The College Rankings That Really Matter: Yours

Struggling to find the right college? Get beyond the conventional ranking systems to find the best fit for you with these essential school selection tips.

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Education Your Way

Choosing the right college can be overwhelming. It may seem like everything rides on this decision - your academic future, your job prospects and your happiness for the next four to six years of your life. And there are a lot of factors to consider, not the least of which may be pressure from your parents, teachers or peers.

For many students, this is where college rankings come in. Popular top college lists from The Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek offer a baseline measure of a school's reputation. The rankings can also provide data-based analysis of factors like academic strength, diversity and 'bang for your buck' - or quality weighted against cost.

Want to know more about how colleges are evaluated? Don't miss the guide to college rankings.

Many alternative ranking systems have also cropped up to serve students and parents who are looking for something different. For several years now, The Sierra Club has offered its 'Cool Schools,' a ranking of the 100 greenest colleges in the U.S. More recently, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released the What Will They Learn? website, which rates schools based on the presence of math, science, literature, foreign language, economics, composition and U.S. history in their curricula.

But there are natural limitations to all ranking systems. American colleges and universities are incredibly diverse, and even the most fine-grained rankings end up whitewashing many of these differences. Furthermore, even the authors of the rankings admit that there are intangible qualities of the college experience that can't be measured in numbers. The classroom dynamic, social environment, campus living - all of these aspects of school have a significant effect on whether or not an institution is a good fit. And they aren't really accounted for in ranking systems.

So in spite of the pressure to attend Ivy League universities or top-ranked, big-name schools, it's important to remember: Everyone's college experience is unique, and so is the decision-making process.

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10 College Considerations

Now that you've gotten beyond the rankings, here are 10 important factors to consider when making your college choice:

1. Location

'Location, location, location' isn't just important in real estate. The location of your college can have a significant impact on the quality of your experience.

First you'll want to decide if you prefer to be close to home, across the country or somewhere in between. Next, you should consider whether you'll be happiest in a big city, suburban outpost or rural college town. Finally, you'll want to choose your favorite regions - most students apply to schools all over the country, but it can help your ultimate decision to know what areas are the most attractive to you.

2. Size

There are three important measures of college size: Total enrollment, individual class size and student-to-teacher ratio.

Universities with large student bodies tend to offer more degree programs and greater student diversity, but they can also make students feel like anonymous numbers in a crowd. Small colleges often have fewer options, but they typically offer more intimate relationships between students and faculty (which can be a plus or a minus, depending on your perspective).

The size of your classes will also affect your experience. Do you prefer large lectures with 100+ people or small conferences with 20 or fewer students? Both have their advantages, and both can be found at large and small institutions. Find out what the average class size is both in your school as a whole and in upper division courses, which tend to be smaller.

Finally, student-to-faculty ratio can affect more than class size. Students at schools with lower ratios tend to have more opportunities to build relationships with professors, which can lead to research opportunities, recommendations and even mentorship.

3. Academic Strengths

If you already know what you want to study, this one is easy: Look for colleges that excel in that area.

For the majority of students, this is more about academic environment than a particular subject. If you're interested in a broad-based, classical education, focus on liberal arts schools. If your interests lie more in skills-based or vocational studies, consider technical or mechanical schools. If what you want is a breadth of options, look for large research universities.

4. Flexibility

How much control do you want over your education? Many schools have strict general education requirements and direct pathways to specific degrees. But there are also options out there for students who are more self-directed or interested in exploring alternative education.

For example, both Hampshire College, a private liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Evergreen State College, a public state college in Olympia, Washington, allow students to design their own degree programs. And many other schools have honors programs or alternative tracks for students hoping to get off the beaten academic path.

5. Class Experience

This is one of the qualities that is most difficult to measure. As noted above, you can get at part of it by looking at class size - will you be in a lot of large lectures or small conferences? But most of it comes from the quality of the teachers and the atmosphere in classes.

The only way to really figure out if the classroom environment at a school will suit you is to sit in on a couple of classes. Make sure to check out classes at the introductory and advanced levels and in different departments. Although things will differ from professor to professor, you'll start to get a sense of what you can expect from the school, and what sort of classroom performance will be expected of you.


6. Workload

Some students want nothing more than to dive into a new academic tome every night, while others find themselves struggling under large homework expectations. Be realistic about your strengths and abilities, and seek out a school where you can thrive.

7. Cost

Sadly, many students these days find themselves saddled with six figures of debt after finishing their bachelor's degrees. This can be crippling for young people just starting out, especially in today's economy. As a result more and more prospective students are seriously weighing college costs.

But there's more to this analysis than sticker price. Many of the colleges with the highest tuition also offer the most need-based financial aid. When considering college cost, look at the availability of institutional scholarships and grants, whether or not you'll qualify for subsidized federal student loans and, wherever possible, the debt to income ratio of recent graduates.

8. Social Environment

Social development is an important part of the college experience, and the wrong environment can lead to four miserable years. So how do you measure the social atmosphere at a school? Things to consider include:

  • Politics: Is the campus predominantly conservative or liberal, or are opinions diverse?
  • Religion: Is a faith-based education important to you, or do you prefer that religion stay personal?
  • Parties: Are you looking for Animal House or do you prefer to spend your Saturday nights in the library?
  • Varsity athletics and Greek life: These extracurriculars tend to create a very specific school atmosphere. Is the energy created by team spirit and fraternities right for you?

9. Extracurriculars

Many students feel strongly about the presence (or absence) of sports programs and Greek life. Others may be interested in multicultural student groups, gay-straight alliances or special interest clubs like music, arts or science fiction. If you have a passion that extends outside of academia, find out if your interests are well represented in your school's extracurricular life.

10. Residence

Some students dream of life in the dorms, while others prefer the independence of commuting. Find out whether or not you're required to live on campus during your first year, and what the quality of campus residence halls is like. If you're considering living on campus, you may also want to look into your dining options.

Those who prefer the off-campus experience should look into the availability of housing near the school. Does the college have a program to help students find housing? How long is an acceptable commute? What sort of rent can you afford, and can you live with what's available in your price range?

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