A University President’s Honest Advice on Choosing a College

After spending almost two decades working in higher education and observing the ways that people think about post high school decision-making, here are my candid top ten suggestions for choosing a college or supporting your son, daughter, grandchildren, friends, or relatives in making the decision.

  1. Do not choose a college unless you can identify at least two distinct groups or sub-groups where you can confidently say, “Those are my people!” Find groups with shared interests, values, or goals. It will make a significant difference in your experience. Find a place where you are known, valued, and called by name, especially by those with whom you are likely to spend much of your time.
  2. Make sure that you are ready for college. This means taking ownership for your learning; developing good time-management skills; learning to manage stress and other emotions in positive and healthy ways; cultivating the discipline of postponing gratification; establishing good study skills and a growth mindset; learning how to independently take care of your basic needs; building conflict management skills; learning to communicate clearly and effectively in writing, orally, and in different situations; developing positive sleeping and eating habits; etc. Not that you have to be perfect in all of these areas, but the stronger you are in these and related skills, the more enjoyable college will be for you, the more you will get out of it, and the more you will be able to contribute to the community—because going to college is about both giving and receiving. The stronger you are in these areas, the better any college choice will be for you and those around you.
  3. If your faith is important to you, choose a school with a strong community that will support you spiritually. A study from the Barna Group showed that close to 70% of professing Christians abandon their faith during their college years. Yet, the results are drastically different if you choose a school where your professors and others in the community are committed to helping you prepare for faith and life in a changing world.
  4. Do not attend a school where the majority of your coursework is in large lecture halls with a talking head at the front of the room. You can learn as much or more from a good series of Youtube videos or a library card. This is NOT quality education. Instead, find a place where the vast majority of your courses involve real, intelligent, passionate, invested professors (not graduate assistants) who teach you, get to know you by name, and are genuinely interested in you and your learning.
  5. Choose a place where you are confident that the people in the school can help you achieve one or more important goals for your future—or that can help you discover or establish good and noble goals for your future.
  6. Do not go to a college unless you are confident that the value is worth far more than the cost of attendance. Even then, seek options that allow you to avoid debt. If you have a family that is willing and able to help out, great. If not, you still have lots of options. Regardless, choose a school where you can graduate with no more debt than what you would have with the purchase of a new car (and not a Ferrari). Explain that this is your goal, and if the college cannot help you create a financial aid package or plan to achieve this (note, it may involve some part-time work), keep looking for a school that will help.
  7. Do not be fooled by what I sometimes think of as “flattery scholarships.” One school may have a base tuition of $50,000 but then entice you with a $30,000 scholarship, while another school may have a base tuition of $40,000 and offer you a scholarship of $25,000. Obviously, the second is a far better deal and they may want you as much or more than the first, but you would be amazed how many students and families choose the first because they are flattered by the “larger” scholarship. Compare the total cost of attendance between schools after all scholarships and financial aid is applied. While the best school for your may cost a bit more than another option, it is still important to be aware of the psychology of scholarships, and not let it distract you from making your best choice.
  8. Do not be fooled by prestige. What most people do not tell you is that five years after college, hardly anyone cares about the prestige of the school you attended. They want to know if you have the knowledge, skills, and character needed to do the job and do it well. Yes, some elite schools have an added networking benefit, but beyond that, you can often get just as good of an education from a quality school with less prestige, and it may well be a better fit for you and your goals. Find a school that will help you grow and learn, and that will serve you well in the long run.
  9. If you plan to play a sport or participate in a specific extracurricular on the college level, never attend a school unless you can picture yourself staying, learning, growing, and flourishing at that college even if something unexpected happens where you can no longer participate in that activity. The only exception I can imagine is if you really think that participation in that extracurricular or sport will lead to some amazing post-college opportunities.
  10. Find a place that will help cultivate a love of learning, a college that is not just about academic hoop-jumping. Great colleges and universities are places where you can find groups of faculty and students who are truly interested in learning, thinking deeply, exploring ideas from different perspectives, cultivating new knowledge and skills, and genuinely searching for and celebrating truth, beauty, and goodness.

If more high school students followed these ten simple guidelines, I am confident that they would be far more satisfied with their decisions.