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How Can My Child Go About Choosing a College?

— U.S. Department of Education
Updated on Jan 23, 2009

Colleges are located in big cities, suburbs, and small towns throughout the country. Some enroll tens of thousands of students; others enroll only a few hundred. Some are public; others are private. Some private institutions are affiliated with religious institutions; others are not. Some schools enroll only women, others only men.

The type of institution best suited to your child depends on his or her individual needs and talents. Your child can begin focusing on the choice of a college by considering the following questions:

  • Why do I want to go to college?
  • What do I hope to achieve in college?
  • Do I have some idea of what I want to study or for which job I want to prepare?
  • Do I want to live at home or go away to school?
  • Do I prefer an urban, suburban, or rural environment?
  • Would I be happier in a small college or at a large university?

In order to choose a college, you and your child should ask the following questions about the nature and quality of the schools in which your child has an interest. You may also find answers to these questions in the colleges' catalogs or in reference books on colleges. Ask these questions when you meet staff in the admissions office of the colleges.

The Nature of the Education Offered

  • What is the philosophy of the particular college, and what kinds of educational programs does this college offer?
    Ask about the college's specialties, which types of classes the school offers, and in which fields students can earn a degree or certificate. How many students study in each area, and what do they do when they graduate?

  • How long does it take to earn a certificate or degree at this college?
    Students should know how much time it takes to complete a program before they enroll in it. Programs can last anywhere from a few months to several years. Also ask whether the time involved reflects full-time or part-time attendance.

  • What do students do when they graduate from this school? Do they get jobs in the areas for which they were trained? Do they pursue further education?
    Job placement rates are particularly important for vocational programs. If a very low percentage of students are employed in their area of training a year after completing the program, there may be a problem. It can also be useful to ask about beginning salaries of program graduates and the institution's career advising and placement services for its students.

    Students who enroll in two-year colleges with plans to transfer to four-year colleges should inquire about the possibility of doing so and about the number of graduates who transfer each year. Students applying to four-year colleges may want to know how many graduates go on to graduate or professional education.

The Quality of the College

  • How many students who start at this school earn a certificate or degree? How many drop out?
    A high drop-out rate may suggest that students are dissatisfied with the education an institution provides. Be particularly careful about having your child enroll in a school that graduates a very low percentage of its students. Also ask about tuition refund policies for students who drop out in the first weeks of an educational program.

  • What is the loan default rate at this college? Do students repay their student loans?
    The default rate is the percentage of students who took out student loans to help pay their expenses but did not repay them properly. A high default rate may suggest that students who borrowed never completed their educational program, or that they were unable to find jobs and repay the loans when they graduated. Colleges with consistently high default rates may be barred from student loan programs, and students attending these institutions may thus be ineligible for Federal loans.

  • Have other students who have gone to this college liked it? What has their experience been?
    Colleges should be able to refer you to current students or recent graduates of their programs. These individuals can give you their opinion about classes, facilities, the faculty (teachers), and the skills they have learned.

  • What kinds of facilities does this college have? Are they adequate for my child's needs?
    You and your child should consider the condition of classrooms, libraries, and dormitories when choosing a college. The types of facilities appropriate for a college depend on the type of education provided. For example, a college offering classes in the sciences should have modern laboratories, and an institution that offers computer education classes should have adequate computer facilities.

Admissions Requirements and Financial Aid

  • What admissions requirements does this college have?
    Each institution can require students to take certain high school classes and submit certain items with their applications. Make sure you know what is required by the schools that interest your child.

  • Is this college accredited by an agency recognized by the secretary of education and eligible to participate in federal student aid programs?
    Federal financial aid is available only to students attending eligible institutions. Students attending other institutions cannot receive federal financial aid. If you are interested in having your child apply for federal financial aid, be wary of unaccredited institutions and those with high default rates. You can call the Federal Student Financial Aid Information Center toll-free to find out if a particular college is an eligible institution. The number is 1-800-4FED-AID.

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