Nine points to consider when choosing a college

Simon Newman
Apr 28, 2019 · 11 min read

Simon P. Newman

Wednesday May 1st is National College Decisions Day when around 3 million students decide on which college to attend. It is a tense time for you and your parents, who graduated in a different time (or maybe didn’t graduate at all). The stakes are much higher today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the inflation adjusted price of college tuition in 2015–16 is nearly five times the price it was in 1985–86. Over 44 million borrowers owe $1.57 trillion in student loans, as of December 2018. The Institute for College Access & Success estimates the average debt level of seniors who were part of the 69% of graduates who borrowed for a four-year bachelor’s degree is $29,650.

The ballooning cost of college and the debt you might incur to pay for your education has caused a shift in how to evaluate college options. Compared your parent’s generation, you are understandably concerned about paying off debt. Indeed, according to the 2016 CIRP freshman survey the prospect of getting a good job has become the single most important criteria for choosing a college, overtaking academic reputation, which had been the top criterion just two years earlier.

For a book I’m writing, I’ve interviewed over a hundred people asking them what they particularly valued about their college years, and the answer that I heard the most was “it made me the person I am”. With that in mind, a good way to think about your College investment is to prepare you well for the world you are about to enter. So before you sign on the dotted line and send in your deposit on Monday, perhaps it is time for one more look through your choices, to make sure your criteria for selecting a university coalesce around the one that will prepare you best for your future — whatever you choose to do.

1. The Importance of Fit: a school where you will Engage the most

One size does not fit all. All schools are different: they have varied philosophies, cultures and degree offerings, and they attract different types of students. It is important to find a school that presents a culture and environment that meets your preferred way to learn. If you do well in a small group, pick a school that has small class sizes and a high teacher-to-student ratio. If you like to meet many people and have lots to do, pick a big school. What matters most is finding the learning environment where you will engage the most, meaning you will be motivated to learn and develop yourself. It is the act of engaging — of doing — that means you will learn a great deal, and you will most likely succeed.

The National Survey on Student Engagement provides guidelines on what factors help a student engage and the high-impact practices offered by schools. In the first year, the highest impact program according to NSSE is service learning, so you should ask of your school whether any first-year courses include a community-based projects. Look back at your top college picks and see which ones offer a learning style that includes practices, teaching styles and opportunities that will engage you.

2. Don’t Worry About your choice of a Major — Just the Options to Change.

“What are you going to major in?” is a question you have probably heard a lot lately? If you don’t know the answer yet, don’t worry. You are in good company because most high school seniors haven’t decided on a major. After entering college it is estimated 75% of students will change their planned major at least once. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates 29% of non-STEM students and 35% of STEM students changed majors within the first three years. Those who shift majors, according to the Education Advisory Board (EAB), have a higher chance of graduating (82–83%) compared to those who do not change (78%). What is important is that you have a large choice of majors and the core curriculum at the university that allows you to take courses outside your major. You might not know you’re interested in new areas until you take the class.

Keep your options open. Although transfers between universities are common, you may end up losing credits, resulting in additional time and cost to graduate not to mention the social upheaval of making new friends. You also want to make sure you declare your major before the end of your sophomore year. According to the EAB, the chance that you will graduate in four years falls off considerably the later you declare your major, also adding to your cost and time. Graduate schools can also be wary of applicants who took too long to graduate or transferred too many times.

3. Retention, Learning Services and Leadership Programs

When you start college, it will be very exciting, but there will be so many activities to do, books to buy, forms to be filled, and parties to go to that you may feel overwhelmed and a little lost. The coursework and style of teaching is quite different from high school. Everything is new. Your biggest hurdle in having a successful college experience may be surviving the first year. One in 5 students who matriculate at a university drop out or transfer before their sophomore year. You may need help, so you want to make sure help is readily available.

Fortunately, the best colleges know the challenges of the first year and have a very comprehensive retention and mentoring program to help you through the normal challenges of college transition. You should put a significant weight on schools that have a good retention program and provide (often for free) learning service programs to help with academic subjects; bridge programs to give you support on some subjects before even entering the school; mental health counseling; special needs counseling; and advice on dealing with stress. You can gauge how good the retention program is by looking at the school’s retention statistics and transfer out rate on NCES college navigator.

Early in your college journey you need to plan and research not just your academic journey but your personal journey too. You want to learn skills, experience new things, stretch yourself, face your fears, take risks and fill as much of your time with experiences that will make you the person you want to become. You can take charge of all this yourself, but you should put a strong weighting on schools that offer a center for student leadership and development (there may be other names for it) that helps you plan and mentors you to get the best out of your university experience. These centers work in coordination with your faculty supervisor and can provide advice on choosing courses as well as finding non-academic activities in which you may be interested, or challenge you in ways you need to be challenged. They can offer all kinds of tests and programs to help you discover more about yourself.

4. Career Services and Mastery of Critical Career-Ready Skills

As you progress through college, you will naturally start to wonder what job you want to do after you graduate. This is the time you will visit career center, where they help you find internships, experiential learning options, and mentorships that can lead to a perfect job on graduation. You should put a heavier emphasis on schools that have a well-developed career placement program, and attract many employers to the university, and provide you with learning tools to help you in your journey of self-discovery to find what sorts of careers may interest you. To assess the strength of career services at your favorite schools, ask for information on the list of employers from last year’s graduating class and the average starting salaries of graduating students.

Your university education needs to deliver both academic knowledge and skills that are demanded by employers. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified eight competencies that graduates need to master to be career-ready. These skills include Critical Thinking/Problem Solving; Oral/Written Communications; Teamwork/Collaboration; Digital Technology; Leadership; Professionalism/Work Ethic; Career Management; and Global and Intercultural Fluency. A more comprehensive discussion can be found here.

Your college education experience needs to include courses and programs that help you master the above skills. You should investigate the availability of programs and courses that explicitly teach these skills as opposed to taking a passive view that by merely being there and doing the work you will magically master them all. For instance, to better develop the skills of global and intercultural understanding, does your preferred school offer courses in, say, comparative religions or study abroad programs in areas of growing significance such as China or the Middle East? You should ask your school what they do to deliver on each of the above skills.

5. True Cost of Your Degree

Calculating the net cost of your degree options can be tricky. Many private schools and some public schools also offer academic scholarships and need based scholarships, and these need to be factored in. The prices of the tuition, room and board, books and such increase at 2–5% per year, but the discounts and scholarships are typically fixed.

The cost of the degree is often calculated as tuition and fees, plus room and board, less the academic or other scholarships obtained. In the example shown, this would be $42,320 for the first year. Students sometimes multiply this number by 4 to get a total cost of $169,280. To ensure you budget correctly, you need to factor in prices increases, as well as other costs such as transport to and from college, incidental expenditures, books and supplies and some budget for trips and study abroad programs. These extra costs can be significant, around 25% higher in the above case. To calculate the full net cost it is worth using the NCES College Navigator.

If the budget looks tight, you still have time to get a better deal. If you are a strong student, some private universities will stretch their scholarships a little to get you to accept. Colleges also have programs such as work study which, if you qualify, can reduce your costs by several thousand dollars. In your later years you can get further discounts by being a resident adviser. Applying early to get a good summer job is wise, and it can also bring in some needed cash. Other options to lower cost include taking extra credits (if allowed) or even attending community college over the summer to complete additional courses (provided they transfer) to help you graduate early and save money.

6. Return on your Degree

Universities vary tremendously in their abilities to attract great employers and to get graduates jobs. Some of these variances are explained by the mix of degree subjects: STEM graduates tend to be higher compensated and more in demand than non-STEM. The difference in employability between universities is not explained by subject mix alone. The company PayScale has made some effort to calculate return on degree by taking the sum of the salaries of graduates from an institution going out 20 years, less the salary you would have made by working for 24 years without a degree, less the costs of getting the degree at that institution. The results are published annually. It is worth looking up your planned college to see how the expected return compares to your net cost to attend that institution.

7. Ratings and the People Who Teach You

Prospective students often examine reports such as US News and World Report, Princeton Review, and QS rankings for a general sense of the quality and reputation of a university. These reviews are useful, but they are based on historical data that reflects the school’s position several years prior to when you will enroll. It is worth looking at other more current student-informed reviews such as those conducted by Niche.com that provide insights on everything from academics, campus quality, activities in the area, value, food, student life, professors and even party scene.

Interesting though reviews are, what is going to matter much more to you is your access to great faculty and the relationship you can build with them. If you know your likely major, or even possible majors, look up which professors teach those classes. What is the faculty-to-student ratio? A lower ratio will provide you more access to faculty, and more one-on-one teaching opportunities. The strength of a department can be assessed by looking at its size, research done, books written, breadth of programs offered, and creativity behind the types of courses and programs offered. Some faculty are amazingly gifted and create all sorts of exchange programs with overseas universities or experiential learning opportunities for their students. You may also wish to look at student ratings of the professors which you can get on sites like Rate my Professors, but with the strong caveat that these ratings are not always accurate or fair.

8. Brand, Reputation and Alumni

As the recent college scandal has shown, some parents put a lot of emphasis on the brand and reputation of a school, believing that elite schools provide a unique pathway into jobs, as well as access to an alumni network that reaches into the upper echelons of every major institution in America.

Brand and reputation, although relevant, should not be the most important factor in choosing a school. In the great lottery of life, you can’t choose your parents, or whether you will grow up with privileges, so your realistic choice of schools at the age of 18 is not going to be the same for everyone. However, your best choice of school should be guided by where you will thrive, and not as much by following in your parent’s footsteps or satisfying their desire to brag. If you are prepared to work hard, you can get most places in life after graduating from any university. Consider that some of our greatest leaders went to less-famous schools, that turned out to be the right choice for them: Ronald Reagan attended Eureka College in Illinois; Barack Obama got his start at Occidental College in Los Angeles; and Lyndon Johnson attended Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University). No matter where you go to school, your path forward is very much up to you.

9. University Culture and the Development of Character

The traditional purpose of a university is the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. Liberal arts universities also emphasize the formation of character. You’ll only have a few opportunities in your life to take the time to reflect on life’s deeper, richer meaning: college is one of those times. Successful, happy people develop at a young age a positive mindset that is associated with success and long-term happiness. Your mindset is the way you think and interpret events in the world, and your character determines your behavior and how you react to those events.

There are several mindsets that are known to result in better outcomes, greater happiness and more overall successes including:

- Positive Self Image (strong mental health)

- A Strong Sense of Purpose (which may be spiritual)

- Grit

- Growth Mindset

- Abundance Mentality

- Mindfulness

- Emotional Intelligence

- Gratitude

- Tolerance for Ambiguity

Your mindset will be developed more fully at college, and it will form an important prism through which you will observe the world and think through challenges and opportunities in the future. Your character is formed by mimicking the behaviors of others (mentors) and absorbing the cultural environment you are in. The formation of character is, in my view, critically important function of a university education. The process of character formation requires you get outside your comfort zone and learn from experience, which can at times be pleasant, but at other times challenging, unpleasant and even unfair. My final criteria would be to assess from your choices the university environment and culture where you would feel comfortable taking risks, challenging your views, making mistakes, and learning from them.

There is a lot to consider. Your choice of college may be the most important decision of your life to this point. You should of course listen to the advice of people you trust, but the decision is ultimately yours. One day you too will also look back on college as the place that formed your character and “made you the person you are”, so make sure that future version of yourself is someone you would be proud of becoming. Choose wisely.

Simon P. Newman is a graduate of Cambridge University and Stanford Business School. He has had a career in private equity, management consulting, and as a serial entrepreneur. He has been hired as a change agent most often to reinvigorate struggling organizations. More recently he was the President of Mount St. Mary’s University, as well as a board member of Boys & Girls Club, an active Rotarian, and adviser to City Harvest London.

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