the cost of flying home for holiday breaks is an expense you’ll need to add to the budget. Some colleges aren’t near a major airport, so the inconvenience and cost of getting to and from home are important to consider.
We all know that college isn’t cheap, but it’s a mistake to assume it’s always outrageously expensive. Affordability varies vastly from school to school, and shopping around can save you and your student thousands of dollars. It’s important to help our kids understand that their favorite school may not be the best choice if it’s going to mean graduating saddled with enormous debt. But don’t merely look at tuition numbers on their face. Explore scholarship and financial aid offerings at each school in depth, as a more expensive school on paper may offer a better aid package and end up costing less overall.
How many years to graduate?
Part of the affordability equation is how many years you’ll actually be paying tuition. If a significant percentage of a school’s students tend to take five or six years to graduate, that’s an extra year or two you need to prepare for financially. Depending on your major(s) and the school’s offerings, it may take longer than you plan to actually graduate with the required courses and credits, so be sure to ask about what to expect at each school.
Life outside the classroom
When it comes to social life, there’s more to consider than the number of clubs or organizations a school offers. Is there an active Greek life? That may be a positive or a negative for your student, depending on their preferences. Do a large percentage of students commute to the school instead of living on campus? Having lots of commuters can affect weekend activities. Large city vs. small town is a big consideration, as is large student body vs. small student body. A big school can offer more diverse clubs and activities, but can also feel overwhelming and too anonymous for some students.
Small schools can have a more familial feel, though formal activity offerings and diversity may be more limited. Find out the demographics of the school and ask important questions: Will your student have enough support if they are part of a traditionally marginalized group? If belonging to a specific religious community important to your student, will they find it there? Is the political climate of the school and region going to be an issue for your child? Encourage your student to ask current students about all of the above during school visits.
If your kids have been raised in the California sunshine and they’re looking at a school in the Midwest or the Northeast, the weather differences shouldn’t be taken lightly. I went to college in Iowa, and the winters there were no joke. Some students may experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the stresses of the first year of college mixed with long, cold, gray winters can be a tough combination.
At the very least, make sure students are armed with the proper gear to trudge through the cold and snow. A Midwest winter can build character, but it can also be a deal breaker for those who need copious amounts of sunshine.
The academic calendar
Surprisingly, school calendars can vary widely, and it may be an important consideration for your student—especially if they have summer job plans or if you plan family vacations for early or late summer and want them be able to come. Some schools start in mid-August and finish up in early May. Other schools don’t start until mid-to-late September with finals hitting in mid-June. If two schools are neck and neck in the running, something as simple as the school calendar may be a deciding factor.
Access to health and mental health care
If you know your student has special health needs or struggles with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, you’ll definitely want to make sure there are good, easily accessible resources for your student on or near campus. Even if your child is the picture of health, it’s important to be aware of the quality of healthcare a school offers. The stress of college and being away from home can take its toll on students, and it can give you and your child peace of mind to know that there are solid resources in place to meet their needs.
Ease of changing majors
Students may go to school thinking they have a career path chosen, but Inside Higher Ed says that a third of students will change their major within three years of starting college. Some schools make that easier than others, so it’s a good idea to ask colleges about during school visits.
Specialized study opportunities
Depending on your student’s major, you may want to think about what kinds of special academic needs they may have and what opportunities will be available to them. If your student wants to spend a semester abroad, does the school offer an array of choices? If your daughter is going into a male-dominated field, are there strong female mentors in her academic program? Are there internship opportunities in your student’s major offered by local businesses? Does the school offer unique experiences in your student’s field that set it apart from others?
Mission statements (when all else fails)
If your student is having a hard time deciding between schools, private admission counselor Maura Goddard suggests having them read the mission statements of different schools without the names attached and see which one resonates most with them. Sometimes we can get so bogged down in the details that we lose sight of the overall mission of the school, and exploring the statements the school make about themselves can help clarify the focus of each one and help students find the best fit.
Choosing the right college can be a complicated, daunting task. Knowing what information to seek and what to look for beyond the campus can help both students and parents choose the school that makes the most sense overall.
Annie Reneau is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone. Her writing can be found on Upworthy and Scary Mommy, in O Magazine, and in a big ol’ slush pile inside her head. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.