Choosing an Undergraduate College or University
If you are a high school student thinking about attending a college or university, no doubt you already have heard that your earning potential will be higher with a college degree, compared to those who have only a high school diploma. The picture is even more complex. Those with an advanced degree are better off financially, over time, than those with bachelor’s degrees, and those with bachelor’s degrees earn more than those with associate’s degrees or only some college. Plenty of information is available about the earning potential of college graduates, and one of the best studies came out in 2014 from the Urban Institute that is available here. Whether you are thinking about higher education as a means of improving your prospects for a high pay check or because you are devoted to a profession, you no doubt have had a great deal of advice from friends, parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, and a host of others about selecting a college or university to attend. I will join the chorus with a slightly different perspective, that of a college professor. Granted, some of my thoughts result from my own experience as the first to graduate from college in my immediate family, but all of what I have to say is tempered with my experience of more than twenty years instructing in college classrooms and eight years in the business world.
Before you select a college or university, select a career. It does not mean that you have to actually end up in that career, but having a goal and choosing a college or university that leads you in a particular direction may advance you in that career or ease a change in major, should you decide it is necessary. Find an institution of higher education in the state, region, country, or abroad that is most likely to help you attain your career goal. Consider not just whether the institution has some courses or an entire department in your field but whether there is any interdepartmental cooperation and special programs that bring guest speakers to campus. Look into the reputation of its professors and see what reports, articles, chapters, and books they have published or what creative works they have produced. Determine the state of laboratories and libraries at the institution to see if you will have easy access to the tools you need to get a solid education. If your field of study is linked with another, as history is with languages, make sure the institution you select meets your needs in that related field. Communicate by phone, e-mail, or in person with department chairs and professors who can let you know what their program will do for you or where you might better succeed in reaching your goals. These people want to help; if not, do not bother attending the institution. This investigation will take time, so start the process in your junior year, if not earlier.
If you still are undecided about a career, consider studying at a large university. There you will be able to experience a wide range of disciplines and a number of fields within specific departments that small institutions can not afford to offer. When you decide on a major, there is a greater chance that a large university can accommodate your interests than a small institution. To get an idea of the difference between a large and small school, do not compare only the size of enrollment, but check the online catalogs to see the number and variety of courses in the same majors available at each institution. Just remember that the courses listed in a college catalog are not offered every semester. Often, they appear once in every four semesters, excluding summers.
There are several things you should not do when selecting a college. First, if you can afford to study anywhere or can get the financial aid to do so, do not select a college just because it is close to home. After all, you will have to leave home at some point. The most successful people in America generally are those willing to be geographically mobile. That fact is known in the business, military, and religious spheres, where transfers are a part of the workplace reality, but it applies to other fields as well. Second, do not select a college because that is where your friends are going or because you like their football team. Neither will advance your career. Third, do not select a major because your friends pressure you to do so or because your parents think it is best for you. In the end, you have to live your life, and you should enjoy what you are doing. Similarly, trying to complete a major you desire, learning it was not for you, and switching to another is better than wondering all your life whether you should have pursued a different dream. Fourth, never chose a college because the college recruiter or someone filling that role convinced you. They are salespeople whose job it is to convince students to attend their university as opposed to another. Fifth, do not matriculate at a college because you like the campus and its dorms or because it gives you a warm feeling when you attend an open house. Sixth, do not think that you will not do well in large classrooms at large universities as opposed to small classrooms at smaller institutions. When you sit in that seat, you sit there alone. It matters not whether 20 or 200 students surround you. It is up to you to make the difference in how you prepare for your class and whether you are willing to seek out the professor or the teaching assistant for help. Similarly, will you refuse a good job with Microsoft only because the company is too big? Seventh, do not select a college based on rankings that appear in news magazines because a college’s overall image is different from its ability to educate in specific fields. The Ivy League schools are prestigious because of popular opinion, and they have very good programs. Nevertheless, they do not have a monopoly on education. By the same token, do not assume that all colleges and universities are the same and only vary in price and location. If you expect to obtain a doctorate in the social sciences or humanities, be sure to read "Selecting a Graduate Program" in Preparing for Graduate Studies in History, which is a part of this web site.
If your grades are good, you are diligent, and you have good standardized test scores, never assume that an institution will reject you. Ivy League schools admit students from throughout the country and do not have preconceived notions about socio-economic status or certain parts of the country. Similarly, do not exclude foreign institutions in your search. In some cases, countries have liberal policies about admitting foreign students, and the cost might be similar to attending an out-of-state or private college or university in the United States. In Sweden, for example, a foreigner essentially can attend a university at no cost. Foreign institutions have a large number of classes in English, which will give the student who does not speak the language of the host institution time to acquire it. The experience of living abroad is life changing, and it opens up many doors for employment both in the US and abroad.
Many students think that they will save money by attending a two-year community or junior college (in over a dozen states, such schools are changing their names as they add baccalaureate programs) and then transferring to a four-year institution. If you intend to get a bachelor’s degree, have not dropped out of school, and have not struggled to pass, consider entering a four-year institution immediately, rather than getting an associate’s degree at a community college or its equivalent. The courses are cheaper and in theory look the same at both institutions (they even may have the same or similar numbers), but there may be significant differences between the two types of schools. One is admission standards. Institutions with lower or open admission standards often include marginal students who are seeking to raise their grades in order to gain admission to a four-year institution. Other students may be coupling basic academic courses with aspects of vocational training. The range of abilities of the student body at predominantly two-year institutions is much broader than those in four-year liberal arts colleges and universities, where the average student has a more honed mix of academic skills. As a result, the professors at four-year colleges and universities have the luxury of teaching at slightly higher levels than their counterparts at essentially two-year institutions. Often, this is apparent in the type of work products a student has to submit at the two institutions. Another point of comparison is the number of courses the professors teach. Professors at mainly two-year institutions teach four or five classes each semester, and they have no grading assistants. Four-year liberal arts college and university professors teach one to three classes each semester and often have graduate assistants who help with the grading. Fewer courses allow them to devote more time to grading. Another factor is research. While professors at predominantly two-year institutions have doctorates that are equal to those of professors at universities and may be engaged in research and publishing, research is not a stringent requirement at such institutions. At four-year institutions, especially those with graduate programs, an important part of each professor’s work is research and publishing, which finds its way into the classroom. Research is expensive, and because more of it goes on at four-year institutions, they have higher tuition than two-year institutions and rely on large endowments or large legislative appropriations, in the case of state institutions. The lower cost per student at two-year institutions resulting from greater teaching loads and less research is attractive to state governments, which encourage high school students to complete dual-enrollment courses and new high-school graduates to attend community colleges. All of this adds up to a four-year college or university being not only a little more expensive than a predominantly two-year institution but also bit more demanding. As a result, many who graduate with an associate’s degree from a two-year institution and then move to a four-year college or university experience some difficulty in adjusting, and sometimes their grades may reflect those problems.
Part of the college selection process is figuring out how to pay for it. In-state colleges are always cheaper than out-of-state colleges, and private colleges are expensive, no matter where someone lives. If you do not think you can afford an out-of-state public college or a private college, be sure to talk to the financial aid people about options. If you are accepted into an Ivy League university and some other private institutions, remember that low-income individuals attend for free, and middle-income individuals often pay no more than 10 percent of their income on tuition. University endowments cover the rest. Even small private and out-of-state schools have need-based and achievement scholarships as well as work-study programs. If you do not ask, negotiate, demand, and threaten to go elsewhere, you will pay. In the end, you may have to rely on student loans. Paying them back will be unpleasant and will create all sorts of anxieties, especially after you graduate, have a salary, and are restricted in what you can do because you have to pay student loans. Still, spending education is one of the best investments you can make in the long run.
Select an institution for your associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree because of its offerings, its faculty, and its research facilities. Factor in the issues of finance, and always consult with financial aid departments to determine what sort of assistance they can provide. Do not hesitate to enroll in an institution with a reputation of being difficult because the more rigorous a person’s training, the more likely he or she is to find meaningful employment, especially in the highly-competitive current job market. Similarly, do not exclude well-known institutions and colleges or universities abroad. Finally, disregard such factors as peer pressure, family tradition, campus curb appeal, recruitment promises, spectator sports, and social opportunities.
For the current USNews and World Report rankings, check the following link:
Rankings for 2012 from the Center for College Affordability, which researches the cost of higher education and other issues and whose web site is at http://centerforcollegeaffordability.org/, are available at:
For two extremely useful tools from the US federal government to help select a college or university, see:
National Center for Education Statistics -- http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
White House, College Scorecard -- http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education/college-score-card
The National Center for Education Statistics has created a "College Navigator" to help students pick the institution that is best for them. It is available at:
In 2012, the National Science Board did a study to see how various states rank in terms of funding for state research-oriented, doctoral-granting universities, which parallels undergraduate funding and may be an indicator of program quality. Between 2002 and 2012, all but seven states reduced their funding, some dramatically. A brief report on the study is on this web site here. The entire study is at:
An excellent tool for examining various colleges and universities is the College InSight from the Institute for College Access and Success. TICAS also has a number of reports and blogs that help paint a better picture of the challenges that face students and higher education in general.
A website for selecting colleges and universities based on the sort of recommendations that are familiar to users of Pandora or Netflix is PossibilityU. An article about the website in the Chronicle of Higher Education is available at http://chronicle.com/blogs/data/2014/01/23/netflix-like-algorithm-drives-new-college-finding-tool/?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en.
For a positive perspective on community colleges that only looks at cost, not the quality of the courses, see:
Information about on-line programs and MOOCs is available on this web site at Free Courses, No-Tuition
A web site that not only provides information about various colleges, financing a college education, and details about college life but also offers an interactive discussion forum for prospective students and their parents is http://www.collegeconfidential.com/. Eric Hoover reviewed the site in an article titled "College Confidential: A Field Guide" on 29 April 2013 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is available on line at http://chronicle.com/article/College-Confidential-A-Field/138865/?cid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en.
For information about state universities in Florida, click on:
Florida Board of Governors -- http://www.flbog.org/aboutsus/universities/
2011 Admissions Requirements for All Florida State Universities -- http://www.admissionbydesign.com/sites/admissionbydesign.com/files/2010%20FL%20SUS%20Matrix%20Final.pdf