Despite all the hype about the 90-plus percent rejection rates of a few famous colleges, about half of all college applicants have been accepted by at least two colleges this spring.
That means hundreds of thousands of high school seniors have one more big hurdle to leap on their way to college–deciding among the schools that have accepted them.
If you’re one of them, how should you choose?
College counselors and researchers say too many families simply opt for the school with the most “prestige” without considering practicalities like costs, which can end up having devastating long-term repercussions on both parents and students.
“This is a decision that needs to be made with the heart and the head,” says Janet Rosier, a private educational consultant based in Connecticut.
Rosier and other experts say families should choose the college that offers the best combination of four factors. So check these out before you decide:
1. Academic quality
- Graduation rates. The percentage of freshmen who persevere and earn a bachelor’s degree from a school is generally considered to be one of the most important indicators of academic quality, since “we’ve learned over years that schools with higher graduation rates are doing something better” than similar schools with lower rates, says José Luis Santos, vice president of higher education policy and practice at the Education Trust. You can look up each school’s graduation rates for students of your gender and race at the Education Trust’s College Results site.
- Professor engagement. Research by Gallup shows that students are more likely to thrive if professors reach out and mentor them, so ask current students how much they interact with their instructors. Students who already know what they want to major in should check out their department, says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution. “The quality of education that a student will experience can be significantly different by department,” she says. “Students need to talk to upper division students in their intended major to see what their experience has been. Also read everything they can about the department and talk to professors.”
- Class style. Lectures, while traditional, are generally not the best way to teach, a growing body of research finds. Instead, experts such as Nobel-prize winning physicist Carl Wieman have found that students learn much more when teachers use “active” or “project-based” methods. Look for schools where professors have students form small groups to work on problems in class, or where students work on semester-long projects, such as, say, drafting possible solutions to real-world challenges facing a business or community.
- Net cost of a degree. Calculate your true net cost of earning a degree by subtracting out only grants and scholarships from the school’s total costs (including tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, etc.). Then look at the school’s four-year graduation rate (also available at College Results) to see whether most students end up paying for an extra semester or two, advises Peggy Jennings, an independent college admissions consultant in Carlisle, Pa. “An additional year of college can make a school that seems affordable suddenly the opposite,” she warns.
- Debt load. Take a few minutes to estimate how much you are likely to owe upon graduation. Unless a student is highly likely to enter a very lucrative field, any student debt over the standard federal maximum of $31,000 should raise a warning flag. The federal government’s repayment plans allow you to cap your payments at 10% of your disposable income. Onerous debt payments can significantly reduce a new graduate’s well-being Gallup’s research found.
- Activities. Gallup’s research shows that students who get deeply involved in at least one activity, such as a sport or club, are much more likely to thrive in and after college. So, if you haven’t already, investigate the school’s extracurricular offerings to see if any catch your interest.
- Social fit. A supportive environment can help students through rough patches. One way to assess how comfortable you’d be is to visit the college to “check out the vibe to see if it fits your personality,” Jennings advises.
4. Career assistance
- Internship initiatives. While colleges aren’t trade schools, graduates do need to earn a living. And research shows that students who’ve had at least one paid internship have a much easier time landing jobs after leaving school. So look for career services offices that actively help students land those all-important trial jobs.
- Alumni network. Job seekers who get assistance from current employees tend to have a leg up during the application process. So Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director for education and workforce development, urges students to seek out colleges that “demonstrate deep alumni involvement in their career services: Lots of alumni actively working as mentors or connect with students.”
What if you’ve followed all these steps but are still having a hard time choosing? Relax and go with your gut. Within the range of good schools, what matters more is your enthusiasm than any particular aspect of the college, Gallup’s research shows. “It’s not where you go, but how you do it,” Busteed explains.