The Other Factors to Consider When Exploring Colleges

Beyond prestige and ranking are the practical issues.

by Anne Vaccaro Brady

In previous posts, I’ve covered what makes a good college for your student, and how to pick a college. But there are some overlooked elements about a school that can greatly impact a student’s experience. Take these into account as your teen begins to research colleges.

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The program Learn about whether the major your student plans to study is established or brand new at a college. New programs sometimes take awhile to get fully staffed with course offerings limited the first year or two. Also find out if there’s any chance the program will be eliminated in the near future or if there have been any recent cutbacks. Read about the faculty and review the course list for the program at each school to compare them.

Also check out if a school offers an accelerated degree program in which a student earns his bachelor’s and graduate degrees in tandem, saving at least a year’s tuition and cutting off a couple of semesters of classroom time, while not diminishing his education.

Grad school Besides learning whether a college has an accelerated degree program, find out how many students go on to graduate school and where. If your student anticipates taking this path, she’ll want a college that can help her get there.

Certification issues For students interested in careers that require certification, such as teaching, it makes the most sense to look at colleges in the state where you plan to work because the exams are specific to that state. Colleges generally don’t prepare their students for another state’s requirements. I know several graduates who found themselves delayed in finding a full-time job because of this issue.

Merit/academic scholarships The most competitive colleges provide need-based aid and usually nothing more because they attract large numbers of high-achieving applicants. On her Road2College website, Debbie Schwarz explains how to find colleges that offer merit scholarships. Always check out if scholarships are for one year or guaranteed for four.

Academic calendar The majority of American colleges are on a semester system (two 15-week sessions), but some follow a trimester (three 10-week sessions) or quarter system (same as the trimester, but with an optional 10-week summer session). Though there are positives and negatives to each system, be aware that students not on the semester system tend to leave later for campus in the fall and return home later in the spring, putting their schedule out of sync with most of their friends. Finishing up in June instead of May can also put them at a disadvantage in gaining summer employment or an internship, or getting that first job after graduation.

Internship opportunities We all know that experience plays a key role in finding a job these days. Internships provide experience and help students decide if they’ve chosen the right career field. Your teen might want to look for colleges that require internships or emphasize that they assist students in securing one. Also explore the quality of a college’s alumni network.

college dorm1Housing It’s not just about the aesthetics and the age of the dorms, but about whether they’re co-ed (most are these days), and if that’s by room or floor. How comfortable is your student with communal bathrooms and does he want one roommate or several? Most colleges offer living-learning communities, residences where students share similar majors or a focus, and activities are designed around their interests. Some students prefer living with like-minded teens, but others want to create their own social experience. Also note if a college guarantees housing after freshman year.

The college town Colleges don’t all have to be in the heart of a major city or close to one, but there should be a community nearby where your student can find a store to buy her favorite snacks, pick up a tube of toothpaste, purchase an iTunes card or go bowling. My nephew attends a college where he and his friends ride their bikes into town to shop, eat or just get a change of scenery. It also helps when there’s cheap or free transportation to bring students on and off campus.

Aesthetics Some kids look for a school where all the buildings are shiny and new while others like the old stone covered in ivy. Some want the pastoral campus that includes a quad with lush green grass and trees lining intertwining walkways, and others prefer a college that’s clearly part of a city. Understand how these differences can shape your student’s experience.

The weekend Certain residential colleges can be considered commuter campuses because so many kids go home on weekends, making it a ghost town for the ones who stick around on Friday and Saturday. Make sure your teen understands the personality of a campus—this might mean talking with current or former students to learn the real deal.

amtrakTransportation Depending upon how far away your student wants to go to college, access to buses, trains and/or airplanes can be very important. If you don’t have the flexibility or ability to bring your kid to and from college during breaks, your student will need one of these transportation options, or at least a decent ride-sharing program.

Houses of worship If practicing her faith is important to your teen, she’ll want to find a college that gives her easy access to services either on or near campus. Even religious affiliated colleges, like Georgetown, have services and student organizations for many faiths. This information should be readily available on a college’s website.

Please share your thoughts on overlooked factors to consider when exploring colleges.

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