Holding multiple college acceptance letters in your hand, you take a moment to marvel at these glorious tokens of survival. You have not only officially made it through agonizing gauntlet known as the admissions process but you have emerged triumphant. For students with an acceptance letter from their clear-cut number one school, this moment is one of 100% ecstasy, yet for those with two or more offers from schools that they are equally excited about, another challenge still lies ahead—you need to select a college by May 1st. Cue the anxiety flooding right back into your veins…

In an ideal world, your family would have the time and means to visit or revisit every single college to which you’ve been accepted and are seriously considering. Reality, whether delivered in the form of logistics, budgetary constraints, or, most apropos—an event like the coronavirus pandemic—something usually prevents students from executing such a plan. This is no reason to fear. The most important steps in determining which of your prospective colleges is the best fit for you can be done from the comfort of your kitchen table. Our recommended steps include:

  • Consult college guidebooks
  • Calculate and analyze college costs
  • Research the quality of your major
  • Assess graduate outcomes
  • Explore life outside of the classroom
  • Rethink the overlooked obvious – school size and location
  • Evaluate career services and alumni networks

Let’s start with the only item on the list that may require a minimal financial investment (roughly $20)…

Read (or reread) college guidebooks

At any phase of the search and admissions process, we are huge believers in consulting the best college guidebooks in order to gather more information. This, of course, includes our own guidebook, released on April 15th, 2020 entitled Colleges Worth Your Money which looks at many of the critical factors that we are about to discuss: college costs and financial aid, academic strengths, careers services offerings, graduate outcomes (both with employment and graduate/professional school placements), and so much more.

Evaluate cost and financial aid

In a rational world, parents would sit down with their teens, put all of their financial cards on the table, and explain how this impending bill of up to $300,000 (over four years) is going to be paid. What can you, as parents, afford to contribute? How much will be covered via student loans and, at the set interest rates, what will a monthly student loan payment look like for your son or daughter when they are 22, 32, 42, and so on…

The following facts should further convince you to sit down and have this conversation today:

  • Barely half of current college students can provide an accurate estimate of their freshman year cost of attendance.
  • College grads carry an average debt load of over $30,000.
  • 43% of student loan borrowers postpone buying a home until later in life.
  • 55% of borrowers report that their starting salary is less than their total student loan amount.
  • Over half of those with significant debt put off having kids.
  • Student loan debt is a frequently cited reason for relationship difficulty and even divorce.

We also urge you to have a long conversation that covers the following:

  • Given the future careers you are presently considering, how much additional schooling might you need beyond the bachelor’s degree? If you are considering a field like medicine, psychology, law, academia, scientific research, or physical therapy, you will certainly need multiple years of additional training down the road. Which undergraduate school will put you in the best position to be able to afford graduate/professional school?
  • Give your child a hands-on budgeting lesson NOW, not when they graduate from college. What will their monthly payment be and how is it likely to tangibly alter their lives (circle back to the statistics listed above).
  • Compare, in detail, what life in their 20s could look like if they choose School A versus School B. For example, if you choose the more affordable school, your monthly loan repayments will be $600 cheaper. Here’s the type of apartment you can rent in (city of their choice) for $1,400 compared to $800.

The strength of the academics in your major

There are a number of indicators that can help you decide between two or more schools based on the quality of the academic offerings in your intended area of major. Whether you are interested in business, biology, psychology, engineering, film, mathematics, education, or economics, the following data points can, collectively, help you decide which school is going to give you the best education.

1) Major Emphasis

What percentage of degrees are conferred in your intended area of study? If a high percentage of students at a particular college are studying a major, it is likely that the major attracts a relatively large portion of the institution’s resources which means you will reap the benefits of this increased investment.

2) Student-to-Faculty Ratio and Class Size

Research consistently shows that class size as well as student–faculty interaction and collaboration leads to better learning and career-related outcomes. Whether your introductory lectures will be held in 200-student lecture halls or in a seminar-style classroom of a dozen students heavily influences the quality of the educational experience.

3) Graduate Earnings by Major

Refer to the outcomes section of this blog. Remember that comparisons across schools are only relevant when comparing equivalent majors.

4) Rankings

Taken at face value, a school’s rank in a given publication can be unhelpful or even misleading to your unique college search. However, when considered in proper context and across several different rankings systems utilizing different algorithms, one can get a general idea of a school’s reputation in the eyes of graduate schools and top employers. This is also true of rankings by major.

Professional and graduate school outcomes

When parents think about “outcomes” related to higher education, they often think only in terms of pure ROI. While graduate starting salaries can be informative, particularly if broken down by major, there are a number of other metrics that can help you decide between School A and School B in this final phase of the selection process. We recommend looking at:

  • What percentage of graduates are employed or in graduate school six months after receiving their diplomas?
  • What companies employ large numbers of graduates from each school?
  • Where do students end up going to graduate, law, and medical school? What do the acceptance rates for the latter two look like?

Life outside of the classroom

Research has consistently demonstrated that college students who feel connected to their schools experience far greater academic success than those who do not. While you are likely to find a few kindred spirits at almost any 4-year college, it can make a huge difference when a student feels like they fit in to the larger fabric of the university. Some factors worth exploring about each college include:

  • What percentage of students participate in Greek life?
  • What percentage of students play intramural sports?
  • What are the demographics by ethnicity, gender, and LGBTQ status?
  • How many and what types of clubs and activities are active on campus?
  • Does the student body tend to lean heavily in one direction politically or in terms of religious beliefs?

The overlooked obvious – school size and location

In an abstract assessment, a teen may think there is little difference between being 100 miles and 1,000 miles away from home. Their thinking may be along the lines of, “The plane ride will be just as quick as the car ride.” Then, a month into college, when they are desperate for some home cooking, a free load of laundry, or the comfort of a Saturday night family game night, the reality of that long distance truly sets in. Be upfront with your child about how often you can pay for them to fly home and how long a day of flying actually takes (ride to airport, security, baggage, etc.). There’s a reason that only 10% of students nationwide attend school more than 500 miles from home—a level of sacrifice is involved.

Families also need to talk about the size of the colleges that are under consideration. Sometimes the name of a prospective school is so exciting that you child isn’t even aware of how many students are presently enrolled. Yet, the difference between attending a school like Ohio State or Penn State with 40,000+ undergrads versus a school like Kenyon College or Dickinson College with 1/20th as many students can be quite stark. Is your child someone who can navigate a massive, sprawling campus without much hand-holding or do they crave one-on-one attention from professors and advisors? An honest assessment of your son or daughter’s personality and strengths/weaknesses can help you evaluate which academic setting is the one in which they are more likely to thrive.

Career services

In our opinion, the most underrated resource on any college campus is the career services office. These professionals are responsible for arranging job fairs, networking events, corporate recruiting on campus, internships, and delivering one-on-one career guidance. We recommend researching:

  • What is the student-to-counselor ratio?
  • What percent of students engage with career services?
  • Does this happen in freshman year or does counseling only get utilized by seniors?
  • How many job fairs are offered and how many companies attend?
  • What is the strength of their connections to employers?

These are all questions we answer for each school featured in the aforementioned guidebook — Colleges Worth Your Money.

Alumni networks

In conjunction with the career services office, a college’s alumni network can play a critical role in whether a students has access to job-shadowing opportunities, internship placement, adult mentorship in a field of interest, or even their first job opportunity post-graduation. Evaluate the size and level of involvement of the alumni network (percent of dues-paying members is a good indicator) at each college you are considering. Examine which cities/regions the majority of alumni relocate to after earning their degrees. Do these locations match up with the geographic area(s) where you might settle after graduation (if known)?

Additional Information

We hope the factors outlined in this blog have given you and your teen and a starting point for a comprehensive and productive conversation about how to make their final college selection prior to the May 1st deadline. Many of these areas can be explored in-depth right in our free Dataverse, which makes it very easy to compare institutions by a wide variety of metrics, offerings, and outcomes.