Higher education is a maze without a map. Many thousands of prospective college students will be struggling to navigate that maze next spring.
With at least 52 institutions of higher education in San Antonio and more than 4,000 in the United States, it can be daunting, expensive and — at times
— even risky.
Here are a few pointers that can help you make the best possible decision. Ask yourself these questions:
What is my life’s dream? What vocation would be the best fit for my gifts, talents and what I love to do?
If you know with certainty what you would like to do professionally when you complete your degree, you may delimit your college search with that criterion. If you are not quite sure, you may want to select a college that will allow you some flexibility to make a disciplined move or to transfer elsewhere.
Am I place- or region-bound?
If so, search for colleges that are within a range that is feasible for you to attend. If you are not within driving range of a college, do not have a car, or prefer not to attend in person and you are highly capable with technology — particularly with computer use — then you may want to consider one of the many online options for college. Many students now complete courses in a combination of in-class and online formats, and since most universities are offering or developing online options, this can be a convenient way to gain maximum flexibility.
Do I need to work full time while I am attending college?
If you are among the increasing number of prospective students who must work full time while attending college, you may want to consider colleges that offer night classes. There are several colleges that offer not only evening classes, but programs where you take class one night per week for three or four hours and take one course at a time in an accelerated format so that you may potentially finish in approximately the same time as traditional programs. However, these programs will often require 15 to 20 hours per week of independent study, and it will be important to design a good time-management plan.
Is the college I am considering accredited?
Accreditation ensures a certain level of quality for the education you receive. Employers may value employees with degrees from accredited institutions over non-accredited programs. Additionally, if you plan to pursue a career that requires a license or certification, certain states may require that you have a degree from an accredited institution to be eligible for the licensing exam. Likewise, in the case of transfer credits or applying to graduate school, credits you earn at nonaccredited institutions may not transfer to accredited schools. While this is not the rule, it is up to prospective students to do their homework to be sure they are maximizing their options and potential outcomes.
What is the cost of my degree? Are there any hidden fees? What is the tuition per credit hour?
How about activities, parking and miscellaneous costs? What is the cost of books?
It is important to look at the entire cost of your education. When comparing schools, you may find that one institution has a lower tuition rate, but the activities fees and added expenses make the total cost of education higher than another school with higher tuition but built-in fees. Students are often surprised by supplemental fees and need to be informed and prepared. Also, think about the cost of where you will live and all of the associated costs. Money challenges are one of the most common reasons that students do not complete a degree. Work this out ahead of time. Be sure to apply for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) whether you plan to use it or not. You do not have to accept money that is granted; however, once you have been approved, it makes the process simpler if you change your mind or need financial assistance later. Remember that you must apply for financial aid for each academic year.
What are the entrance requirements?
Find out if standardized testing is required and, if so, what the score expectations are. Many schools still require a specific score on the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT and/or other tests before admitting students. Grade point average in either high school or college is another factor. Additional factors may also play a part, such as an entrance essay, athletic participation and extracurricular activities. It is helpful to be aware of these factors early in the process to help you strategically plan to maximize your options.
What are the financial aid, scholarship, grant or loan opportunities for attending a particular college?
What are the counseling and advising options at the schools on my short list of colleges?
Some of this information can be acquired through research. Some colleges have excellent counseling and advising programs, and some do not. Having good advising can save you both time and money — sometimes substantially. When researching schools, inquire about working with an admissions or support counselor who can coach you through the process. Accumulating credits doesn’t guarantee a degree. You need to earn the right credits according to the institution’s degree plan, and counselors can help guide you to doing it right. Additionally, they can inform you of grant or scholarship opportunities that may be available to you.
What kind of support system do colleges have to help ensure student success?
Colleges offer a broad array of options to support and assist students in their education success. Tutoring opportunities, skill-building workshops, mentoring and more are often available for free or at a low cost to students. Inquire about what is available. Again, the quality and availability of this kind of help varies from university to university.
Is the institution a fit?
Visit the college, talk to students and staff, see classrooms and meet professors. Then ask yourself if you feel that it is a fit for you. Every college has its own — and distinct — personality.
Are there any red flags or warning signs?
Beware and Be Aware of the following:
• The school guarantees you a job upon graduation — this is, at the very least, unethical. It is appropriate to talk about the career demand in a particular field (however, it is good to check it out and see if the information given is accurate for where you plan to locate), but saying you will have a job upon graduation is a red flag.
• Is someone pushing you to go to a program that you do not feel is a fit?
• Are all of your questions being answered, and are the admissions counselors in tune with your wants and needs?
• Is anyone pressuring you or using fear tactics to move you to enroll on the spot?
• Is there an option to back out or change your mind? There should be.
• Be leery of someone telling you things like “this offer is good today only.”
There is so much to consider in selecting a college. It can be helpful to find someone who is a credentialed expert in higher education and pick their brain. Once you have completed your homework, go for it!
By Mary Landon Darden
Mary Landon Darden holds a doctorate in higher education administration, is the author of Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America, published by the American Council on Education, and is the dean of Concordia University Texas San Antonio Center.