Thursday, February 3, 2011

Four Simple Steps for Choosing the Right College, Part Three

This is the conclusion of my series of articles on choosing the right college.  In Part One, I put forth four simple steps for picking a college:

1. Decide what your career and life goals are.

2. Decide what type of education you need to meet your goals.
3. Determine what your financial budget is.
4. Choose a college which meets your educational and financial requirements.

Part One contained a detailed exposition on the first two steps.  Part Two discussed in detail step three.  In this episode, I will discuss the fourth step.

Choosing a College

Now that you have a career goal, an idea of what type of education/degree you need, and a budget, you are ready to pick your school.  There are over 4,000 colleges in the United States, so you need to wittle the list down.  How do you do that?

Your choice of candidates is the intersection of the answers to the following questions:

1. Does the college meet my educational needs?
2. Does the college meet my non-educational requirements?

Note that price is not a consideration at this point.  Why?  Most schools publish a sticker price in their literature.  This is the price that you would pay if you don't receive any financial aid or scholarships.  However, many schools offer aid which will lower the actual cost that you will pay.  This means that many private colleges that may appear out of reach pricewise will end up being cheaper than a public college.  Consider that many private colleges have huge endowments which they use to defray the cost for even those families that are making six figures.  On the other hand, many public colleges are facing budget cuts as state governments look to balance their budgets.  The "conventional wisdom" that public schools are the path to an affordable education does not hold true.  Of course, the only way to know what type of financial aid you will get from a college is to apply.  Some colleges have cost estimators, but these may not be accurate as they are based off of broad assumptions.

Getting back to narrowing down your choices, the first thing to look at is whether or not the school offers the degree which you need for your chosen career.  Princeton University is a top school, but if you are interested in a career in nursing, you'll be out of luck there.  Why?  Because Princeton does not offer a nursing degree.  If you are interested in nursing, obviously a school that offers a nursing program is a requirement.  The first step is to identify what the top nursing schools are.  There are many sources for this sort of information.  U.S. News and World Report is famous for its rankings of schools, so that may be a good starting point.  However, a better way to gauge what schools offer the best programs is to talk to people who are in the field.  They can give you a good indication of which schools are considered to be quality schools.

There is a school of thought which says that where you go to school doesn't matter, and that you should just pick the closest or the cheapest school.  However, I disagree.

A quality school offers "name recognition":  If you are looking for a job in engineering and your resume has M.I.T. on it, you are more likely to get the job.  Why?  Because M.I.T. has a reputation as being one of the top engineering schools in the nation, if not the world.  Now some cynics may say that there are plenty of smart people who attend other schools with less name recognition who are just as qualified (if not more qualified).  However, I can tell you as somebody who is in the engineering field, if you have a degree from M.I.T., you are going to the front of the line.  Maybe it is not fair, but it is reality

A quality school offers a quality alumni network:  Again, this is another one which is not fair, but which is reality.  If you are an alumni of a particular school, you are going to be more likely to give a chance to somebody who went to the same school.

A quality school offers a quality education:  This is another one that may be controversial.  There are some who argue that your success depends upon the individual and not the school.  There is some truth to that, but you still need some structure to help direct your education.  Even Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest golfer in history, has a coach.  A quality school improves upon your education in two ways.  First, you have access to better professors, better facilities, and better educational opportunities.  A quality school will offer smaller classes for a more personalized education.  A quality school will offer closer contact to professors.  Rather than being taught by some graduate school, you will be taught by the person who may have literally wrote the book on the subject.  A quality school may have opportunity to access labs and facilities which will enhance your learning. 

The second way in which a quality school offers a better education is that you will be in class with a higher caliber of students.  On the one hand, being with better students means that you will be pushed to work that much harder in order to keep up.  For some that may be a disadvantage, but for many this may be the catalyst for success.  On the other hand, being with better students adds to the learning experience.  Sometimes you learn just as much from discussion groups and study groups with your peers than you do in the classroom.  After graduation, those relationships that you forged with the best of the best are going to enhance your professional network.

Now that you have narrowed down your list based upon education, you will also need to narrow it based upon other non-educational factors.  Do you want to live at home or on campus?  Some schools are commuter schools where students clear out at 5pm on Friday.  If you are planning to live on campus, a school like that may not be to your liking.  Do you want a city location or do you prefer a country environment?  If you like the hustle and bustle of the urban lifestyle, a school in the middle of nowhere is going to be torture.  The point here is that if you are spending four years and $100,000 for your education, you need to consider where you will be happiest.  Four years of misery are not going to be conducive to a good learning environment.

This is where school visits are important.  I am of the opinion that you should not apply to a school blindly.  It makes no sense to consider a school unless you have visited it.  What looks good on paper may not look as good in person.

Some might argue that you should suck it up and go wherever you get the best education.  This is very shortsighted in my opinion.  After all, there are over four thousand colleges in the United States.  With that much variety, it is possible to meet your education goals and be happy at the same time.  Why not have your cake and eat it too?

Now you should have a smaller list of schools to consider.  Now divide your list of schools into two categories.  One category are schools that are within your budget even if you get no financial aid.  The second category are those which would require some sort of grant or scholarship to attend.  Then within these two lists, further divide them into schools at which you are comfortable that you would be accepted, and schools which are a "stretch".  Now you should have four categories:

1. Financially safe, educationally safe.
2. Financially safe, educationally stretch.
3. Financially stretch, educationally safe.
4. Financially stretch, educationally stretch.

You should have at least one school in category 1 as this will be a school that you will be able to attend under any circumstance.  You should also have at least one school in categories 2 and 4, as you want to try and push yourself.

Now that you have your list, go ahead and apply.  Don't forget to apply for financial aid as this will be used by the school to determine what your actual cost will be.  There is no excuse not to apply for financial aid.  Many private schools will give aid to families making $100,000 or more.  If you don't apply, you are guaranteed to get zero, but if you do apply, you may get something.

Once you get your acceptances and your aid offers, you are in a position to choose.  The last step is to choose a school that is within your budget.  If you ignore your budget, you are setting yourself up for financial hardship.

Many careers require some sort of education beyond an undergraduate degree.  Make sure you take this into consideration when you are choosing your undergraduate college.  If you are going to scrimp, it is better to scrimp on the undergraduate side.  Your graduate degree is going to be the important one to your career.  You may also want to condense your undergraduate years by trying to graduate in three years, or by entering a program which combines a undergraduate and graduate degree.  Obviously, these paths require an extra measure of dedication, but for the smart student, they are a great way to save.

In closing, choosing a college is not something to be taken lightly.  A wrong choice can set up back financially for a long time.  However, if you remember my four simple steps, you should be well on your way to a prosperous and successful career!

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