Your Guide on How to Compare Colleges

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Choosing where to go to college is a big decision. You’re advised to apply to a number of schools — The College Board suggests five to eight, though others may say more — and making a choice can be challenging.

Receiving acceptance letters from schools is a huge achievement and an amazing moment. But as soon as those letters come in, the real work begins. To make the best decision for you, it’s important to do your homework and identify the biggest influences in your evaluation, such as cost (often a big factor) or ranking.

If you’re not sure how to compare colleges, the steps below can help you through the process:

How to compare colleges (thoroughly)
10 factors to consider
Tools to help you in your journey
Choosing a college

How to compare colleges (thoroughly)

Once you have your list of potential schools, narrowing it down becomes more complicated. Reviewing your choices online may not provide enough information, so if it is possible, try to visit a school in person to get a feel for its culture.

Take a tour

Scheduling a tour with the university admissions office allows you to see the campus, talk with current students and ask staff questions about what to expect.

You can get a great idea of what the school is like, how big the classes are, what the dorms look like and what activities are available on-campus.

Touring also can give you insight into how you would adapt to the environment. There’s a big difference between attending a school located in the city versus a college in a rural environment. Some people have determined preferences for and against either option, so seeing the school for yourself can help you decide.

Spend the night

A campus tour is wonderful, but keep in mind that a school-planned tour will be a very polished, prepared view of the college. You may not hear about any of the downsides or get insights into what an actual day on campus is like.

If possible, schedule a night on campus. Some schools will partner you with a guide to shadow — you can attend classes with them, eat in the cafeteria and spend the night in the dorm.

You’ll get a firsthand glimpse of what to expect in a class or what the nightlife is really like. You may get a completely different impression than you got on the official tour.

Talk with alumni

If you’re interested in a particular major, reaching out to alumni in the field can be helpful. For example, if you want to study computer science, ask the school’s office to connect you with alumni working in the technology industry.

Connecting with graduates can give you a unique perspective, and tell you about their experience in finding a job in their field of study after graduation.

Another tip: search for graduates from a particular school on LinkedIn and send them a message with questions about their experience. Many professionals are happy to answer questions from students about their alma mater.

Take notes (and video)

If you applied to several schools, they may all start to blur together after a while. It’s important to stay organized when you compare colleges.

Take notes after each tour or visit and clearly label them with the school’s name. Write down your key impressions about each school.

If you have a smartphone or camera, filming portions of the tour or your overnight stay may help jog your memory about key details. It can help you recall what you enjoyed or disliked about each school.

10 factors to consider

When figuring out how to choose a university or college, there are a number of factors to consider and priorities to set.

For many students, the biggest one that affects their decision is cost; especially those who want to keep their student loan debt to a minimum.

Others might care more about college ranking or graduation information. Below are some key things to keep in mind as you compare colleges.

1. Cost
2. Financial aid
3. Work options
4. School rankings
5. Graduation data
6. Campus size
7. Student-teacher ratio
8. On-campus housing options
9. Major availabilities
10. Pure emotion

1. Cost

College can be prohibitively expensive. The average cost for just tuition and fees at a public four-year and in-state college for 2019-2020 is $10,440, according to The College Board.

Keep in mind tuition is only part of the cost. Room, board, textbooks and fees can add dramatically to your bill. When looking at schools, make sure you have the total cost of attendance so you can make an accurate comparison.

2. Financial aid

When evaluating cost, also consider financial aid. Some schools give out very few scholarships while others give some form of aid to a large percentage of the student body. When you apply to schools, make sure to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application, and list all schools you are considering, not just one.

With your acceptance letter, each school will also send you scholarship offers, work-study options or student loan information.

It is important to note that sometimes financial aid information will come after you get your acceptance letter, so don’t worry if it doesn’t come in the same envelope as your acceptance, as timing varies depending on the college and the date you sent in your FAFSA.

Before ruling out a school based on the price, make sure you look at the complete offer. In some cases, a pricey school can end up being a bargain. For example, if a private school offers a large scholarship it might eclipse the lower cost of a public institution.

3. Work options

Another aspect to consider — especially if you’re looking to limit the debt you take on — is what work options are available. Some schools may have limited on-campus opportunities, such as work-study programs offered by the school, and those may come with fierce competition. At others, there’s work available for any student who wants a part-time job.

If you’re thinking about working off-campus, evaluate how realistic that is. Is the school located in the middle of farm country without many businesses nearby? If that’s the case, getting an off-campus job would be difficult.

4. School rankings

In some industries, where you went to school isn’t a big deal as long as you have a degree. But if you’re planning on entering a competitive field such as law, college ranking and even school prestige, could have a big impact on your career.

The Princeton Review is a terrific resource for comparing schools. They rank each school by prestige, cost, academics, demographics, and quality of life. Compare your prospective schools’ rankings — depending on your desired career, this may hold more or less weight in your decision.

5. Graduation data

When evaluating schools and cost, consider how many students graduate on time. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 42% of students overall who started at a 4-year institution in 2011 graduated from that same school within those four years — and it could take as many as of five or even six years to get a degree. That can add substantially to your costs.

The admissions office of each university should be able to provide you with how many students graduate with a degree and how long, on average, it takes to complete their education.

6. Campus size

Campus size can impact whether or not a school works for you. Going from a small high school to a large college can be an intimidating transition.

But at the same time, smaller schools may not offer the same amount of extracurricular activities and social events. What works best is up to your individual comfort level.

7. Student-teacher ratio

The student-teacher ratio is another important factor. The size of a class can affect how you learn and how much individual attention you can expect. Check with the admissions office to find out the average class size.

8. On-campus housing options

Make sure you understand all of the housing options. At some schools, dorms are coed by room, so you may end up sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex. At others, there’s separate buildings for different genders, as well as quiet halls for those in intensive study programs.

And some schools have luxurious apartments or even townhomes, but they are often reserved for upper-level students.

Many universities and colleges also offer guidance for living off-campus too, which may be more affordable than on-campus housing.

9. Major availabilities

Some schools may have limited major options, or have very limited programs in the subjects you want to study. Make sure you understand what majors the school is well-known for, and speak to alumnae who graduated from that major.

10. Pure emotion

When choosing a school, you should be practical and consider all of the factors — but don’t ignore your gut. Sometimes, your final decision comes down to pure emotion.

When you’ve narrowed down your list and have just two or three options left, ask yourself where you see yourself being happiest.

Tools to help you in your journey

Comparing all of the different factors can be difficult. Thankfully, there are a number of tools that can help you make an informed decision.

CollegeData

CollegeData offers a comprehensive database of information on schools nationwide. One of their most powerful tools is the Financial Aid Tracker.

You can enter your financial aid awards for each school that accepts you, and the tool will break down which is the best offer and why. It’s an objective comparison that can help you understand the complete value of your financial aid package.

Big Future

If you’re not sure where to start, Big Future (from the College Board) offers checklists and guides to help you evaluate each school. They also have videos featuring education experts sharing advice and testimonials from students.

College Scorecard

College Scorecard is an interactive tool provided by the U.S. Department of Education that allows users to investigate a wealth of information on colleges and universities.

The data-rich College Scorecard offers users the ability to search and learn about schools. Searches can include campus setting, type of degree and major programs and location, among other options.

Each scorecard comes with five important pieces of data: graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed by students, costs of the institution, and employment after graduation.

Choosing a college

Choosing where to go to school is a big decision in your life and it can have serious implications for your future. Take your time, thoroughly do your research and get as much information as you can, so you can thoughtfully compare your options.

Focusing on your priorities can streamline the process and help you make the best choice. For more information about choosing a college, check out these 10 schools that offer the most bang for your buck.

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this report.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

2 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

1Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

2This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 5/18/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


3 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Variable rate loans are based on a margin between 2.90% and 16.50% plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.667%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an Annual Percentage (APR) range between 3.18% and 13.92%. Fixed rate loans have an APR range between 4.00% and 14.92% based on your credit worthiness and your selected program. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval. Rates are effective as of 05/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month. (See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment.
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of 0.25% for enrollment in automatic debit applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner signs up for automatic payments and the regularly scheduled, current amount due (including full, flat, or interest only payments, as applicable) is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of In-School, Deferment, Grace or Forbearance. If you have two (2) returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the 0.25% interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the 0.25% interest rate reduction.
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


4 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Health Professions, Law, MBA, Residency, and Private Consolidation. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 1.00% as of April 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  5. Get a variable interest rate from 2.99% APR to 6.24% APR (3-Month LIBOR + 1.99% to 3-Month LIBOR + 5.24%) for either a 10-year or 20-year repayment term. Or lock in a fixed interest rate from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 10-year repayment term or from 3.74% APR to 6.49% APR for a 20-year repayment term. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 1.00% as of April 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both.
Lowest APRs shown are available for the most creditworthy applicants.

5 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

6 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.54%- 6.40% (3.54% – 6.40% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.79% – 6.65% (3.79% – 6.65% APR).

Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 2.72% – 6.11% (2.72% – 6.11% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 3.49% – 6.36% (3.49%-6.36% APR).

Business/Law Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 8.35% (1.47% – 8.20% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.45% – 10.74% (4.45% – 10.59% APR).

Medical/Dental Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 1.47% – 7.25% (1.47% – 7.10% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.40% – 9.64% (4.40% – 9.49% APR).

Parent Loan Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.09%-6.23% (3.09%-6.23% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 5.48%-8.52% (5.48%-8.52% APR).

Bar Study Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 4.79% – 9.93% (4.79% – 9.85% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 7.39% – 12.94% (7.39% – 12.82% APR).

Medical Residency Rate Disclosure:  Variable interest rates range from 3.88% – 7.38% (3.88% – 7.04% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.99% – 10.49% (6.97% – 10.08% APR).

Variable Rate Disclosure: Variable Rates are based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of May 1, 2020, the one-month LIBOR rate is 0.44%. Variable interest rates will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree and presence of a co-signer. The maximum variable rate is the greater of 21.00% or Prime Rate plus 9.00%.

Fixed Rate Disclosure: Fixed rate ranges are based on applicable terms, level of degree, and presence of a co-signer.

Lowest Rate Disclosure: Lowest rates require a 5-year repayment term, immediate repayment, a graduate degree (where applicable), and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Rates are subject to additional terms and conditions, and are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.

Federal Loan vs. Private Loan Benefits: Some federal student loans include unique benefits that the borrower may not receive with a private student loan, some of which we do not offer. Borrowers should carefully review federal benefits, especially if they work in public service, are in the military, are considering possible loan forgiveness options, are currently on or considering income based repayment options or are concerned about a steady source of future income and would want to lower their payments at some time in the future. When the borrower refinances, they waive any current and potential future benefits of their federal loans. For more information about federal student loan benefits and federal loan consolidation, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov/. We also have several resources available to help the borrower make a decision on our website including Should I Refinance My Student Loans? and our FAQs. Should I Refinance My Student Loans? includes a comparison of federal and private student loan benefits that we encourage the borrower to review.

Eligibility Criteria: Applicants must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For applicants who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/Promissory Note, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank participating school.

Loyalty Discount Disclosure: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower or their co-signer (if applicable) has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower and their co-signer (if applicable) have submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, or other student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI, and VT and some products may have an associated cost. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate disclosed in the Loan Approval Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.

Automatic Payment Discount Disclosure: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their student loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. Discount is not available when payments are not due, such as during forbearance. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account three or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

2.00% – 10.01%*,1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

1.49%
11.98%
2
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.18% – 13.92%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

2.09%
11.49%
4
Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

3.52% – 9.50%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

3.54% – 6.40%6Undergraduate and Graduate

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.