The 3 most important factors when choosing a college are value for money, your intended major, and essential campus resources.
Going to your “safety school” could be a smart decision financially.
When picking a college, don’t give too much weight to factors like a cool location or the sports team.
As a high schooler looking at colleges, you probably want to get into the best school you can. But how can you tell which college is best for you? Although you might be tempted to go to the “most prestigious” college you get into, fancy, big-name colleges aren’t necessarily better. In fact, from an economic perspective, it might be a good idea to go to your “safety” school, even if you’re accepted to more prestigious universities.
To help you decide how to choose a college, we explain the 3 most important factors for picking a college, including your intended major, the college’s value for money, and essential campus resources.
Factor 1: your intended major
Your intended major is the subject you plan to study in college. Most freshmen entering college don’t know what they want to major in, and that’s ok. Nevertheless, as a high schooler, you should already be asking yourself what you want to go to college for. That’s because in terms of earnings, your major is much more important than what college you go to.
Simply put, some degrees lead to higher earnings and better job security than others. If you graduate with a computer science or engineering degree, you have a very good chance of finding a well-paying job – even if you go to a mid-tier, public university that isn’t super selective.
Conversely, you may struggle to find rewarding employment with only a bachelor’s in anthropology from an elite private school. It’s true that you may struggle to succeed in college if you major in something you’re not interested in. But remember that most students are on the hook for a lot of debt. If you’re considering a degree that doesn’t offer a clear path to a high-earning career, think about getting professional experience while still in college, taking a gap year, or going to an inexpensive school.
Is it better to apply undecided or with a major?
If you know already what you plan to major in, then it’s a good idea to say so in your application; admissions officers will appreciate that you’re thinking ahead. Also remember that it’s best to be honest. If you misrepresent your plans in your application, you may find yourself in a program that’s a bad fit for you. This could lead to academic difficulties down the road.
That said, your intended major isn’t binding, and it’s ok if you’re not sure what you want to study yet. College is a time for exploring your options, and you can change your major after applying.
Impacted majors and what they mean for your choice of college
“Impacted majors” are programs that are so popular that universities can’t accommodate everyone who wants to enroll. As a result, colleges limit the number of students accepted to certain majors. Some majors are also impacted because their curriculum is very difficult, and schools want to make sure you have a good chance of keeping up with the coursework and eventually graduating. Which majors are “capped” depends entirely on the individual school.
Selective majors go by a variety of different names, including “impacted majors,” “over-subscribed majors,” “capped majors,” or simply “competitive majors.” To get into an impacted major, you will usually need to apply to it specifically after your freshman or sophomore year. You’ll need stellar grades in your first two years of college (your high school grades aren’t usually considered).
What impact should your intended major have on your college application strategy? For better or for worse, many lucrative, high-demand majors – like nursing or business – are competitive, with some programs accepting as few as 10% of applicants. Therefore, if you go to your “reach” school, you might struggle to get into an impacted major. This could have a big impact on your future earnings. On the other hand, if your intended major is not impacted, your reach school might be a good option.
» Read: How to build a college list: reach schools and safety schools
Popular majors that lead to high-earning careers are sometimes very selective, and you’ll have to apply to them separately after your sophomore year of college. You should therefore pick a school where you have a good chance of getting into your intended major.
Factor 2: the cost of college and the school’s economic value
We all know that a US college education is expensive. Therefore, the money factor should be one of your top considerations when you’re choosing a college. The good news is that the real cost of university is actually getting lower, largely thanks to financial aid and scholarships. When picking a college, you should be paying close attention to two main economic factors: the school’s economic value – or its ROI (return on investment), and your financial aid package.
The college’s economic value
Simply put, some universities graduate higher-earning alumni for a cheaper price. High-value colleges open doors to lucrative careers without burdening you with crippling student debt. Generally speaking, public universities tend to be a better deal than private ones, even if expensive private colleges lead to slightly higher salaries.
At Degreechoices, we rank colleges based on their economic value for students. Check out our rankings of the best national universities to find out which colleges offer you the best value for your money, or look up the schools you’re considering and compare their economic scores.
» Read: More about our ranking methodology
Your financial aid package
Financial aid should be an extremely important component in your college decision. College graduates in 2015–2016 who took out loans borrowed an average of $27,400. This financial burden is preventing young people saving money, becoming homeowners, or starting a family.
Minimizing the amount of money that you spend on university is extremely important. If your safety school offers you generous financial aid – or even better, a full-ride scholarship – you should seriously consider taking their offer.
While it may seem disappointing to turn down an elite, expensive college, saving money on your education and avoiding excessive debt sets you up for financial stability. In any case, slightly more selective colleges don’t necessarily lead to better salaries down the road. By saying “yes” to a generous financial aid offer from a mid-tier school, you will make your life after college much easier. And if you graduate with a high-demand degree, the job market might not care what college you went to anyway.
Furthermore, generous financial aid makes it less risky to pursue an interesting major that doesn’t lead to a lucrative career. If you’re passionate about the humanities and eventually becoming an academic, it’s wise to start out with an undergraduate degree that doesn’t put you in too much debt.
Given the high cost of a college education, you should prioritize financial considerations as you’re deciding on a university. Aim for a high-value degree that offers you a good financial aid package.
Factor 3: campus resources you need to succeed
Remember that a degree is only worth it if you graduate: as a learner, you may need special resources or support to succeed in college. To determine what college is best for you, think about the campus resources and characteristics that are vital for your academic success. These factors will vary from person to person, as we don’t all have the same learning needs. Below is a list of things you ought to consider to maximize your chances of graduating on time.
- Mental health resources, counseling, or on-campus healthcare – some small colleges or branch campuses may not have the same healthcare services as larger universities.
- Accessible academic advisors or mentors – college can be difficult to navigate: there’s a lot of paperwork and tough decisions to make, and you may feel overwhelmed by FAFSA and all the forms. While all students can benefit from an approachable advisor, this support could be crucial for some learners, especially low-income students and first-generation college goers.
- Internship placements – an internship placement or a career center could be a huge benefit to you. Remember that many people land good jobs simply because of networking or family. If you can’t rely on such connections, career support could be a tremendous boon.
- Online degree options, flexibility – some people don’t have the time to devote 4 straight years to a bachelor’s degree due to family or work obligations. If you’re not a traditional student, check to see which colleges have online or hybrid options.
- A diverse student body – college is a great time to expand your horizons and meet people different from yourself. The more diverse the campus, the more potentially enriching your college experience can be. Moreover, minority students may have an easier time at colleges that aren’t predominately white.
- Student housing – some colleges are designed for local commuters and may not have residence halls. If you’re planning to go to college somewhere far from home, make sure adequate student accommodation is available.
Less important factors for choosing the right college
Glossy college brochures will try to draw you in with many other bells and whistles, but remember – these are often nothing more than marketing tools. Most factors other than the ones we’ve already mentioned don’t set you up for success after college. See them as a luxury. Below, we list a few factors that should not carry too much weight in your college decision. While they may be an important part of a traditional “college experience” for some, going to college is simply too expensive to make them a priority.
- Greek life
- A cool location
- Small class sizes
- Fancy campus amenities
- “Prestige” and low acceptance rates
- The fact that your parents went there
Look for colleges that have the resources you need to succeed rather than ones with marketing draws like a good sports team.
Case study: safe school with nursing vs reach school with education
To illustrate the importance of your major, we have compared 2 students: Brenda and Oleg from the state of Washington. Both of them were planning to study nursing, but they went for different types of colleges – and this led to very different outcomes 3 years after graduation.
- University of Washington (Seattle, WA)
- UW acceptance rate: 54%
- Nursing school acceptance rate: ~10%
Brenda decided to go to the University of Washington (UW). UW is Washington’s flagship state university; it’s pretty prestigious for a public college. Brenda’s grades in high school were good but not phenomenal, and based on her SAT score she was afraid she might not get into the UW. When she received her acceptance letter, she was thrilled. What she didn’t take into account was that the UW school of nursing is extremely competitive. After being rejected from the major, Brenda decided to study education rather than reapply for the nursing program – since it fit with her passion for helping people. However, while UW nurses go on to earn $77,494 3 years after graduation, education majors at UW only earn $47,896. Brenda’s failure to get into her intended major cost her a 38% salary drop.
- Washington State University (Pullman, WA)
- WSU acceptance rate: 86%
- Nursing school acceptance rate: ~50%
Oleg chose Washington State University (WSU). WSU is a state university with relatively inclusive admissions. Oleg did get into more selective schools, including UW and some private colleges, but he wanted to have a good chance of being accepted to the nursing school, and he knew WSU would be a safer bet. Because Oleg was a “big fish in a small pond” he didn’t struggle much with his courses, and he was accepted to the WSU college of nursing. 3 years after graduating, Oleg can expect to earn $71,824. On top of that, because Oleg went to his “safety school” he got a sweet financial aid package and has relatively little student debt.
When you should go to your “safety” school
Going to your fallback school could have long-term financial benefits. You should consider going to a college with less name recognition if:
- You’re aiming for a competitive, impacted major. Some of the most lucrative college degrees are selective. Check to see how your SAT scores compare to the college’s average. If you’re in the bottom quartile and you want to get into an impacted major, consider a less selective college. In the end, schools with high average SATs don’t always lead to better economic outcomes. Getting into a high-demand major could mean higher earnings down the road.
- You get a sweet financial aid package. Graduating college with minimal debt will give you a huge advantage in life – potentially a bigger advantage than going to a fancy private college.
There may even be other hidden advantages to going to your fallback school. For example, you might be accepted into a special “honors college” that offers more challenging classes or opportunities to work closely with your professors. Just remember that in the end, your education is an investment: you want the best returns for the lowest cost.