If you want to know how to choose a university, this article is for you. Factors to consider when choosing a college include location, access to healthcare, commuting, racial diversity, LGBTQ+ resources, class size, cost before and after financial aid, and your learning style.
Location, Access to Healthcare and Living Costs
Many people instinctively prefer a city, suburban area, or rural location. However, it’s not always obvious that a rural location may lack access to healthcare, especially for students with disabilities or undiagnosed health conditions. At the same time, a rural school can sometimes offer a low cost of living that can make college much more affordable.
It’s worthwhile to consider whether you are willing and able to commute to class, how the local cost of living will affect your college budget, and whether you need access to a major research hospital.
If you have never commuted before, carefully consider whether you are willing to take buses, trains, and subways to class. It can be exhausting to spend a lot of time on public transportation (not to mention a potential safety risk due to covid). If you are applying to urban campuses in places like Boston or New York City, the cost of rent often forces students into neighborhoods that are hard to access.
It can also be harder to meet friends at commuter schools because it takes a lot of time and effort to meet up for coffee or lunch.
Consider Racial Diversity When Choosing a University
A college that lacks diversity can feel unwelcoming unless you are a white, cisgender, heterosexual person (and even if you are, it’s great to meet people who are different from you!). It’s worth considering whether you will feel safe on campus if you are one of the only students of color.
If you aren’t sure how people are being treated on campus, you can try reaching out to the admissions office to see if they can get you in touch with a current student. It’s also worth contacting student groups on campus to see if they can connect you with a current student. When one of my students asked me how to know if Indians are treated well on campus, I recommended she reach out to the Indian dance teams at the schools she was considering, since this was a hobby she already enjoyed. Talking to current students can give you great “behind the scenes” information about what life is like on campus.
LGBTQIA+ Resources and State Laws
If you are LGBTQ or questioning (or just want an inclusive campus where everyone can feel as safe as possible), it’s worth checking out Campus Pride for school rankings. You can also look at college resources like bathroom maps, policies around housing, and whether the college provides access to LGBTQ-affirming mental and physical healthcare.
It’s unfortunately also a good idea to consider state laws around gender-affirming care. As you most likely already know, some states have a history of preventing access to basic healthcare. It can also be worth checking online lists of the worst schools for LGBTQ students so you know which campuses to avoid.
Class Size and Learning Style
Most people know that colleges can range in size, but it’s not always clear to students how this will affect their day to day life. A small school usually means that classes are smaller. In a small class, professors will be more likely to know you personally, which can be helpful if you are ever struggling. You’re likely to get more individual help, and your courses are more likely to involve class discussion (meaning you actually get to talk to other people in class). The downside is that there might be fewer course offerings. If you have an unusual major, it may not be offered at all.
At larger schools, your classes might include 50-100 people. Usually professors will lecture in those classes, meaning you’ll be spending a lot of time having to sit still and look at slides. I’m not going to lie – it can get dull. This is potentially a bigger issue for students who are neurodiverse, because they may struggle to focus on a dry lesson when 86 other people are fidgeting, taking notes, whispering, etc.
Disability Access at College
In addition to checking whether there is a major research hospital near the schools you are considering, it’s a good idea to get to know the college’s disability office. You are allowed to reach out before you apply and can even visit the disability office when you tour schools. For more on this topic, you might like my article for Autism Parenting Magazine (Issue 130). Just a heads up that it has a small fee to purchase it just like any other magazine.
How to Select a College Based on Cost
Cost After Financial Aid
Sometimes private school can actually cost less than state school. Low-income students with high stats may benefit from having “meets need” schools on their list (schools that guarantee to meet financial need). You can also check the NPC (Net Price Calculator) at each individual school to get an estimate of the cost given your specific circumstances. You can also look at charts that show the average cost of a school based on household income (try searching “ (insert school name) cost after aid household income”).
Cost Before Financial Aid
Many Americans fall in the middle – not Jeff Bezos wealthy, but not low income enough to get a large need-based package. In this case, it can be useful to add some schools to your list that are within budget even if you are not awarded merit or need-based aid.
Choice of Major
I know this is a controversial topic. Most consultants say that you don’t have to choose a major before applying to school, and that’s true! However, it’s a lot easier to narrow down schools if you know what kind of coursework you want. An art conservatory is a very different experience from a liberal arts school or a college famous for computer science. If you start making these decisions now, it can make it much easier to choose a school, and more likely that your college will meet your needs. You are absolutely allowed to change your mind later – these are initial decisions to help you narrow your list down a bit.