Picking the Right School

When it comes to getting an undergraduate degree, choosing a program of study is just the beginning of college prep. Perhaps just as important is choosing the school that will be right for you. During the all-important selection process, you'll want to consider the school's reputation, the quality of the program you are interested in, the location of the school, and the cost of the program. Give yourself some time to examine the different schools that interest you - choosing the college where you will study for the next several years is not a decision that should be rushed or taken lightly. Here's what you'll want to know about potential schools:

Does the school have a good reputation? Look for a school that is recognized as a leader in your field of choice. If you want to study economics, a school that is recognized as a standout in the performing arts may not be the best option. Unless you happen to be a star athlete, a school known more for its academics than its football team is probably a better choice. Finally, always choose accredited schools - they're the ones that have been recognized by the established academic community as quality institutions.

Does the program have a good reputation? The college you're interested in may not be considered one of the best in the country, but its biology program might be tops in the land. Look at the reputation of both the program and the school. Ideally, the program should be recognized nationally, not just in your state. Many schools are happy to provide employment statistics about their graduates. A quick way to determine if the program has a good reputation is to look at the positions and salaries of recent program grads.

How qualified are faculty members? Although you will interact personally with faculty members less than you did in high school, the quality of any program's faculty is a crucial consideration, as they will be the individuals largely responsible for making you an expert in your field of study. A quality faculty member will have numerous and recent publications, a strong reputation as an expert in a particular area, and ample research experience. No matter what field you choose to study, you'll want to find a well-connected mentor to cultivate and maintain a relationship with throughout your time at the university.

Where is the school located? Most students who decide to obtain an undergraduate degree attend classes full-time or part-time. For many, this means leaving their hometown and living close to the college campus or in a campus dormitory during the academic year. In this way, travel time is minimized, and the student is always a convenient distance away from classes and campus facilities. If the college is relatively close, some students may choose to live at home and commute to the college campus. To determine whether this is a realistic option, consider the total amount of time you will be away from home each week. Include travel time and class time in your reckoning. You should also consider that you will likely have to meet with other students during the evenings and on weekends to work on group assignments and presentations. If you feel you can handle the expense of travel and the additional time spent in getting to your classes, then commuting to your college campus can be a cheaper option. A third option that is growing in popularity is online learning. These programs typically allow students to complete all or most of their program requirements online, and are good options for older students who may already have career and family commitments. Students enrolled in online learning programs can usually complete course requirements on their own schedules. However, interaction with course instructors and fellow students may be limited, meaning your college experience may not be as rich as it could be. In addition, not all programs can be completed online, particularly those that require hands-on learning. All of these factors should be taken into account when you are deciding between a real or virtual learning environment.

How much does the program cost? If you will have to take out a loan to fund your education, the cost of your program is an important consideration. Specifically, you will have to choose whether to attend a public or private school. While private undergrad schools are often more recognized, they cost significantly more - tuition for a single year of study can be as high as $35,000. In addition, federal loans, which usually have lower interest rates, may be unavailable. Public schools, on the other hand, cost much less - tuition costs for a year will usually average around $3,500. Low interest loans are also more widely available. The decision about whether to attend a public or private institution should be based in part on your program of study. If you plan to complete a professional program, like nursing, you can usually expect the same rate of pay after you graduate, regardless of whether you attended a public or private college.

What is the typical class size? For some students, a small class size is extremely important; others are fine with larger classes. Keep in mind that, while smaller schools may be more personal, they often don't have resources comparable to large schools. When considering class size, look at the total number of students enrolled in your program. You'll probably attend most classes with this group. Some electives and extra courses may consist of students from other programs as well.

What values are reflected in the program? Some students wish to enroll in programs made up of individuals who share their religious, political, or personal values. Others want to interact with people who hold different beliefs and values. Most schools will provide information about the diversity of students within a program. You may choose to take the degree of diversity of the student population into account when choosing a school.

Is there flexibility in course scheduling? Do you have an ample amount of flexibility with respect to when you will attend classes, or is your course schedule largely set in stone? In general, larger schools will offer more flexibility in class scheduling. This factor becomes more significant for those students who plan to commute to the campus rather than live in a dormitory. Keep in mind, however, that you will likely have to be on campus at times other than when your classes are scheduled. Presentations, group projects, and other assignments will involve being on campus "after hours."

How long is the program? Program length can vary, depending on which field you choose to study and which school you choose to attend. Internships, holidays, and summer breaks can all influence the total length of a program. You may be able to complete a program in less time by taking more courses each semester. However, it's important not to take on more than you can handle. Bad grades or class withdrawals never look good on a transcript, and they can seriously compromise your chances of getting a great job after graduation. Taking an extra semester or two and putting the proper amount of effort into all of your courses is well worth it in the long run.

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Last Updated: 04/24/2014

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