Where should I go to college? Thousands of seniors across the United States are asking that question right now. And one of them is in my house! Our youngest child is in the process of applying to college. Since this is our third round, I’ve learned a few things going through this process. If you’re as old as I am, you might be shocked to learn that most kids these days apply to between 6 – 12 colleges. If you don’t know where to begin, through my research and experience I’ve got a few guidelines to help get started with a college application list that won’t end up with your kid living in your basement after graduation.
First, some disclaimers. I am not a college application expert, but parents who know I have kids in college often ask me about the college application process. I don’t claim that the information I give is perfect, but it’s what I tell my own kids and friends who ask. (And probably even some who don’t ask, as anything even touching on the subject of high school class selection and college is likely to set me off on some long rant with way more detail than anyone wants.)
Ideally this conversation should be directed at the students themselves. But usually it’s the parents who ask me questions, so that’s who this post is addressed to. If you are reading this post as a student, then bravo! You are going to do well in life no matter where you go to college! Using “student” everywhere just seemed to impersonal, so please excuse my referring to you as a “kid” or “child” when you are obviously more mature than that. But even in your maturity, you may be overwhelmed by choice when it comes to college, and I hope these guidelines help.
College choices are often not made on a strictly factual and quantifiable basis. And in fact, not everything that’s important is quantifiable. But, looking at some data can help narrow down choices. It also includes some information that I wish I had known when I chose my college and my degree.
What is the main purpose of college?
There are many functions that college can serve when it comes to furthering a high school education. But the most important is to provide a student with a means to starting a career that they will find fulfilling and contribute to society, with a salary and debt level that will allow them to be an independent adult after graduation.
Simply put, the most important question is: After you graduate from college will you be an independent adult?
What about attending an Ivy League school?
This advice also naturally has some personal biases. Even though our kids were well-qualified, we did not feel the need (or wish to spend or borrow the money) for any of our kids to go to an “elite” college. We still feel they are attending excellent universities. I’ve had not one, but two, friends with Harvard University degrees tell me that a lot of their Harvard professors weren’t any good. An engineer at an elite research facility told me, “I’ve worked with a lot of Ivy League graduates, including my husband, and I don’t know what’s so special about them.”
I do acknowledge that going to an elite school, and by elite I mean only about the top dozen colleges and universities, can have some advantages. I think they can get students internships at powerful companies, even as freshmen. At most other universities you’re going to have to hustle on your own to get internships before your junior year. And at elite universities you can sometimes fall into friendships with other students that have easy access to venture capital and business contacts, that can lead to very lucrative business deals. I know people who have benefited from both of these advantages. But I also know lots of people with Ivy League educations that are in approximately the same socio-economic position as we are. (And while we do both have advanced degrees, neither I nor my husband have degrees from “elite” universities.)
If your child must attend an elite school no matter what the cost, this information is not for you.
If you want your kid to go to an excellent college, and graduate with a job that will be fulfilling and have an income that allows them to be an independent adult, then that’s the end goal of these guidelines.
Again, I don’t claim to be an expert, but this is what I told my own kids. And this is what I tell friends who ask where to start on the college selection process.
Where should you start with making a college application list?
Should you start with a college ranking list?
For the most part, college rankings are junk. Colleges spend money to improve their rankings, and sometimes the ranking goes to the highest bidder. I have gone into it before, so I won’t dig into all the ways these college lists are manipulated here. Are these colleges good? Yes. But is college 20 any better than college 30? No.
But you can look at about the top hundred – not twelve, not twenty – but anything in the top 100 colleges in any college ranking system, to get some colleges and universities to start with. There are at least three major college ranking lists, probably more. And no, it doesn’t mean anything if a college is on two of those lists and not the third.
Add colleges you know to have good reputations
Then, on the basis of word of mouth alone, add in what you’ve heard to be the top one or two flagship universities for your state. And a couple of private colleges out of the top five private colleges in your state. These are just for comparisons and a place to start. (Disclaimer – My own kids go to these types of universities.)
How likely is an applicant to get into a college or university?
Rhetoric is so prevalent that most kids (and parents) are afraid that their odds of getting into any “good” college is low even with stellar grades and classes. This is what has them scared silly into taking a ton of AP or IB classes. Want to know why kids apply to so many colleges these days? That’s why. But this actually only applies to a small number of elite colleges.
Here are some rough guidelines about how you can guess whether someone can get into a school or university. Not tested, but based on tons of research and the experiences of friends and family.
Make sure you have a couple of colleges on your list that have about at least a 50% acceptance rate.
See if your student is above the average standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) and class rank for last year’s freshman class. If that’s the case, then they’re almost certain to get in. Actually, that is probably true for any university that has at least a 30% acceptance rate. And if only one of those numbers is correct, they’re still highly likely to get in.
These schools are probably not going to care how many AP or IB classes the student took in high school, or which ones, so long as they have a college bound diploma (whatever the requirements are in your state) and worked hard enough to get a GPA (whatever your mix of classes and bumps given by your school to AP classes) that puts them in a class rank similar or above their average admitted freshman. Note that some schools DO know the schools in their area that have killer class ranking based on demographics and will make allowances for that. So class rank is not an all or nothing number.
If the acceptance rate of a college is below 30%, then that’s probably about when they will start caring how many and what AP and IB classes a student took. These are the colleges and universities you’ve heard about, that along with the College Board scare all the kids into taking on a workload of super-human proportions while they are still children.
Another tip off as to which schools these are? These will be the same colleges that require the high school counselor fill out a school information sheet for the school as a whole. Then the counselor will have to fill out paperwork to rank each individual student applicant on whether or not they took as rigorous a class load as the top students at their school. And I strongly suspect admission will also depend on how familiar a school counselor is with filling out these forms with what the elite schools want to hear.
In addition, these elite schools will require applicants to submit additional subject SAT scores administered by the College Board (not to be confused with AP subject test scores, also sold by the College Board.)
After that, no matter what the level of grades, class rank, or score, it will be a matter of luck whether or not someone gets in. Just accept that for what it is. You’re buying a lottery ticket for your application fee. Most, if not all, of the students who apply to these schools will have all the correct numbers to be a student at these schools.
If your kid lucks out, celebrate, but then be sure to examine the rest of the criteria below. And be sure you have other colleges on the list that won’t require luck.
Find out if a college has degrees in the student’s chosen major
This may seem obvious, but this is just the start of some more steps.
If your student knows what they want to major in, then the process of selecting a college is easier. But if they don’t know, don’t despair. I have a few posts on deciding on a major, but if they still can’t decide that’s okay. Pick 2 or 3 majors they think they might, possibly – meaning they don’t gag at the thought of it – be interested in, and look for schools that have those majors available.
Find out how big the department is that they want to major in.
We gave serious consideration to our son applying to a small liberal arts college. Then we found out that, at most, all of the small liberal arts colleges only had one or two professors in his chosen major. We moved on to bigger schools.
Find out if you can switch majors at a college or university
Either way, decided college major or undecided, one of the most important things to find out is how easy it is to switch majors at the college. At elite universities, or even large public universities with elite majors, it can be next to impossible to switch after your admitted.
At large universities, it can be difficult to switch to certain majors. At some, you have to apply to both the university and also directly to your chosen departments. This means you can get into the university, but still not be able to major in your chosen field of study. If this is the case, it may indicate that once you’re in the university it will be nearly impossible to change majors. The best way to find out this information is to ask people who attend there. If you don’t know anyone, then when you go on your college visit, ask absolutely every student you can get to stop and give you the time of day if they switched majors and if they could have switched to anything they wanted. And if just about every student you approach isn’t willing to talk to you, I would cross that college off my list. Because in all our college visits, I didn’t meet a single student who wasn’t thrilled to talk to prospective students.
At small liberal arts colleges, only a limited number of majors will be available.
In either case, colleges that are too small or big universities with restricted majors, if you want to change majors you are likely going to have to transfer. Better a wasted year of college than a wasted life, but still not an easy option.
Decided or undecided, pick between 2-3 majors and then move on to the following criteria.
Find out employment information for recent graduates with different majors at colleges before you apply
This often is not on their website and is going to be difficult to dig up. Sometimes you’ll be able to get it directly from the departments. Sometimes they will have no idea. This can be a bad sign, or not. But in any case it indicates a college who’s not too concerned about whether or not you can make a living after you graduate. In either case, your next stop will be the career department. Note that the career department will not be included on your campus tour. You will probably have to find it on your own.
Find out the employment rate for recent graduates
Here are some things to watch for. At every college we visited they would give out an over 90% placement rate – for the ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT. If you’re not going to major in engineering, don’t even pay attention to that number.
The difference between placement rate and employment rate
Also notice when they say “placement rate.” That rate will include both students who get jobs within a few months of graduation as well, as students who have been accepted to graduate or professional schools.
Employment rate + Graduate School Acceptance Rate = Placement Rate
Why do universities use placement rate? Well, the obvious. The placement rate will always be higher. But while it may be arguably more accurate in some ways, it also allows colleges to hide something.
There are two reasons for students to go on to graduate school. The reason colleges and universities will tell you is that a graduate degree or professional degree is required for some careers, like law.
Colleges and universities won’t tell you the second reason students go to graduate school: They can’t get a job with their undergraduate degree! From my experience and research, this even includes graduates who completed difficult and time consuming majors, like degrees in the natural sciences or in mathematics. If the numbers of students going on to further school is greater than the number who leave school with jobs, research further. This can include checking the salaries of those who do get jobs and whether their jobs are actually related to their major.
No good undergraduate job prospects fora chosen major no matter what the school? A student might consider minoring in that subject instead, or add a minor with good employment prospects. That way when they graduate they have choices between jobs and graduate school. (But don’t let them load up with too majors and minors and too many classes.)
Find out which companies hire the college’s graduates
Try to find out the names of companies where graduates were hired in the last five years. This information will be even harder to find, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. At the very least, ask for lists of the companies that have come to their career fairs in the last year.
Need to take a certification test like a CPA exam or the MCAT or LSAT?
Undergraduate schools should be able to tell you their students’ average scores and passing rate.
Plan to go to graduate school or professional school after college?
Find out the acceptance rates for graduates from the undergraduate school. Schools should also be able to tell you where most of their students go on for professional schools.
Know the graduate school or professional school you want to go to? Find out where students at that school got their undergraduate degrees. (Not every Harvard Law school student has an undergraduate Harvard degree.)
On top of delaying your earning years, a lot of school debt is graduate and professional school debt. Know your possible total debt for BOTH your graduate and undergraduate degrees before you start. That’s also a good reason to make sure that you can get a job at the end of four years, if you decide further education will require too much debt. That leads me to my next college selection criteria.
How much college debt should you take on?
The best answer is “none”. That was a big factor in deciding where our kids went to college. (In addition to our college savings, they also have merit scholarships, more on that later.) But given the outrageously ridiculous cost of college and the enormous (and under-reported) college debt in this country, that is not likely to be a practical answer for you. It is true that low income students can get some really good scholarships, especially from private and elite schools (because elite schools have big endowments). But not only will it probably surprise you how much you are expected to pay based on your income level, but there is also the cost of living (room and board) that are likely not covered.
I recently realized that while our own kids will graduate with no debt, it’s very likely they will marry someone with college debt. So, just in case one of your kids marries one of mine, here are some things I’d like you to think about.
How long will it take to pay off college debt?
How long will it take you or your child to pay off the debt? Notice that answering this question will require you to know a likely salary upon graduation. (See above.) Look up the cost of living for a few cities or towns your child would like to live in. Don’t agonize over this, just pick three places in different types of the country. The Wall Street Journal has some good articles with examples of real recent college graduates and how they’re able to get by.
Don’t try to take a short cut and look at the “average student debt” a university says their students graduate with. Colleges like to make a big deal out of that number, but it includes kids like mine, that graduate with no debt. And I’ve also found out that there are ways to manipulate these numbers, like waiting until after graduation to transfer debt from parents to students so that students graduate with lower debt than they live with.
Colleges have a lot of incentives for you to take on debt. First of all, they get more money up front. And this doesn’t just pay for your professors, but also for the administrator salaries. (Salaries that are way higher than you are going to make upon graduation, or probably even ever in your life. And there are also more college administrators than there used to be.) On top of that, you should also know that colleges can make money off of students taking out loans from the banks they recommend. (They get more money if you take out a loan than if you pay cash.)
Calculate YOUR debt and YOUR possible salary with YOUR possible major. Because while your college experience will always be with you, for an unfortunate number of people, so will their college debt.
Know that your college debt will never, never, never go away unless you pay it off. You can’t sell it for a profit, like a house. You can’t even sell it for a loss, like a car. It doesn’t even go away if you declare bankruptcy!
Now look at the amount of debt you think your kid will end up with. Will it take 30 years to pay it off? That might be fine for a mortgage for a house you can sell, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for educational debt. Because then they are likely to still be paying off their own debt when it’s time for their kids go to college.
I have seen that you can handle college debt that you can pay off in 10 years. But I think that’s too high. I’m not a financial expert, but let’s just look at it in practical terms. Ten years to pay off college debt means that you could have the responsibility of young children, want to buy a house, SHOULD be already saving for retirement, and still be paying off college loans.
Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t advise my kids take on college debt any higher than what they can reasonably pay off in 5 years. (If you think that sounds too low, don’t forget they might marry someone with 10 or even 30 year debt.)
If you do have to take on debt, be sure to read the fine print. Some loans don’t start charging interest until after graduation. I thought this was the standard, but it’s not! Some college loans start charging interest the instant you take out the loan, and it builds up until you start making the first payments when the student graduates. As far as I know, for both types of loans it doesn’t matter if you have a job, just that you graduate or drop out of school. From what I’ve read, if you can get government loans they are usually better than private loans. But not everyone qualifies.
Whatever loan you take out, be sure to make the calculation of how much money it will cost you to take out the loan. In other words, not just the total amount of debt but the total amount of money that will flow out of your pocket or your kid’s pocket by the time the loan is payed off. That will be the real cost of the education.
KNOW THAT THE AMOUNT OF DEBT YOU WILL BE EXPECTED TO TAKE ON CAN CHANGE EVERY YEAR. Colleges will recalculate how much financial aid you qualify for every. Single. Year.
Yep, every year you have to fill out the dreaded FAFSA and plead any unusual circumstances that you had to plead for freshman year. Unless parents go bankrupt, get a divorce, or lose their jobs, freshman year is likely to be your best financial aid.
College in state or out of state?
All of my kids have gone to college within 4-6 hours of where we live. (It’s Texas, so I fully realize that this could be out of state for some of you.) Whether to go in-state or out-of state is a personal decision. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Most are intangible and get down to preference, but here are some things to consider.
Unless you go to a very elite university, job recruiters are likely to be more local. In other words, go to college where you think you want to live. We’re just talking odds here, not absolutes.
When you look at colleges that are a plane ride away, don’t forget to factor in travel costs. In the experience of people I know, this is not just a plane ticket for the student twice a year. This is not just the cost of student plane tickets for holidays. This also includes the cost of plane tickets for one or both parents during moving – which is twice a year. And extra suitcases added to plane tickets. This can also include storage of college stuff over the summer. Or the cost of replacing things like comforters and pillows every year because the cost of storing them or flying them is too high. And/or the cost of taking off work to drive across the country for two or three days, especially if the student is going to need a car at college.
One other thing that I’ve learned from the experience of others, it’s more difficult to get medical care for your children if they are in a different state. Prescriptions, medical tests, and psychiatric care often can’t cross state lines. Finding in-network doctors and emergency care can be even worse. Check your insurance and the rules of the college’s state.
That said, plenty of our friends have a child going to college out of state and the second one also goes out of state. It’s just nice to know what you’re getting into.
Should you pick a college where you will depend on scholarships to pay for college?
By all means, take every scholarship your kid can get. But here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
The best and biggest scholarships are likely to come from the school itself. Look at the school’s scholarship web pages.
Pick a school where you can most afford even if your student loses or decides to drop their scholarship.
What about athletic scholarships?
Most athletic scholarships are partial scholarships. And they require long practice hours. One of my kids’ friends has a partial scholarship in a low profile sport, and she misses two days of class almost every week.
Your kid might get injured and lose your scholarship. If you don’t want them to have to change schools and add to the agony of the injury, pick a school that is reasonable to attend regardless of the scholarship. For more advice on athletic scholarships check out DIYCollegeRankings.com.
Read the fine print on academic scholarships
Academic scholarships often come with a minimum required GPA. Pay attention to what happens if you don’t meet that GPA. Our son ended up with a fantastic National Merit Scholarship from his school and the GPA requirement looked difficult but doable. Until it turned out that his school has switched to an A- grading system without changing the required minimum GPA set years ago. That meant that his required GPA was higher than an A-, no matter what major. For an engineering major that has turned out to be very stressful. Now, life is full of stress and you have to learn how to handle it. But like the ridiculous hours of homework endemic in our race to get all of our kids into elite colleges, sometimes the requirements become unrealistic. Use this to compare different scholarships at different universities.
Don’t count on getting more scholarships as an upperclassman
Every college you visit will tell you that they have scholarships that your kid can apply for after they start attending. But unless the scholarships are need based, requirements to get those few scholarships (relative to the number of students) is high. For example, in one of my child’s majors, freshmen had to make all A’s their first semester of college to even qualify to apply for the current student merit scholarships.
Other ways to help with college costs
You can get on campus jobs. Availability and pay at different schools will vary so this is another thing to consider. Some of the jobs that pay the best are residential advisers. I have reasons to suspect that these are more plentiful at private universities, but ask.
Evaluate the degree plans
Once you’ve found some colleges that you like that you can afford, take a closer look at their degree plan for your chosen major.
For the same major, different colleges will require a different number of hours. This is really hard to grasp as a high school student, but basically college classes are measured in hours. So the number of hours required for a degree indicates the number of classes you are required to take before you graduate.
Look at the number of elective hours you are allowed to take for your chosen major. Our oldest two kids go to the same college, different majors. One of my kids has no electives. I don’t count getting to choose the science or math class you get to take as an elective. Required classes (including required electives) are often huge classes that are lower level survey classes (like English 101) that may or may not be any good. They are full because most of the students are forced to take them, not because the teachers have a reputation of being interesting. Our other kid is in a special degree program and half of her hours are electives. She gets to choose half of her classes, whatever she wants to take.
Pay attention to other campus factors that might not seem important
One mom I know thought it was silly that her son declared he was going to go to the school with the best food. But I think this is a great idea! Qualify of food can affect how you feel and, more importantly, your health. I think it also shows how much a college cares about the well-being of its students.
How much is housing? What is housing like? You might not ever use that fancy climbing wall. but you’re going to have to sleep in your dorm room every night. Again, it might not feel important to parents, but I think it’s another measure of how much a college cares about their students. Sure, our grandparents lived without air-conditioning, but their parents didn’t have it either. (And it turns out my grandmother may not have had air-conditioning in college, but she did have laundry service and a room cleaning service.) If you have allergies or other health issues this can be more than just an inconvenience. Another thing to consider is that housing costs can be significantly more expensive in big cities. If you’re going to a state university, housing can be as much or more than half the cost of your tuition.
How nice are the buildings for your major? That might sound superficial, but it is sometimes an indication of how successful alumni are with that degree. Money isn’t everything, but you don’t want to pay a high price tag for a degree that’s not worth much.
The final decision: Where should your kid go to college?
Now, did we take all these steps on every school our kids applied to? Not exactly. Do I feel like we should have? Yeah. I was a stellar perfectionistic student, after all. But, as long as you even are aware of these differences, you start to get a feel for graduate results and cost of the degree. It can also help you to choose one school over another. And if you have hard numbers on what you can afford, it’s better to go in aware of the amount of debt you’ll acquire, than get surprised bill after you graduate.
Choosing which colleges to apply to is not a straight path. But if you look at degrees available, chances of getting accepted, graduate job outcome, and real cost (not sticker price) for you, it can help put some bumpers on the road.