Choosing a college can be a daunting decision. Not only do you want to find a school that will be a good fit academically, but you also have to think about the school’s size, location and culture.
With all of these factors to consider, how can you single it down to the college that’s right for you? For firsthand insight, Student Loan Hero spoke to five alumni who loved their college experience.
Find out what these graduates loved about their schools, along with their advice for selecting a college that you’ll feel connected to for years to come.
- My college kept me out of debt
- My college was the perfect size
- My college made it easy to make new friends and get to know the professors
- My college struck the right balance between academics and social events
- My college taught me practical work skills
Communications manager Ken Schwartz loved his years at California State University, Northridge so much that he’s still the alumni president 30 years later.
“It was the perfect school for me because it allowed me to work, be social and follow my educational path in a timely manner,” Schwartz told Student Loan Hero.
But perhaps most importantly, his education at California State University, Northridge was affordable.
“It wasn’t nearly as expensive as other LA schools like UCLA or USC, so it really helped me in the years following my graduation as it took less time to pay off my debt,” said Schwartz. “I may not have realized just how important that was but thank goodness my parents helped steer me in the right direction on this point.”
Bottom line: While there are a number of important factors that go into choosing a college, including academics, career preparation and social events, don’t forget about the cost. By choosing an affordable school, you can avoid taking on a burdensome amount of student loan debt. And if you do need to cover a funding gap with student loans, shop around to ensure you find your best interest rate.
John Frigo, now an SEO lead at a fitness supplement company, told Student Loan Hero he “really loved” his experience at Eastern Illinois University, particularly for the size of its student body and campus.
“Eastern [Illinois University] was the perfect size,” said Frigo. “It was somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 students, so a decent size, lots of students, lots of people to meet and things to do, but not so big that the campus is spread out or you have to take buses around. Everything was walking distance, and it still had a small school feel.”
Frigo also appreciated going to a school where most students lived and socialized on campus.
“Many schools that are close to cities wind up getting commuter students,” said Frigo. “Eastern was far enough away from Chicago that people stayed there and it really had a college campus feel to it. Students outnumbered the regular population so the whole town kind of catered to college students and university life.”
Bottom line: Student population and location are both important factors when choosing a school. Consider whether you’d like to go to a small, medium or large school in a rural, suburban or urban setting. Use college search tools to filter your options, and visit campuses so you can get a feel for whether a school’s environment is the right fit for you.
For Tess Robison, now an outreach specialist for personal finance website Money Done Right, the size of the student population was also the reason she enjoyed her experience at college so much. More specifically, she appreciated that the small size of The Master’s University made it easy to make friends and get to know professors.
“It was a small but tight-knit community where everyone shared similar values,” said Robison. “[The professors and staff] really worked with you if you ever and an issue and they genuinely wanted the best for you. You weren’t just another number like someone at a big school would be.”
Robison also says this tight network helped her build her career after graduating.
“Once you graduate and get a job, you understand how important those connections with other people can help later in life,” she said. “Having a good relationship with your professors, advisor, administrators and other school departments can really give you a leg up.”
Bottom line: Before choosing a school, do some digging on the size of its classes and its student-to-professor ratio. Maybe you prefer big lectures, or perhaps you’re drawn to more intimate discussions groups and seminars. Think about your learning style so you can find the right approach at your college of choice.
For nutritionist and physiologist Melissa Morris, choosing the right college all came down to balance.
“I loved my university [Southeast Missouri State University] because it had a good mixture of academics, athletics, social opportunities and organizations,” said Morris. “It was large enough to have all those opportunities available, but also small enough that I was able to get to know my professors and didn’t feel like just another name. My university was also far enough from my parents that I felt independent, but also close enough that I could easily visit for the weekend.”
When researching colleges, think about academic and internship opportunities, social life, campus dining, athletics, Greek life, location and other features. Morris suggests considering all of these criteria before choosing a school.
“It’s important for high schoolers to find out as much about the colleges and universities they are interested in before they commit to one school,” said Morris. “Tours, admissions events and open houses can give you a lot of information.”
Bottom line: Do your research, visit schools and think deeply about what you want to get out of college. While you might not find a school that checks every box, you should be able to find one that fits most of your criteria.
Timothy Brown, now the co-owner of digital marketing agency Hook Agency, chose to attend a community college, and he says he’s “so happy he did.”
“The main reason I loved my college is that I got super-practical almost ‘trade-oriented’ technical information about my work,” said Brown, who attended Minneapolis Community & Technical College.
“To me, community and technical colleges paired with ambition and getting to work on your career even while you’re still at school … can lead to awesome results,” he added.
Plus, Brown’s relatively affordable education meant he was able to pay off his student loans just a few years after graduating.
Bottom line: While college can be a time of exploration, it’s also useful to consider your career goals, especially if you’ll be taking on student loans. Some students take a gap year to reflect on their goals, while others work at internships or part-time jobs during college to clarify what they want to do after they graduate. If you have a clear goal, make sure to choose a college that offers the academic rigor, research opportunities or internship experiences to help you achieve it.
With thousands of options across the country, picking a college can be a difficult choice. To make it easier on yourself, think about what your dream school would look like. Consider factors such as:
- Academics and majors
- Internship and study abroad opportunities
- Social events and organizations
- Community service and volunteer groups
- Location and size
- Campus housing and dining
- Class size and student-to-professor ratio
And of course, don’t forget to compare costs and financial aid offers. Even if a school has everything you’re looking for, it might not be worth attending if you’d have to take on massive student debt to do so.
In the end, what you get out of your college experience has a lot to do with what you put into it. So don’t worry too much about making the “perfect” choice, because every school has something unique to offer. And if you’re disappointed with your choice, you can always transfer colleges to find one that’s a better fit.