Finding The Best College Fit

It’s the time of year when high school seniors are making decisions about where to apply to college.  The decisions are big and scary, and a student’s success in college begins here.

So let’s talk about “college fit” – helping your child find the best college for him or her.  Don’t get sucked into the frenzy and the competition.  This isn’t about bragging rights – it’s about sending your child to the college or university that best meets his needs (intellectual, academic, and social) and helps him grow into a confident adult with a bright future.

We all worry about affordability, and the opportunities for scholarships and financial aid are important in making a college choice.  What is the average debt upon graduation at the colleges your child is considering?  What work/study opportunities are available?  How many students get grants as opposed to loans?  I warn all parents against allowing their children to graduate from college loaded down with debt.  That’s not a good way to begin adult life, and it limits a young adult’s opportunities and choices.  It simply isn’t worth it.

The academic program and academic support services are key considerations.  Different colleges excel in different areas of study, and your child needs to find a school that matches her interests and needs.  What majors are available?  Are there opportunities for study abroad?  Some colleges provide a broad-based liberal arts education, while others focus on preparation for a career.

Here’s another warning: kids frequently change their minds about what they want to study and what they want to do.  One of my sons, for example, went to a large state school for the engineering program, but ended up pursuing licensure as a high school biology teacher.  So it’s best to enroll at a school with a broad focus unless your child is absolutely set on a particular course of study.

Other factors to consider include class sizes and whether or not the undergraduates are taught by professors.  Name brand colleges may have an illustrious faculty, but those folks are not teaching the freshman and sophomores!  Who is teaching them?  Graduate students – and they don’t always speak English very well.  And will your child be successful in lecture classes with several hundred students?  Some students do fine, but others need a more personal touch.

If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan in high school, it’s important to check out the services for students with disabilities.  Colleges are required to provide services through 504 plans (IEP’s don’t apply after high school graduation), but the quality and accessibility of the services can vary widely.  Make sure that your child will be eligible for services, and that those services will meet his needs.

Another consideration is the location of the campus.  How far from home is the college, and how much will it cost to get home?  Are students allowed to have cars?  How will the setting, urban or rural, affect your child?  One of my sons started out at a large urban campus, and he just hated it there.  Academically it was fine, but he couldn’t stand the urban environment.  He was much happier at a medium-sized campus in a rural setting with lots of outdoor opportunities.  Other students can’t stand being isolated on a rural campus in the middle of nowhere – especially if freshman can’t have a car.

An aspect of “college fit” that is often overlooked is student life – and this may be the most important factor in whether or not your child is happy and healthy in college.  How diverse is the college in terms of students, faculty, and tolerance for different viewpoints?  Will your child feel comfortable and accepted there, or will she be a fish out of water?  Large schools have lots of different extra-curricular and leadership opportunities – but the competition for those opportunities is fierce and difficult.  It can be hard for students to find their place on a big campus.  On the other hand, a small college can be too restrictive for a student who needs to spread her wings and explore all kinds of possibilities.

One of my sons had a lot of difficulty transitioning from a small rural high school to a large state university.  We had to intentionally problem-solve how he could find a place for himself there.  He didn’t want to join a fraternity, the usual solution, and it took him a while to find acceptance at the campus radio station and on the club crew team.

Another problem my son experienced as a freshman was the disparity between his financial situation and that of the others on his hall.  For example, the others often went out to eat at a steakhouse rather than eating in the cafeteria – and my son couldn’t do that.  It can be difficult for a student with limited funds to avoid social isolation.

Other aspects of student life include the role of Greek life on campus, whether or not the majority of students live on campus, and if most students stay on campus during the weekends.  Vibrant student life includes lots of inclusive activities for all students – and that’s often not true on campuses where fraternities and sororities dominate the social scene.  That’s fine for students who are interested in Greek life, but not so great for those who are not.

To sum up, it’s more important for students to attend colleges that are a good fit than to focus on status and fame.  Think about affordability, academic programs, academic support, location, and student life.  Find the school that will challenge your child, but also provide him with a comfortable, supportive living situation in which he can thrive.

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Alice Wellborn is the author of the recently released book, The Savvy Parent’s Guide to Public School, available on Amazon.  This practical guide helps parents navigate the frustrating world of public education.  Designed to empower parents to work effectively with teachers and school administrators, the book provides parents with the information and tools they need to become strong partners in their child’s school community.

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