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Top five ways to choose a college

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High school students around the nation in their sophomore and junior years start to receive the brochures from colleges that claim to be one of the top choices for students to consider. The brochures boast of technologically advanced classrooms, nationally recognized students and professors, and athletic or social opportunities for all personality types. Many students receive ten to twenty brochures per week. How can anyone make such a life-changing decision at such a young age? Even with parental and school assistance, the options can seem overwhelming at times. Students and parents should ask a few basic questions to help navigate the passage from high school to college.

1. Know yourself and your goals.

Being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, your personality type and your ability to handle life changes can help you choose a college where you can thrive your freshman year. Would a move too far from home be stressful for you at this point in life? Can you make the transition from your high school setting to college easily? Do you have good study habits that can take you right into strenuous curriculum? Do your gifts and talents match the offerings of the school? Why are you going to college? Ask yourself these questions before making a final choice.

2. Brand may not matter as much as you think.

Brand matters only to a point. Success and living a fulfilled life does not depend solely on the reputation of the college you choose. Your experiences and opportunities in college define you more than the college itself. Employers don’t look solely at the college name when hiring. They consider what you put into the college experience while you were there.

In a broadcast titled "Tough Choices for Colleges and Students," Minnesota Public Radio hosted a discussion on the new challenges and opportunities in financial aid created by the economic recession for parents and students navigating the college selection process. At one point in the program, Marty O’Connell, the Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, noted that parents and students needed to "think differently" and look beyond institutions with high-profile reputations to those colleges and universities with more "bang for the buck," ones that would support students to do their best work. She recommended the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) Web site as an excellent resource to help families take a "long view" of education as a "value for a lifetime," and explained that the NSSE survey asked important questions on critical and creative thinking, writing and speaking well, and how students "learn to adapt" to the college environment.

3. Size does matter.

The number of students does not define a university. Many students thrive at smaller colleges because they are more comfortable in the setting and find personal guidance opportunities available to them. Students comfortable in smaller high schools or students who prefer smaller class sessions and a lower student-teacher ratio may prefer smaller colleges. That’s not to say, however, that larger colleges don’t offer quality classes or one-on-one academic guidance. College is a time to explore your gifts and talents before making a final career choice. Look to see what each college offers and if the learning environment is conducive to personal growth. If choosing a larger college, look for the smaller groups that you may fit into in order to find the personal connections.

In the fall of each year, NSSE prepares a National Report. This document summarizes the major findings from student surveys about their experiences and the factors that are important to high levels of engagement, which is a good predictor of learning. Reviewing the National Reports can give one a better understanding of the activities that should be a part of the undergraduate experience.

You can interpret the results of the survey as standards for comparing how effectively colleges are contributing to learning. Five benchmarks are measured: 1) level of academic challenge; 2) active and collaborative learning; 3) student-faculty interaction; 4) enriching educational experiences; and 5) supportive campus environment.

4. Consider, but don’t fear, the finances.

College should not burden you or your family with an insurmountable debt. College can be affordable. Don’t be afraid to speak to your school counselors and to college financial counselors about all scholarship opportunities. Ask your church or community group if they know of local scholarships being offered. Investigate your options early and ask for help through as many resources as possible.

5. A personal fit matters most.

Visit the college websites and the colleges themselves to see how you feel about the activities and the classes offered. If you choose a college that never feels like a second home to you, your grades and activities can suffer as a result. How do you feel about the social atmosphere in the common areas of the school? Are you comfortable in the dorms? Are you comfortable in the setting of the campus? Are there students on campus that share your interests and goals? Will the college you choose help you reach your personal and academic goals? If you can answer yes to these questions, keep the college at the top of your list.

To get a sense of how likely a student is to learn, grow, and develop at a given institution, parents and students need to ask the right questions about the schools they visit or explore on the Web. To help them, the free NSSE pocket guide includes suggestions for questions to ask of key people that they will meet - the tour guide, admissions staff, and currently enrolled students. A Spanish version of the pocket guide,Una Guia de Bolsillo Para Escoger una Universidad: Preguntas a hacer en tus visitas universitarias, is also available.

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