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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 04/14/2012

Top 5 factors to weigh when picking a college (by May 1st deadline)

This was written by Danielle Moss Lee, president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. The fund is a supplemental education and youth leadership nonprofit that turns high-potential but underserved New York City public school students into high-achieving college graduates.

By Danielle Moss Lee

While the fall of a student’s senior year (aka college application season) is devoted to getting in to a college, now is the time when acceptances start rolling in and students tear into thick envelopes with anticipation. At the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, we’ve deemed April “Decision Month” to help our students – and their parents – make a decision about which college before the May 1 deadline. Here are the top five factors students across the country should be considering when making this critical decision:

1. Size. When it comes to choosing a college, it isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are significant differences between large and small colleges, and students need to decide what matters to them. Factors to consider include class size, teacher-to-student ratio, name recognition and what options are available on campus – research centers, sporting events, internship opportunities, clubs and organizations, course choices, faculty members and more.

2. Location. Part of the value of college is learning to live on your own, away from your family, and in a city you choose. Students should push themselves to learn how to be successful in a new environment but also still need a support system. Students should consider how far away they can be and still feel comfortable – for some it’s a short car or bus ride, for others it can be a cross-country flight.

3. Finances. Students and their families need to think carefully about the financial impact of their choices. With student loan debt above $1 trillion (surpassing credit card and auto-loan debt) students — especially those from low-income families like many students at the Harlem Educational Activities Fund — need to figure out what the numbers really mean. How much is need-based grant aid and how much is loan-based aid? What will it cost to travel to campus? What incidentals will be required? Will my mother or father need a second job? How many hours will I be allowed to work on campus?

4. Academic focus. Not every student knows what they “want to be when they grow up” and you don’t need to pick a major to pick a college. However, students should consider the variety of courses, curriculum and majors available.

5. ‘Expert’ opinion. Get some insight. Use your family and friends as a resource. Talk to the people you admire personally and professionally, as well as recent graduates who you might know, to find out what they consider the most important aspect of the college experience.

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