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Five Things to Look For When Choosing a College

My oldest daughter is a high school junior, and she’s started the journey of looking for a college. It’s hard to believe that my little girl is already so grown up. It seems like only yesterday she was tackling me with a hug and demanding, “Love me!”

To be honest, that was yesterday. The kid likes to hug. Maybe she’s trying to hoard love and snuggling before she moves on from her childhood home. For her, like so many other young adults, the first step is college. Here are five things we are considering as she looks for her best college match.

1. Major

Obviously, she is going to need a find a college that offers her major. Luckily for her, most colleges offer elementary education, so she is able to cast a wide net. I think it’s a good idea to choose a college that also offers other programs that might interest her, in case she changes her mind. She’s welcome to be a hula major if that’s truly where her passion lies, but that pretty much locks her into the university system in Hawaii.

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2. Two-year or four-year school?

Full disclosure: I work at Kirkwood Community College, so I do have some bias. Two-year schools are an excellent consideration to save money. A student can take general education courses that will transfer to four-year schools. Community colleges also offer career programs which lead directly to degrees or certificates, in programs such as welding, or dog grooming, or criminal justice.

Of course I won’t deny that four-year schools have their own advantages. The student can start as a freshman with a cohort of students who will be there until  graduation, and she can get immediately integrated into campus life. Four-year colleges and universities are more likely to have dorms, which are a great first step toward living independently–with a Resident Assistant right down the hall.

3. Size

My daughter likes the idea of a smaller school. Not tiny, but not overwhelming. Her best friend is more interested in a big school. Some people love the pageantry and the diversity of opportunity of a Big 10 school like the University of Iowa. Other students thrive in a more close-knit, small town feel. Both have their advantages; the University might have more research opportunities, and at the smaller college the student could have a chance to connect more with professors. My mildly agoraphobic child likes the idea of a school without large crowds.

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4. Atmosphere

What sort of extracurriculars are offered at the college? I was in the Hawkeye Marching Band, and I joined a non-theater major student group where I met most of my friends. My daughter might be interested in a dance group, or a writing group, or an eating pizza group. Your child might be interested in the Greek sorority/fraternity system. Extracurriculars are a wonderful part of the college experience, and it’s good to know what will be offered. Your student might also like to know how tolerant the college is of LGBTQ students, by checking a list such as this one. Your student may also want to see what opportunities the school has for study abroad. You might want your student to stay far away from schools that hit the top ten party schools. Your child may convince you that the benefits of Tulane outweigh the risks.

5. Cost

Unless you have a Scrooge McDuck-style vault full of money you can dive into, you and your child will need to be conscious of the costs of going to college. In-state tuition is often cheaper, although out-of- state schools may offer attractive financial aid packages. You can fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) starting October 1. You’ll use prior-prior year taxes—which means if you have a student who will graduate high school in 2018, you will be using 2016 taxes.

You’ll probably be taken aback by your Expected Family Contribution when the FAFSA is figured—it’s likely to be a much higher number than you can actually afford if you want to do things like “eat” or “pay your mortgage.” Don’t worry; this is not actually what you’re expected to contribute to your child’s education—it’s just a number that the Federal Government uses to determine your student’s financial aid eligibility. Remember that there are many scholarships available that could help your child pay for school. I recommend signing up for a website like fastweb.com, which aggregates scholarship opportunities and emails you about them regularly.

If it’s possible for you, try to visit the campuses of schools your child is interested in.

She or he can get a good feel for campus, and judge if they would be happy to call it home for four (or more) years. Pay attention to the intangibles. Are the classrooms clean? Do the staff seem approachable? Do the students seem happy? You don’t want to be surrounded by miserable people as you begin your approach to adulthood.

We’ve been on one campus visit so far, to the University of Northern Iowa. For my daughter, everything else will have to measure up to that experience. Also, UNI had free ice cream in the cafeteria, so our 10-year-old daughter has already decided she’s attending there.

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Is my daughter a future Panther? Maybe. We’ve got some time left to make a decision, but this is the year. Next year she’ll start the application process, and hopefully the flurry of college acceptance letters soon after. And pretty soon I’ll be writing, “How to survive when your baby goes away to school.”


 

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