Did you know that there are roughly 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States? For those of us who decide to attend one of those 5,300, choosing the right college can be daunting. With college debt at an all-time high in the US, it can be easy to assume cost is the one and only important factor, however, college is not only an economic investment, but a lifelong one. After considering what type of university best fits your expectations and needs, you also need to consider another equally important set of factors.
My first year of college was overwhelming. The very first day, I found myself standing in the corner of the Cintas Center atrium at Xavier University observing the crowd of my peers and their parents hugging goodbye. It was the start of my “new” life. In conversation with peers and old friends, I’ve realized that regardless of what kind of university you attend, the “college experience” will inevitably change you in some way or another. I’ve compiled a list of five important elements to consider that can help you choose the best possible life investment.
Big City or Small Town
Believe it or not, some large universities have their own zip codes. Large institutions offer a wide variety of majors; they’ll have famous research institutes and attract prestigious faculty members; fraternities and sororities will be just two types of the countless associations and activities that are offered; and sports – so many sports. Meanwhile, small institutions often specialize in a smaller range of specific majors; professors interact directly with individual students and encourage thorough understanding of the material; advisors, financial aid officers, and university mentors are more involved throughout college; and there exists a strong sense of community due to the small number of students.
Auditorium or Classroom
Class size, otherwise referred to as “student-faculty ratio,” often correlates with the institution’s size, but has different degrees of importance. The number of people in a class will call for varying degrees of participation, discussion, and communication within the course. A class of 1-20 students makes it easier for professor to encourage discussion and participation from everyone. However, a one to two hour class with 500 students makes it nearly impossible for a professor to require involvement. Classes with fewer students foster a more personal relationship between professor and student which can facilitate job and grad school recommendations after graduation. On the same note, students in large lecture halls who go out of their way to stand out have the same odds.
Location, Location, Location
Whether you plan to move ten states away from your hometown or prefer to commute, the cities and neighborhoods surrounding your dream school play an important role during college. Entertainment, culture, health, and safety are all affected by location. Where do you want to spend your 21stbirthday – at a bar in downtown Chicago, or on a vineyard in California? Check your closet, because you’ll need a jackets during Minnesota’s freezing winters. Remember that even though a college education typically takes two to five years, that’s 80 – 200 weeks you’ll be spending in a new environment.
This is where college visits are crucial. The second you walk into the dining hall, take a good whiff. Odds are that whiff will either bring you comfort or terrify you. Depending on the housing restrictions and location, meal-plans are the easiest way to stay fed during semesters. The food served can depend on anything from the location of the university, to the universities overarching philosophy. Fish Fry Friday will be a staple during lent at a Catholic institution, whereas gumbo might be the specialty in Louisiana. Some schools emphasize healthy choices while others will win with their traditional comfort foods. If meal-plans will be your primary source of nutrition, don’t let it slip your mind before it’s too late.
Big or small, college is about community. Although academics are a top priority, the relationships that you create in college will carry you through important life milestones. Outside of roommates, clubs and organizations are the best way to meet new people. They also help to differentiate you from others graduating with the same degree. A college that can provide well-rounded opportunities will cultivate a memorable college experience.
Prestige, academia, and financial aid often draw students in without a second thought. I advise against taking a blind leap without considering size, location, and lifestyle first. The National Student Clearninghouse Research Center reported this year that 37.2% of students transfer at least once within six years of college. Doing a little research can save you time, credits, and funds that you could lose in transferring to a better fitting institution.
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Laura Forero is currently a junior at Xavier University studying Public Relations and Advertising. She enjoys reading, writing, and following a PR crisis as it unfolds. Connect with her on LinkedIn.