Tip: Read on for our choosing a college checklist — and be sure to check out our applying for college checklist, preparing for college checklist and affording college checklist, too.
Deciding where to pursue higher education — whether at a traditional four-year college or a two-year community college, trade school or certification program — is an understandably overwhelming prospect for students and their parents. That’s where a choosing a college checklist of key questions comes in handy.
That’s because this big decision also can spark enlightening conversations between you and your soon-to-be high school grad.
After all, attending college is about more than just picking a place that offers your child’s chosen major (he’ll likely change his mind at least twice, anyway). It’s also about opening the door to possibilities.
Review these questions with your child to start narrowing down her college choices.
1. How much does it cost to attend?
This is probably the most important question on the choosing a college checklist — and one of the most difficult. No one likes talking about money, but your high schooler needs to understand how much college will cost, how much you might be able to help contribute to these costs and how much he might be awarded in various scholarships.
There are several college cost calculators available online, but to get a true sense of the cost of college, go directly to the website of the prospective college your student would like to attend.
Look at the cost breakdown on the college’s website and then consider having your child meet with her high school college counselor to review these costs.
Many schools offer a variety of scholarships, some based on merit and others on need. There may be other discounts the college will offer your student — her counselor may be able to provide information about how some of the costs can be defrayed and/or who you should contact at the school admissions office to ask for more details.
2. What area of study are you planning to pursue?
If your child is set on becoming a nurse, he’ll want to make sure the school he’s attending has a nursing program. Or, if she wants to go into music therapy, that will help narrow down her college choices.
Even if your child hasn’t decided on a major, she’ll want to check that her prospective college has majors and areas of study in fields that she’s likely to go into.
3. How important is the size of the school?
Large universities can give students a sense of anonymity, which may be appealing to some students and disheartening for others.
If your child thrives in crowds and doesn’t mind some larger class sizes, then he might want to opt for a large university whose student population is the equivalent of a small town. Or, maybe your student excels when she’s in a smaller class with plenty of one-on-one time with a professor.
College and university student populations vary widely. For example, the University of Michigan’s total undergraduate population is just shy of 30,000 while Michigan State University nearly reaches 40,000. At Kettering University, a private institution in Flint, and Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, the undergraduate population is under 2,000.
4. Does your child want to stay in-state or out-of-state?
The answer to this question on the choosing a college checklist may already be resolved by finances. Attending an in-state college can offer some deep discounts for prospective students.
For example, for the 2018-19 school year, an out-of-state student attending the University of Michigan will be spending $49,350 in tuition and fees, whereas a student who’s a Michigan resident will be paying $15,262 (keep in mind, these are the estimated general tuition figures and don’t account for scholarships and aid).
You’ll also save costs in airline fare and other travel expenditures if your child is attending an in-state college where it’s closer to home.
That’s not to say your child should rule out attending an out-of-state college altogether based on costs. Again, colleges offer a variety of financial aid and scholarships to students that can bring the cost of attending down.
5. What is your child looking for in the school culture?
Is your child looking forward to attending sports games each weekend and sitting in a packed stadium of thousands to cheer on her team? Or is he more interested in having a laid-back, serene campus setting?
If possible, the best way to answer this question is for your student to visit the college campus and get a tour of the facilities. She’ll learn firsthand whether the college may be a good fit for her or not.
“The biggest thing I wish families would do together is getting on a college campus and sign up for tours,” says Berkley High School counselor Robyn Weiss, M.Ed., MA, LPC.
After all, a college that looks good on paper or online may feel quite a bit different once your student has a chance to walk the campus for herself.
“Those visits will help families figure out whether that college might be a good fit. And even if it’s not, it’s a springboard into asking questions about choosing a college.”
6. Would your child prefer to be in a big city, small town – or something in between?
This is a key piece of the choosing a college checklist that can be easy to overlook – but it’s crucial.
The University of Chicago’s campus lies right in the heart of downtown Chicago. And Wayne State University has downtown Detroit as its backdrop.
Compare that to Albion College in Albion, with a population around 8,000, and it’s quite a difference.
Some students are looking for a city in their college’s backyard, while others want a more small-town feel for their university experience. Besides the decision of city versus small town, there may be other considerations like whether your student wants to attend a school near a certain kind of setting.
For example, maybe your student wants a college that’s near a beach, ski resort, national park or some other type of destination.
7. What are the graduation rates of the school your child is looking to attend?
Once you’ve zeroed in on your top college choices, take a deeper dive into graduation rates and other indicators that students at the school go onto succeed. For example, what is the school’s four-year graduation rate? Five-year? And take a look at how many freshmen return to school their sophomore year.
You’ll also want to consider how many students are getting jobs after graduation. Does the school have career services to help students find work? What about internships and other programs that can open the door to a fulfilling career post-graduation?
8. Has your child tapped into tools to narrow down choices?
The best resource for students looking to develop their list of prospective colleges is usually right at their high school.
Counseling departments are staffed with counselors ready to assist students in thinking through the careers they might want to pursue and which colleges will give them the best chance of success in that field.
Many schools also offer online programs that make college readiness easier. For example, some schools use Naviance, an online system that guides students through their options. It also provides students with career exploration and other tools to help them plan.
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.