Don’t Just Look at Rankings When Choosing a College — Consider These 12 Factors Too

 July 29, 2020
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Each year, the U.S. News & World Report college rankings list the schools they consider to be the best in several categories. These lists are not perfect, but they can be helpful. However, there are many other factors to consider when choosing a college.

Here’s a look at some problems with the rankings and, more importantly, 12 other key factors in choosing a college.

How U.S. News college rankings might affect college costs

The U.S. News rankings analyze a variety of factors to choose the “best” schools in the country.

However, a 2017 report from Politico said that some colleges influence their rankings by admitting wealthier students, by spending more money on their facilities, or both. Not only might this decrease educational opportunities for lower-income students, but it can also contribute to the increase in tuition costs across the board, the report said.

Spending more on faculty salaries and more per student, for example, could increase a university’s ranking, Politico said. But to afford this increased spending, it must, in turn, hike prices for students.

On the other hand, these rankings — and others like them — do have their uses. For example, the U.S. News rankings consider several important categories such as “top public schools,” “best value schools,” “national liberal arts colleges” and “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

The Princeton Review also ranks colleges, weighing such factors as demographics, politics and social scene.

Still, these lists won’t necessarily give you everything you need to know about your school choices. Before you make any decisions, consider these other factors.

12 factors to consider when choosing a college

1. Price
2. Academics
3. The professors
4. Retention and graduation rates
5. Location
6. Size
7. Flexibility for nontraditional students
8. Student body
9. Party school or no party school?
10. Extracurriculars and special programs
11. Safety
12. Career support
Plus: Tips on making your final college choice

1. Price

One of the most important factors for many students to consider is the overall cost of the college they will attend.

Today’s average graduate has $29,900 in student loan debt, according to our 2020 report. Choosing a less expensive option means you can take out fewer loans and graduate with a far less burdensome debt load.

When considering which college to attend, you should also carefully compare the financial aid you’re offered, including scholarships and grants. If you’re trying to decide between a few schools, for instance, and one offers a better financial aid package overall, that may be your best choice, as long as you think the school is a good fit in other ways.

2. Academics

You’re in school to learn and forge your career path, so make sure your school offers strong programs in the subjects you want to study. Is your interest in the liberal arts? In the STEM field? Are you thinking about going pre-med? How about getting a degree in teaching?

While some prospective students might focus on the “big name” schools, such as those in the Ivy League, there are many smaller schools that may offer even stronger programs in your particular field of choice.

When you’re visiting campuses, drop in on different departments and look at the research and work they’re producing. Check out all the facilities — you may be surprised at your ultimate final choice.

3. The professors

Ivy League schools get a lot of attention for attracting top professors. However, many other schools have esteemed professors on their faculty, and there may be a particular professor or two you’re interested in taking a class with. Maybe one of your favorite writers is in the English department of one of your potential schools? Or perhaps you follow a certain economist who teaches at another?

You should consider the overall quality of professors at each school, but also those who might be of particular interest to you.

4. Retention and graduation rates

You want to attend a school that supports its students — and where students want to remain.

So when you’re on the college hunt, check out each school’s retention rate (the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year) and graduation rate (the percentage of students who graduate within six years).

It should be pointed out that these rates are top factors in the general U.S. News & World Report ranking, which is one reason why you might choose to at least consider the rankings as being part of (but not all of) your college-search toolbox.

5. Location

You can’t overlook the location of the school: Its distance from your home, the weather and its proximity to job opportunities. If you love warm weather, for example, you might consider a college in Florida or Southern California. If you love the chill and snow, perhaps upstate New York or Vermont might be better for you.

You should also consider how the campus makes you feel when you go on a college visit. Are you happy? Relaxed? Does the atmosphere feel good to you?

How about the surrounding area? Do you prefer a school located in a bustling city with lots of outside entertainment choices? Or is a quiet and bucolic campus hidden away in a very small town more your style? Do you want to live on campus for your entire college career, or in an apartment off campus?

Location factors vary greatly by individual, so you should have a real understanding of your unique wants and needs before you decide on a school.

6. Size

Along with location, you should consider the size of the school you plan to attend. Do you think you’d enjoy being surrounded by a large crowd of students, and having some classes that can fill whole auditoriums? Or is a tiny liberal arts school with fewer than 2,000 students more your speed?

There can be pluses and minuses for both, but they will depend largely on your unique perspective. A smaller school may have a more favorable teacher/student ratio, meaning it’s possible to get more individual attention from your professors. On the other hand, a larger college might offer far more variety in classes, and more experience with a diverse group of professors and students.

7. Flexibility for nontraditional students

If you’re a nontraditional student — an older student or a single parent, for example — it’s vital you find a university that caters to you. Whatever your needs might be, ask about them when you’re hunting for your perfect school.

If you’re an older undergraduate student, consider a school that caters well to your demographic. If you have to work during the day, for instance, find out if the school offers courses at night. If you have children, see if the school has child care facilities, or if there is easy access to child care in the area. Are you married? Consider schools that offer good married housing options.

8. Student body

One of the best parts of college can be exposure to new ideas, which you’ll experience when you meet people who aren’t like you. So a student body that’s economically and ethnically diverse, rather than one that caters largely to one particular demographic, can be a bonus.

On the other hand, you might prefer a school that supports your culture and beliefs, such as a historically black college or a religious school that discourages drinking, and that can also be the right decision for your academic life and your future.

Visiting different colleges can help you make your decision when it comes to this factor. In some cases, prospective students may be surprised to learn they prefer a more diverse campus than they originally thought. In others, they may realize that they are most comfortable at a school in which the student body reflects their cultures and beliefs. Either choice is fine, as long as it’s what you truly desire.

9. Party school or no party school?

When you’re considering the student body, you should also consider the overall culture of the school, and how the student body lives. Of course, no school really has just one kind of student and one form of culture, and there are schools that offer something for everyone. But there are some schools that have more of a “party” reputation than others, who might have more of a reputation for students spending Saturday nights in the library. In addition, some schools have a very strong fraternity and sorority system, while others eschew the Greek life.

Make sure that, overall, the dominant culture on the campus fits your personality and needs. If you’re more quiet and studious, a school with a key focus on loud frat parties may not be your thing. Meanwhile, if you like to let loose, you may not want a campus that’s quiet on the weekends.

10. Extracurriculars and special programs

There are lots of activities outside of just classes that you can enjoy at college. For example, the school you ultimately attend may have a particularly good newspaper or humor publication you may want to write for. Perhaps there’s a great hiking club, political activist group, chess club or theater group. And of course, college sports can be a huge factor if you’re the athletic type.

You might also want to consider whether your school offers strong study abroad opportunities. Ultimately, school should be about so much more than just sitting in a classroom, so consider all of these potential offerings when you’re making your choice.

11. Safety

It may not be the first thing you consider when looking at a school, but you might want to consider the safety statistics attached to your prospective school.

Have there been high incidents of crime on or around campus? How strong are the campus security offerings — for example, are rides offered on campus for students walking after dark? When visiting a prospective school, do you feel safe there when walking at night, and do you see a visible security presence? And if something does happen to you, are there good reporting and support services available nearby?

You can also consider health and mental health services to be a part of a school’s overall safety rating. How well does a prospective school support students who are in trouble?

12. Career support

The whole point of attending college — besides learning and making lifelong friends — is to enhance your post-graduation career prospects.

So in addition to visiting the admissions office, it’s worth checking out career services at your prospective schools. Ask about what kind of support you can get for internships, career development and job searches, particularly as these relate to your field of choice. You could also find out if there’s a strong alumni network that you can be connected with upon graduation.

Making your final college choice

Figuring out where you’re going to spend your college years is an extremely important and very personal choice, so don’t simply rely on ranking publications to guide your decision. Consider all the factors that are most important to you as you hunt for your best college experience.

Here you can find our guide on how to compare colleges. And for a more personal take, here are stories from five grads on how they chose their perfect college.

Finally, as you embark on your own hunt, know that there are search tools to find your dream school available online for free. For instance, College Scorecard can create lists of schools based on what you see as most important. In the end, it’s your rankings that matter the most.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.

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