5 Questions To Ask Before Deciding Where To Go To College

It’s crunch time for high school seniors poised to pick the college or university they’ll be heading off to later this year. Acceptance letters have been received, and now the ball is in their court: It is time to commit to a school. The deadline is May 1, which means things just got real for many students and their families.

Ultimately, it’s an informed gamble whether a dream college will turn out to be the stuff of nightmares. And given that the national average for students who don’t return to the same college after their freshman year is about 33 percent, there apparently is a lot of that going around. Here are some things that should be considered before hitting that “I accept” button at any school. 

1. Is your scholarship front-loaded?

Colleges use scholarships to lure the candidates they most want to attend. But once a student enrolls, things can change.

Schools have been known to offer a larger scholarships to incoming freshmen and then taper off that aid in subsequent years. The practice is so prevalent that it even has a name: front loading. Universities realize that as a sophomore, students will have vested themselves in the school ― made friends and formed connections ― and won’t want to leave just because their scholarship shrinks.

But if you are barely affording college as it is, or even if you just want to be prepared for what happens in subsequent years, it behooves you to ask how long your scholarship will be funded. Will it automatically renew or do you need to reapply? And if you have to reapply, is it like starting from scratch? You should probably also ask if it increases if tuition rises. Many don’t.

2. How long will it take to graduate?

Every school posts the percentage of students who graduate in four years and in six years. You can find the data at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website or on the school’s website.

Sadly, when it comes to higher education, six years is the new four years. Budget cuts have led to students not being able to enroll in all the classes needed for a particular degree, which results in extending their time in college. So when you consider how much attending a particular college will cost to get a degree, you need to consider how long it will take to graduate.

If it’s six years, that’s an extra two years of tuition, transportation, and housing and living expenses. Plus, the extra two years spent in school delay your entry into the job force. Your high school peers who graduated in four years and got jobs will be vying for promotions while you are still trying to land your first job. Your lifetime earnings can be affected, and you will likely incur more student debt.

There are some private schools that appear to be more expensive at face value. They start to look like a bargain, though, when you consider that they will graduate you in four years compared to another school that will take six years or more.

Some colleges now offer a four-year graduation promise, offering to not charge tuition if you can’t complete your courses to graduate within that time. All bets are off, though, if you switch your major mid-stream and have to take additional credits.

For guidance on how well your school does at graduating students, you can compare it to these stats: The four-year graduation rate for public schools averages 33 percent; for nonprofit private schools, it is 53 percent. Public schools graduate an average of 57 percent of students in six years, private schools 65 percent. 

3. What is the school’s post-graduation placement rate?

A major working assumption is that a college degree will help you get a better job. While your plumber may not agree, this has historically been the operating philosophy. 

One measure of how a school delivers on this can be found in its job placement or graduate school acceptance rate. What percentage of students have landed something in their chosen field within a year of graduation?

Since this information is required by federal law, you can find it on every college’s website.

4. How hard will it be to switch majors?

About a third of students attending four-year colleges change their major. Roughly one in nine actually change it twice, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. And among all majors, math students were the most likely to abandon their original major ― 52 percent ended up on a different career path.

Students changing majors in and of itself isn’t a big deal, according to Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a national college expert who runs the College Solution blog. “Why should 17- and 18-year-olds know what academic majors they want to pursue in college? Ideally that’s what college is going to help them explore,” she writes.

But it is a potentially huge deal if your school makes it hard to do. Some majors at large universities are impacted, meaning there are more qualified students than spots for each major. Some universities make it fairly easy to transfer majors within a college, so going from one engineering major to another may be possible. But what if you are a liberal arts major who wants to switch to engineering?

Depending on the extent of uncertainty about your career path, the ease with which you can change majors at a given school might be a factor worth considering. O’Shaughnessy noted that some parents encourage their student to attend a community college until they can figure things out.

5. Are you really prepared for a change of climate?

Picking a college far away means it is no longer just theoretical whether a kid from sunny California is really going to like living in rainy Portland. Nor can anyone predict if the Minnesota farm boy will actually thrive in New York City.

While it seems irrelevant to base your college choice on weather, it really isn’t. People make lifestyle decisions based on weather and climate all the time. It’s why New York snowbirds retire to Florida, why Las Vegas empties out in the summer, and why schools located in desirable vacation spots are especially attractive. Here’s looking at you, University of Hawaii.

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