How to Compare Colleges

Three Parts:Comparing Academic ProgramsLooking at the Tuition and ExpensesEvaluating the Campus Environment

Choosing the right college can be difficult. Whether you're looking into colleges for yourself or for a loved one, there's a lot of information that can quickly become overwhelming. Knowing what key factors are most important to you will help you find the right program at the right cost, and can help ensure that you make a sound investment in your future or a loved one's future.

Part 1
Comparing Academic Programs

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    Decide what field of study you're most interested in. Many students end up changing their majors after they begin to attend classes. While it's a good idea to remain open to the possibility of changing majors, you may also want to have at least a rough idea of what general academic path you're interested in. That way you can compare programs and find one that meets your needs.
    • Choose something you're passionate about. You'll want a career that you enjoy working in for the rest of your life, so make sure you study something that's important to you.[1]
    • Consider how employable a given major might be. While any college major can help you land a job, some career fields are oversaturated or otherwise difficult to break into.
    • Some schools offer an academic major quiz online to help students figure out what field of study would be best for them.[2]
    • Some students, including medical, engineering, physical therapy, and nursing students, need to enter their field of study as quickly as possible.[3] These students may need to choose a major early and stick with it.
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    Look for schools that offer your desired program. If you know what subject you intend to major in, you may want to narrow your search to ensure that the colleges you apply to offer it. Check each school's website, as they will list all of their offered majors and minors online. You can also call or email someone from the admissions office to request more information on a given school's program.
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    Take a tour of the campus. Colleges usually host an open house each year, but you can also visit the campus independently and request a tour. The advantage of going during an open house is that the faculty often make themselves available for questions and demonstrations, which can give you a better idea of what to expect if you enroll at that college.
    • Try to visit any college you're seriously considering. If you don't live near any of the colleges you'll be applying to, then focus on trying to visit your top two or three schools.
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    Compare the faculty and their expertise. If you're applying to graduate school, the faculty you work with will be extremely important.[4] However, the experience and credentials of the faculty at a given school should be a consideration for every level of education, including undergraduate students. Most college websites offer an online directory of each professor within a given department, and their bio pages often detail each professor's educational background, professional experience, and other qualifications.
    • If a college's website doesn't offer information on the faculty you would be working with, reach out to the head of your desired department and ask that individual for more information on whom you would be working with.
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    Read each college's academic scorecard online. The U.S. Department of Education compiles information on colleges and their programs. You can request information and rankings based on the program or degree you're interested in, the location of the school, or the size of the college.[5]
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    Check each school's graduation or completion rate. As of 2013, the six-year national graduation rate for full-time undergraduate students in the United States was 59 percent. This means that 59 percent of full-time students graduated within six years. Many colleges have high graduation/completion rates, while many others have very low graduation/completion rates.[6]
    • Check the graduation/completion rates for each of the schools you're interested in. If a school does not advertise this information on their website, you can find it by looking at that school's national rankings online.[7]

Part 2
Looking at the Tuition and Expenses

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    Consider in-state versus out-of-state tuition. Most state schools are subsidized with state taxes, and tax payers don't want to fund someone who's not a resident. Because of this, tuition for an in-state student is almost always cheaper than for an out-of-state student, which may be a consideration that affects your budget.[8]
    • When looking at the estimated tuition costs for a given school, make sure you check if there are tuition differences based on residency. If it's a state school, this will almost certainly be the case.
    • If you're dead set on a school but can't afford out-of-state tuition, you may be able to defer enrollment for one year and move there to establish residency.[9] However, not everyone is willing to delay attendance by a year, and not all schools will let you defer without having to reapply.
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    Look at the total estimated costs of attendance. Tuition is the most expensive cost associated with attending college, but it's not the only cost. Additional costs can add up to thousands of dollars each year, or even each semester (depending on your program). Most colleges offer some type of cost-of-attendance calculator on their websites, usually under the financial aid department. Check to see what you'll be responsible for when all is said and done, should you attend a given program.[10]
    • In addition to tuition, many colleges charge campus fees, housing costs (if you'll be residing in a dorm), books and classroom supplies, and various miscellaneous expenses.
    • These additional expenses can add up very quickly, so take them into account as you examine the cost of attendance at each school.
    • Your financial aid may not cover expenses outside of tuition, so talk to someone in the financial aid office so you know what to expect.
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    Compare your award offers. If you were accepted to a school, you should have received some type of financial aid information with your acceptance letter. Most schools offer some type of financial aid, though the amount and the form it takes may vary considerably.[11]
    • Look at how much of your financial needs are being met in relation to the cost of attendance.
    • A bigger award offer isn't always necessarily better if the tuition is significantly more expensive. You'll need to factor in the total cost of attendance and your estimated personal/family contributions to arrive at how much money you actually need in awards.
    • Don't just look at the amount being offered in your award. Calculate how much money you need by subtracting any savings you've set aside from the total cost of attendance, then subtract the award amount to arrive at your remaining balance.
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    Look at how the awards are offered. As you compare award offers, you should also look at how your financial needs are met by each school. Colleges and universities typically offer awards packages that consist of a scholarship, a grant, a work study option, or some combination of these.[12]
    • Grants and scholarships are essentially free money offered by the school. You will not have to return this money, and it is subtracted directly from your tuition costs.[13]
    • Work study programs are a form of financial aid that allows you to get money or a reduction in tuition in exchange for regularly-scheduled work on campus. Depending on the positions available, though, this could be a valuable training experience and resume booster.
    • Remember that loans are borrowed money. You will need to pay back that money with interest, and the interest rates can be quite high.

Part 3
Evaluating the Campus Environment

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    Check crime statistics for the campus and surrounding community. While crimes on campus can certainly be a concern, you should also look at how safe the surrounding neighborhoods are. If you commute to school or leave campus for food/entertainment, you should know how safe the neighborhood is that you'll be passing through.
    • You can typically check campus crime statistics online.[14] Many colleges even make this information public on their websites.
    • The U.S. Department of Education website allows you to search for a college campus by name or by location to find out crime statistics for that campus.[15]
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    Consider the peer environment. Like most students approaching a college for the first time, you probably won't know very many (if any) people on campus. College campuses can be an exciting place to meet new and interesting people, and some campuses facilitate that more than others. Whether you're interested in Greek life, extracurricular clubs, political organizations, or intramural sports, the best way to get a feel for the peer environment at a given college is to visit the campus and see how people interact there.[16]
    • Are all incoming students placed in the same dorm or group of dorms? If so, this may help you meet other incoming students who don't know anyone yet.
    • How important is diversity to you? Diversity helps foster social development, promotes creative thinking, and prepares you to be a global citizen, and some colleges are more diverse than others.[17]
    • Are politics important to you? If so, you may want to find out whether a given campus is predominately liberal or conservative, as you may encounter on-campus activists at some point.
    • Ask about what places on campus students can gather and hang out. You may want to look into both outdoor spaces (like a quad) and indoor spaces (like recreation rooms, dining halls, etc.).
    • Find out what the average student age on campus is, both for incoming students and current students. If you're an older student returning to school, will you feel comfortable being in a dorm with younger students, or vice versa?
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    Think about the location of campus. Some colleges have a reputation as party schools while other campuses are considered very studious. Some make it easy to explore the surrounding communities and others are very isolated. If you attend a given college, you'll spend about nine months of the year on campus. You'll want to make sure that you're comfortable in that environment, both on and off campus.[18]
    • Moving to a drastically different environment (in terms of location, culture, climate, etc.) can be very jarring for some students and exciting for others. Do you prefer something familiar or unpredictable?
    • Decide whether you prefer living in a large metropolitan area, a smaller city/college town, or a rural campus that's far removed from city life. Each setting comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, so figure out what you like.[19]
    • Is public transportation important to you? If you own a car, would you have a hard time finding parking on campus or in the surrounding community?
    • Make sure there are fun things to do in the nearby town/city. If you're interested in museums, shopping, or concerts, you may have a hard time finding entertainment at a rural campus.
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    Look at what amenities are available near campus. Depending on where a campus is located, you may still be interested in knowing what's nearby. Some colleges are in remote locations, which means that you'll have to travel further to find restaurants, coffee shops, bars (if you're old enough to drink), or even grocery stores and gas stations.
    • Consider how important convenience and availability are to you.
    • While this shouldn't necessarily be the most important factor, it may be an important factor nonetheless.
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    Compare the student-to-faculty ratio. The ratio of students to faculty may be worth investigating for a given college. Large class sizes typically mean a high ratio, with some larger universities having a single instructor teaching an auditorium with hundreds of students. It's a factor worth considering, especially if you're more of a hands-on learner or anticipate the need to ask questions and talk to your professor after class.
    • A low student-to-faculty ratio usually suggests that the students get more individual attention.
    • Check the student-to-faculty ratio by program, not just by school. Some schools may have large student bodies in some fields of study and much smaller class sizes in other areas of study.
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    Ask about academic advising at each school. Another factor to consider is academic advising. Some schools have you meet with an academic advisor during orientation to plan out your schedule, while other schools may leave all of that responsibility in your hands.[20]
    • Find out how and when you can meet with an academic advisor.
    • Ask whether there is any wait time for meeting with an advisor. If there is, find out how long it usually is.
    • If you won't have a chance to meet with an academic advisor before you have to enroll in classes, you'll need to decide whether you can handle that responsibility alone.
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    Find out what types of health services each school offers. If you're going to school in a remote area, you may not be able to easily get to a doctor's or therapist's office from campus. Many colleges offer these and other services on campus, but not all colleges have equal facilities. Some services may also be difficult to access at certain colleges, especially during busy times of the year like finals week.[21]
    • Most college campuses have a doctor's or nurse's office. If you worry about keeping on top of your health, it may be a good idea to confirm that these facilities exist and are easy to access.
    • It's fairly common for colleges to offer some type of counseling or mental health services. Even if you don't currently need this type of assistance, it may be important to know that it's available.
    • If a college doesn't list this information on their website, check the college's directory and find out more information from someone at student health services or a similar campus office.

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Categories: Applying for Tertiary Education