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As spring approaches, many high school juniors and their parents are beginning to feel the impending pressure of college, if they haven’t been feeling it already.  For those who are just beginning their college search, the prospect may seem overwhelming.  With more than 4,700 colleges in the United States (over 1,700 two-year colleges and over 2,900 four-year colleges), where does one even begin?

Here are some tips for students (and parents) as they engage in the college search process.

  1. Figure out why you want to go to college. What are your career goals and what type of education do you need to attain them?  Some careers require a certificate or Associate’s degree from a two-year college or technical school, others require a four-year Bachelor’s degree, and for others you’ll need a Master’s, PhD, or professional degree.  If you think a high school diploma is all it will take to be successful, you may want to think again: according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, 65% of jobs in the U.S. will require education and training beyond high school.  In Colorado, that number is 74%.  The Occupational Outlook Handbook is a great starting place for researching careers and the education they require:
  2. Determine what you’re looking for in a college. Factors to think about include the type of college, size, location, and campus setting.  For example, do you want to attend a small liberal arts college in a rural area, a science and engineering college in a suburban setting, or a large, comprehensive university in a big city?  If you’ve decided on a certain major, you’ll want to find colleges that offer it.  If you’re undecided, you should look for schools with a wide variety of majors so you can explore different options.  Additional considerations might be the availability of certain activities or sports, study abroad programs, internship opportunities, and services for students with disabilities.
  3. Have an honest conversation about what your family can afford. At the beginning of your search, talk with your parents about how much they are able to pay for college.  Many families put off this conversation until after the student has applied, been admitted, and been offered a financial aid package that doesn’t meet the family’s needs.  Talking about costs early on will prevent a great deal of heartache later.  That being said, never rule out a school because of its “sticker price”; many of the most expensive colleges offer huge amounts of financial aid, and the majority of their students don’t pay full price.  Even if your family won’t qualify for need-based aid (and before determining that, your parents should talk to a financial planner and/or use the ), you might be able to get merit-based scholarships that significantly offset the cost.
  4. Research, research, research. There are a plethora of books and websites that can aid you in the college search process.  However, the best sources of information often are people – your school counselor and a college consultant if you have one, but also your family members and friends.  Talk to these individuals about where they went to school (especially if it’s a college you’re interested in) and ask about their experiences.  What did they like and not like?  Would they make the same choice if they had it to do all over again?  Resist the urge to rely too heavily on college rankings, as these are often based on factors that have little or nothing to do with the quality of education a college provides.
  5. Visit if you can. Would you buy a house without seeing it or a car without test-driving it? When it comes to picking a college, the importance of visiting cannot be overstated.   Start by visiting colleges in the area to get a feel for different types of schools.  Even if you aren’t interested in those particular colleges, visiting can give you a sense of what you do and don’t want and can help you conduct a more informed search.  Visiting multiple colleges across the country can be very expensive and therefore isn’t feasible for many families.  However, if you are a low-income or minority student, schools may be willing to cover all or some of your expenses to visit, so be sure to inquire.  Finally, if you aren’t able to visit before applying, definitely do so before deciding to attend a school.

Figuring out where to go to college is a big decision.  You’re not only looking for a place where you can get an excellent education, but hopefully, where you also will have a great experience.  The college search process is a fantastic opportunity to learn about yourself and what’s important to you.  Following these suggestions will help make your search more productive, less stressful, and hopefully even fun!