It’s that time of year, when high-school seniors receive their admissions decisions from colleges along with their financial-aid packages and are left to figure out where to go next fall (if they haven’t done so already). For many students and their families, it’s a time of high anxiety in making what is probably the most significant decision of their lives.
What’s perhaps most surprising is that for many students their first visit to the college they’re considering might happen in the coming weeks. About a quarter of campus visits by prospective students occur in April, according to an analysis by VisitDays, a company that helps colleges schedule student visits. Of those students who visit in April, about half of them are stepping foot on campus for the first time after submitting their application.
To make the most of those campus visits, there are three key questions students and their families should be asking as they narrow down the list of colleges to their final choice:
1. Does the college or university care about undergraduate education and offer a breadth of academic programs?
Yes, that’s two questions embedded in one, but they are closely related.
Most major universities are hybrid institutions that perform research and educate undergraduates. At too many institutions, the undergraduate part of the equation is an afterthought, particularly for first-year students who are usually taught by graduate students or part-time professors. So as you look at colleges, remember that you are choosing the place where you want to earn your bachelor’s degree, not necessarily your master’s or Ph.D.
In addition, most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to do with their lives. By the end of their first year, a quarter of all freshmen change their mind about their field of study. Another half of first-year students say they plan to change majors, according to studies by UCLA. Pick the campus that has a range of undergraduate academic programs and is not just strong in your first choice for a major. In all likelihood, you’ll change your mind about your major at least once.
Also remember that majors don’t equal careers or even jobs, with the exception of a few professional academic programs, such as engineering. As I interviewed recent graduates during the past two years for my forthcoming book, There Is Life After College, the students who felt best served by their undergraduate education were those who received a broad-based education in their course work and gained specific job-related skills in hands-on learning opportunities through internships and research projects.
2. How much debt will you need to take on during four years of school?
Mark Kantrowitz, a leading expert on financial aid, has calculated that half of all colleges give first-year students bigger grants than they do sophomores, juniors, and seniors. In other words, the student loan you take on your first year is likely to be the smallest of your undergraduate career, especially because federal limits on loan amounts increase as you go through college (they are $5,500 for freshmen and $7,500 by the time you reach your junior year).
How much is too much to borrow for college? In interviews for my book, most of the students I talked with who were thriving after college didn’t have any debt at all or just a few thousand dollars, which allowed them maximum flexibility to take the best job opportunity after graduation, in any location no matter the salary. What’s more, according to Gallup’s polling data, most entrepreneurs owe less than $10,000 in student loans — debt any greater has a negative impact on the decision to start a business.
Debt is inevitable for most students. Of those who financed college through loans, the class of 2015 left commencement day $35,000 in debt, on average. Today, 42 percent of those in their 20s and early 30s have student-loan debt. In 1989, only 17 percent did.
The federal government suggests that no more than 15 percent of your income should go toward paying off student-loan debt. Another rule of thumb: Your total undergraduate borrowing should be limited to what you might expect to make your first year after graduation.
3. What is the graduation rate for students like me?
Parents and counselors spend an inordinate amount of time focused on getting students into college. But the most important thing is getting them to commencement day four years later. Only slightly more than 50 percent of American students who enter college leave with a bachelor’s degree.
There are 12.5 million 20-somethings with some college credits and no degree, by far the largest share of the 31 million adults who leave college short of a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Graduation rates differ by gender, major, and financial status. Be sure to ask the colleges you are considering what the graduation rate is for students like you, not the entire student body.
Making the decision about where to go to college might seem momentous right now, but it’s not a jail sentence. Remember that you can switch campuses a year or two from now, and indeed many do: one-third of students transfer at least once before they earn a bachelor’s degree, so you might be doing this all over again next spring.