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33 Factors for How to Choose a College

By Casey Slide

college campus fallThere are many ways to choose a college. You could choose one based on where you want to live, where your parents went to school, or even where your friends plan to attend. When selecting a school, it’s important to consider various metrics in order to find the college that best suits you and your unique needs.

A metric is a measurement that is used to gauge the quality of an attribute, and essentially tells you if something is good or bad. For example, when you want to know if a movie is worth watching, you may look at movie reviews to see how many stars were given to the movie. The same sort of principle can be used when choosing a college.

What metrics should you analyze when trying to find the best college for you? Here are some ideas to get you started in the areas of academic life, student life, and financial factors.

Academic Life

1. Admission Rate
Depending on how you performed in high school and on the SAT, you may want to apply to schools with higher or lower admission rates. If you aced everything in your academic history, you have a better chance for acceptance at the schools with lower admission rates. On the other hand, if your academic history is less than perfect, make sure you apply to some schools that have a higher admission rate, just in case.

2. Graduation Rate
Graduating from college is definitely more important than getting accepted. Without graduation, what’s the point of being accepted in the first place? When considering a college, review the percentage of students who complete the full program.

3. Freshmen Retention Rate
Another metric to consider is the freshmen retention rate, which explains what percentage of freshmen return for their sophomore year. A high retention rate indicates overall student satisfaction with their first year experience at that school. It also indicates that few students failed their freshmen year, a crucial time for students trying to adjust to college life.

4. Student to Faculty Ratio
There were 700 students in my very first class at the University of Florida. Needless to say, I never actually got to meet the professor, or get any personal attention or help. Luckily, most of my other classes had fewer students. If I had known that the average class size at the University of Florida was much less than 700, I probably wouldn’t have been so unnerved during my first day at school. If you want or need one-on-one assistance from your professors, examine the student to faculty ratio very closely.

5. School Size
Even if the student to faculty ratio is reasonable, analyze the overall size of the school. This can play a huge role in your comfort level, and in how well you fit in. A large school may be overwhelming for some students, but a small school may be underwhelming for others. Do you want to recognize everyone on campus, or do you want to have more privacy?

6. Graduate/Professional School Options
If you have high aspirations of going on to a graduate or professional school, such as law school or medical school, investigate what percentage of four-year college graduates pursue another degree. This metric gives you some insights about whether the school adequately prepares students for continuing their education, and insights into the probability of follow-through for your academic goals.

7. Jobs Right Out of School
If you worry about finding a job when you finish school, consider the percentage of students who receive a job right after graduation. Some schools have excellent job placement programs, assisting their students in making the transition from student to employee, and helping them find jobs after graduation.

college students lecture

8. Curriculum
Different schools offer different programs with their curriculum. For example, as an Engineering student, I had a set of classes that I was required to take, with little deviation apart from electives. Some other schools, such as Brown University, have a more open curriculum, allowing students to have much greater flexibility with the courses they take.

9. Course Availability
I often see advertisements for schools that provide night and weekend courses. Depending on your availability, you may need to choose a school that has those options. These types of schools make it possible for those who must work full-time jobs to also pursue an education. Taking classes at night, on the weekends, or online, is also an excellent way to earn a graduate degree (e.g. MBA business degree program)

10. Quality of Professors
Does the college have highly qualified professors, or do the professors seem to be amateurs? To make sure you are getting the best possible education, you need to study with highly educated professors that not only have experience teaching, but also real-world skills.

For example, a large number of professors at Miami University in Ohio attended Ivy League schools. Many professors at the university also have real-world training, and at least one urban planning professor works for the city government. Students in his class created a project that mimicked a project the professor had worked on for the city.

11. Quality of Department of Study
In addition to investigating the quality of professors, review the quality of the department for your area of study. I majored in Industrial Engineering when I was in college, and it was important for me to attend a school with a well-established Engineering department. I wanted a program with a great reputation and impressive research opportunities, as opposed to a program that was mediocre or brand new.

12. Teaching Assistants
Since I attended a large school, many of my courses were taught by graduate assistants or by other types of teaching assistants, known as “TAs.” This can be a great situation, depending on the knowledge or enthusiasm of the teaching assistant. It can also be frustrating, if the teaching assistant lacks teaching experience.

If you hope to become a teaching assistant during graduate school or upon graduation, make sure to attend a school where you have the opportunity to work as a TA.

13. Study Abroad Opportunities
Studying abroad is a unique opportunity that only a fraction of students get to experience. If you want to study abroad, consider how many study abroad programs are offered at a specific school, and which countries are included in the programs. In addition, determine whether the university supports students who study abroad. Some schools make it extremely easy for students to study internationally by allowing them to transfer credits.

14. Accreditation
Review the school’s accreditation. In order to get into graduate or professional school, your undergraduate studies may have to be completed at an accredited institution. Students who attend unaccredited schools are not eligible for financial aid.

For well-known universities and colleges, accreditation is almost a given. But with smaller colleges and online schools, this isn’t always the case. Even if an online school is accredited, research graduate schools and professional schools of interest to ensure the schools accept the accreditation.

15. Course of Study
While some student life metrics are important, like size of campus, and proximity to jobs, selecting a school that offers a course of study that’s right for you is critical to school selection. If you want to study English, a business school likely won’t offer all of the classes you need. Some schools are known for their engineering programs, and other schools offer the top nursing programs in the country.

In addition, some schools provide a traditional course of study, where students attend classes, write papers, and take tests. Other schools, like Reed College in Portland, Oregon, focus on independent study and laboratory research conducted by small study groups. Seniors at Reed College must also complete a thesis before graduation.

college students group smiling

Student Life

16. On-Campus Living
As important as academics are when choosing a college, student life can be just as important for some young adults since there are other reasons why you should go to college. For the most part, student life begins and ends in dorm rooms. If you want an active student life, you need to live with other students. Look for the schools that have a high percentage of on-campus living if you want an active student life.

Additionally, if you really want on-campus living, make sure there is availability in the dorms. If you plan to go to school in a larger city, “on-campus” living may be more loosely defined. For example, George Washington University in Washington, D.C. has residence halls spread throughout the city.

17. Greek Life Participation
Sororities and fraternities play a huge role in the social lives of students. For some, getting into the right house is an essential element to being a college student. If this is you, make sure you do not limit your options by applying to a school that has low Greek life participation. For example, Harvard has no Greek life at all.

18. Location
Location is most likely a factor for every potential student. If you need a school close to home, use the metric of miles or traveling distance to find the best fit for you. In addition, you’ll have to decide whether you want the bustle of a big city, or if rural, small town living will be a better fit for you. If you abhor long winters, you’ll want to look for schools on the west coast or in the sunny southern states.

If your concern is a job upon graduation, make sure you are at a school located near potential employers. For example, if you want a career in investing, you’ll likely be better off at a school in New York City rather than a school in Kansas. If you plan to stick close to school in the summer months, determine if internship opportunities exist in the area. 

19. Size of Campus
In addition to the location of the campus, consider the geographic size of the campus. Do you want a school where you might have to trek from building to building, taking trains or buses to reach some of your classes? Or do you prefer a small campus, where all the buildings are in close proximity? These are important lifestyle questions that can significantly affect your day-to-day life as a student.

20. Meal Plans
Do the schools offer affordable meal plans? Do students partake in these plans and enjoy the food? Are the meal plans required? Schools located in metropolitan areas, like George Washington University, allow students to set up accounts for debit cards. The debit cards can then be used in campus dining halls and at restaurants throughout Washington, D.C. The students’ meal plans are required at the school, and food purchased at on-campus venues using the card is exempt from sales tax.

21. Extracurricular Activities
Consider a school’s extracurricular activities, in terms of both number and variety offered. These activities may include clubs associated with a field of study, recreational sports, volunteer groups, and religious organizations. The more groups that a college provides, the more likely you will find one that’s right for you.

buckeyes college football fans

22. Sports Participation
There are many metrics to consider when thinking about college sports: percentage of student athletes, fan participation, and team rankings. I definitely considered fan participation when I decided to go to the University of Florida. There is nothing like cramming into a loud and spirited stadium every Saturday in the fall with 90,000 of your closest friends!

23. Safety Statistics
Safety statistics are an important metric of campus life. How well are students protected from crimes? How many college police officers are there compared to the number of enrolled students? When you visit a school, do you see evidence of campus security’s presence?

24. Party Life
Let’s face it. Some students go to college to party, and hope to get an education on the side. If going to a party school is important to you, check out rankings on The Princeton Review, which currently lists Ohio University as the biggest party school in the U.S. Arizona State University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison are also perennial party schools.

25. Alumni Network
If you want to stay connected to your fellow alumni no matter where life takes you, consider the size of a school’s alumni association. If life takes you around the world, it will be nice to know that you have connections, no matter where you go.

Additionally, a strong alumni network can help you find a job, and the network is essential in the job hunting process for some great career fields, such as finance. A strong alumni network can also help graduates find an apartment for rent in a new town, and provide advice on where to live or where to dine when you’re moving to a new city.

26. Demographics
Schools always publish demographics information, such as gender, race, and religion. If you have a particular preference, you won’t have to do much research to figure out what school would best suit you.

27. Transportation
Do the schools offer transportation around campus, as well as transportation to off-campus locations such as bookstores, apartments, and shopping? Consider the number of students who have cars on campus, as well as the costs and availability of campus parking. Parking can be a huge ordeal at some schools, causing many students a lot of frustration. On some campuses, first-year students cannot have cars on campus at all, without special permission.

28. Spirituality
If attending a school that follows your religious beliefs is important to you, closely study schools of interest to determine their level of involvement with students’ spirituality. Some schools require that students sign agreements related to their spirituality, or follow some sort of honor code, which might require that students abstain from drinking, or regularly attend church, among other things.

These schools will be staffed with professors and faculty who are like-minded, sharing many common religious beliefs. If you are not religious, you may not be comfortable signing a morality agreement or following an honor code, but you may still find a place in a school that has close ties to spirituality.

college students lawn

Financial Factors

29. Cost
Unless you already have a large college savings fund, cost is probably an important metric for you. Some prospective students may look at pricier schools, but for others, it’s important to afford college without taking out student loans. Remember to include room and board, along with tuition, when calculating the total costs for attending a school.

30. Financial Aid Qualification
Some schools are more likely to hand out student aid than others. If you know you will need help paying for college, look for schools that meet the needs of students requesting financial aid.

If you will need financial aid, closely examine the types of financial aid packages available to enrolled students. The school’s website may also provide details about the percentage of students who receive financial aid, and the average amount of financial aid students receive. Also, consider the number of students receiving college scholarships and grants, and review scholarship opportunities for schools to determine eligibility.

31. Working Students
Many college students work while they attend school, but some schools have a higher number of working students and encourage work more than others. Many schools also offer work-study opportunities for students in need of financial aid; the jobs offered by the schools can supplement loans and grants.

For example, Berry College in Northwest Georgia is known for having a large number of students who are employed, and offers hundreds of different jobs to students. On the other hand, some schools emphasize education first, and have no sympathy for students who also have to work.

32. Application Fees
Application fees can add up, especially if you plan to apply to a lot of schools. If money is a factor in the application process, you may want to pass on applying to a school with a high application fee, especially if the chances that you will get accepted and attend the school are small.

33. Graduating Class Indebtedness
The national average amount of debt for the graduating class of 2011 was $22,900. This is an ugly statistic, but be sure to look at how much debt the average graduate has accumulated for a particular school.

scholarship application

National College Rankings

In addition to looking at various metrics, you can also check out national rankings of colleges. Here are some of the most well-known national college rankings:

  1. US News. US News is one of the most well-recognized college ranking programs in the nation. US News changes the way they rank schools each year in an attempt to make the system better. But even if you do not agree with their method of ranking schools, the US News website can still be very useful because they have collected all the information for researching schools in one convenient location.
  2. Forbes. Similar to the US News college rankings, Forbes.com also puts out college rankings each year. The methodology for ranking colleges is similar to US News; there are about a dozen factors that go into the calculation. However, the Forbes list is significantly different than the US News list. In order to find the right college for you , consider the information included in the rankings to be more important than the rankings themselves.
  3. Bloomberg Businessweek. This list focuses on business schools, and Bloomberg uses a method similar to US News and Forbes to determine their rankings. If you plan on becoming a business student, this ranking is specifically designed with you in mind.

Tip: All of these websites now include an interactive table to customize your search for a school. You can create your own rankings from the results.

Final Word

Looking for the perfect college can be difficult, but you can simplify the process by focusing on important goals for your college career. Instead of analyzing each of these metrics for every college on your list, just pick the most important ones, based on your needs. It will take some time and effort on your part, but in the end, you’ll know that you picked the best college for you.

What metrics did you use to find a school? What was especially important for your college experience?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Casey Slide
Casey Slide lives with her husband and baby in Atlanta, GA. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for a prominent hospital in Atlanta. With the birth of Casey’s son in February 2010, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Casey’s interests include reading, running, living green, and saving money.

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  • Abby

    I made a spreadsheet for myself. Here are the columns I remember…

    University Name – Website – City – Province – City size – Campus size – M (major), N (minor), or 0 (neither) available for each program I was interested in taking at that time from Art History to Psychology – Size of entrance scholarship I’d be eligible for – Cost of tuition per semester – Cost of residence/an apartment – Percentage of international students – Percentage of freshmen who return – Maclean’s Magazine overall ranking – Extracurrics available…

    I had more, but I forget. I put every major university in Canada into the spreadsheet and

    Then, I ranked them all according to what I was looking for overall, and eliminated the bottom thirty or so until I had twenty. I added more factors, reconsidered each, chose which provinces I wanted to live in, etc, until I got my top five.

    Ended up getting accepted to my #1 choice, and I’m quite happy here in third year! :)

    • Abby

      *and then

      • Casey Slide

        Great idea, Abby! It’s a great idea to put the schools you are comparing up against each other like that in one handy spreadsheet. I’m glad you ended up happy with your decision! I really appreciate you sharing your story!

  • Anonymous

    As a college consultant, I think you have presented a great list of factors for students to consider when choosing a college. If more students evaluated prospective schools based on these factors, I believe they would find colleges that were a good fit for them. Finding schools that are a good match academically and personally for a student should be the goal for each of us who help kids with the college search and admission process.

  • Anonymous

    As a college consultant, I think you have presented a great list of factors for students to consider when choosing a college. If more students evaluated prospective schools based on these factors, I believe they would find colleges that were a good fit for them. Finding schools that are a good match academically and personally for a student should be the goal for each of us who help kids with the college search and admission process.

    • Casey Slide

      Thank you for your feedback! It’s good to hear from someone in the business!

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