It is that time in your life! You are anxiously awaiting those college acceptance letters. You are hoping that your SAT (or ACT) scores, college essays, community service activities, and your high school grades are enough to get you accepted into the college of your choice. A number of people have probably told you an acceptance letter from the right university (or universities) can be a gateway to a life of increased confidence, increased financial earnings, access to influential people, and increase employability. However, what you may not have been told is that these letters can just as easily have the opposite effect. Most often, students like yourself make the decision on which school to attend based on where your friends are going, the reputation of the school, the school your parents attended, or based on the success of the university’s athletic program. However, so much more needs to be taken into consideration.

Since athletics strongly influences many students’ decisions, let us consider, for example, the decisions a college bound football player has to make. A football player may have to decide whether he wants to play at a division I or II college, whether he wants to play for a team that features the triple option or a west coast offense, whether he wants to play in a 3-4 defense or a 4-3. He also has to consider the reputation of head coaches at the universities he is considering and probably most important he has to consider how much playing time will he receive. There are many factors to consider that could affect his chances of becoming an NFL. You may not be thinking about a future career as an NFL player but the decision on university you will attend is just as important. Your choice can have serious implications on the rest of your life.

As a college graduate that has earned 4 college degrees over 17 years and as a college professor that has taught at 3 different colleges/universities, I have seen students make both the right and wrong decision when it comes to choosing the university that is the best match for them. Similar to a college bound football player, you need to ask and answer a few questions that will help you choose the right college and will assist you in meeting your career goals. Here are the questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Am I ready? – Timing is very important. Going to college when you are not ready can be detrimental. Students that attend college when they are not ready receive poor grades and often flunk out of school. One thing I always tell my students is this; I cannot teach you if you are not ready to learn. When you are ready you should enter school at that time. You should attend college because you are ready to learn not because of outside pressures. If yo do not enter college when you are ready, you are wasting your time and money.
  2. What am I hoping my degree will do for me long-term? If you have applied to a school already, you most likely have chosen your major. However, is that major right for you? Will you be able to make a decent living? What job opportunities are available for that major? As a college bound student these are critical questions to ask. When all is said and done, it is all about survival. That is not to say that you should avoid your passion because you may not be able to make a living, but instead to say, have a back-up plan. We tell aspiring athletes always to have a back-up plan. So, if you are in a major where the jobs are few and far between or the pay is usually low, make sure you have a back-up.
  3. Do I know where I am going? You must know the school you are attending before you make a final decision. In academics probably the most important factor to consider about a school is their accreditation. Most traditional (state universities and nonprofit private) colleges/universities have institutional accreditation from a regional accrediting board(Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western). Regional accreditation is considered to be the highest form of accreditation attainable for an educational institution. Look for it because it can have great implications on a future career as some employers will only hire students that attended regionally accredit schools. Furthermore, some grad schools will only recognize degrees from regional accredited Universities. In addition to regional accreditation, many schools/colleges/departments within a university may be subject accredited by other organizations. One example is Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). They accredit engineering and technology programs for universities around the world. They are considered to be the premier accreditation board for all engineering majors and are highly regarded in industry. Because of this, many technical companies will only hire graduates from ABET accredited programs. Here is a list of some of the major subject accrediting boards for undergraduate programs:

    So, do your homework. Seek regional accredited institutions first and then verify that your area of study has also been accredited by a reputable accreditation program if you want to maximize your career options.

  4. What is in the name of a school? Because a school has the word Technology or Polytechnic, or the acronym A&M (Agricultural and Mechanical) or A&T (Agricultural and Technology) in their name, it does not mean they are limited to offering technology, mechanical, or agricultural majors. Similarly, if a university does not have these words in the name it does not mean they do not have technology, agricultural, or mechanical majors. Therefore, before you dismiss a school from your choices, see if they have the major you are interested in pursuing.
  5. What type of student am I? So were you the type of student that extra needed of help in high school or the type that needs an occasional nudge from a parent? Or were you the type that was self motivated and got good grades? The answer to these questions will determine the type of school you should initially attend. Universities and colleges are broken into two main categories teaching and research universities. Research schools are further categorized into a tier ranking system by The Center for Measuring University Performance. Tier 1 research universities are universities who’s main focus is on performing research. Tier 2 schools are less focused on research, while tier 3 and 4 focus even less on research and more on teaching. Teaching institutions usually do not grant degrees above Masters degrees. These schools include junior colleges. If you require a nudge or you need extra help, teaching schools and lower tier research schools may be much more suited for you as an future undergrad student. At these institutions, professors are focus less on research and therefore can often be found outside of class for additional assistance.
  6. How much can I afford to pay? An additional question you should ask is, what am I receiving for my money? Notice, I never asked how much is tuition. That is because it is more important to know what you will be coming out of pocket for, if you can afford it, and finally are the services worth it.Over the past few decades, the cost of the average college tuition has increased faster than inflation. More than any college student before you, you have to consider how much you are spending on a college education. Determining the correct answers to these questions are tough.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Compare cost of tuition vs. the tangible and the intangible value a school returns. Intangible value could include a school’s rankings, accreditation by reputable organizations, and networking opportunities.
  • If you need private student loans you are attending a school that is too expensive for you. DO NOT take private student loans. Doing so is the financial equivalent to tying an anchor to your neck and jumping into deep water.
  • If you need student loans to attend college, you should never require nor request the maximum allowed student loans for any given semester. If you need the maximum allowable student loans for any semester to pay your tuition, the school you plan to attend is too expensive for you. Find another school. Student loans MUST be paid. You cannot file for bankruptcy and escape them. So you should never take more than you need and you should never need the maximum for any given semester to pay for tuition and school fees.
  • Consider cheaper options like junior colleges. They are a great place to begin that will help you save money. They are cheaper alternatives than public universities, non-profit private universities and are significantly cheaper than for-profit private universities. In many cases, you can start at a regionally accredited junior college and transfer all your credits to a public university and save a ton. At the end of it all, your Bachelors degree will be from the university you eventually transfer to and no one will be much the wiser that you began at a junior college.

Before you make your final decision, consider the information above. Your professional and personal life wellness depends on it.

These are my suggestions. What have you found that students should consider before making a final decision?