Choosing the right college can feel overwhelming. There are more than 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States according to the National Center for Education Statistics - each with different perks, programs and amenities.
Some of the primary factors that may influence this decision are cost, geography, the types of programs that institutions offer and their admissions standards. College counseling centers and consulting firms can offer guidance. Friends and colleagues may have advice, and there's an abundance of online and print literature to help understand what specific colleges have to offer.
Remember to focus on helping your child prioritize their interests and needs, and that there may not be one perfect choice. That way, you can help relieve some of the pressure that’s part of the decision-making process and increase the likelihood of your child finding a good match.
What does your child want?
Does your child want to study engineering or art? Do they want to stay close to home or explore further afield? Does your child thrive in a small-school environment? Are school sports and spirit important? Do they want to go to college in an urban environment or study in a small town or rural area? Does your child mind a cold winter, or do they want to be in sunny location?
These are all considerations that can help your child narrow choices quickly. Have your child make a list of what they want in a school, and let them prioritize the must-have and nice-to-have features that are important to them. Then, start looking at schools that fit most, if not all, of the criteria.
Public or private?
Staying in-state at a public college is a good option for many students. Your state taxes are already subsidizing the tuition for those schools, and your child's travel expenses will likely be much lower. Remember that attending a state school in an area that isn't your primary state of residence may cost as much as a private school; these schools can charge out-of-state students higher tuition. Analyze tuition and other costs carefully.
Consider whether your child has the academic, sports or other achievements to earn a scholarship. Paying back college debt can take a long time and divert money that can be used for other purposes, including retirement. Even a partial scholarship can help relieve this burden.
Don't rule out a school just because it has a high sticker price. Some schools are committed to meeting every student's financial needs for college, whether in the form of a scholarship, work-study program or loan - or a combination of the three.
Some students find that going to a junior or community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school can help save on tuition and other costs. The quality of many of these schools is strong, and they offer many of the same introductory classes your child would take at a four-year school early on.
Several cities have multiple junior colleges. Review their course guides and see how easy a junior college makes it to transfer credits to your child’s desired four-year school; some universities may not accept all transfer credits from a junior college, while others may have agreements with local junior colleges to accept all transfer credits from the two-year school.
Talk to a counselor
Skilled high school guidance counselors may suggest schools that fit your child's interests and your budget that you may have overlooked. You can also hire an outside consultant who can provide even more detailed information about schools and admissions and even help with the application process.
Attending college fairs and individual presentations by colleges can also help in your search. You and your child should take advantage of the opportunity to ask lots of questions about its programs, extra-curricular activities, life on campus and anything else of interest. You may learn about schools you didn’t know existed before and be able to cross some off your list.
Visit the school
If possible, visit the school while it's in session and take a campus tour. Speak with current students and have your child sit in on a class or two. Some schools arrange overnight dorm visits where your child will get a better understanding of what it’s like to go to the school, and talk to students in a casual setting.
Choosing the right college can be difficult, but weighing the most important issues carefully can lead to a happy and productive experience for your child. Because you'll likely be the one paying most of the tuition, it's good to have an investment and savings plan. Use our college savings calculator to help you gauge how much you need to save, and then contact Nationwide for more information about investment products and services that can help financially prepare your family for college.