How to Choose a College

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Mark Kantrowitz

By Mark Kantrowitz

April 16, 2019

The deadline for accepting a college’s offer of admission is May 1, otherwise known as Decision Day or the National Candidate’s Reply Date. With just a few weeks before the deadline, how do you decide which college admissions offer to accept?

A Simple Choice

One option is to flip a coin. Of course, it could be a two-headed coin, so you can control the outcome of the coin toss.

Another option is to choose the least expensive college. The college with the lowest net price will usually save the family the most money and minimize the amount of student loan debt at graduation.

The choice doesn’t matter as much as most people think. According to the American Freshman survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, 94 percent of American freshmen are enrolled at one of their top three college choices.

Use a Decision Matrix

But, most families want to make a rational decision, instead of leaving the choice to chance.

Sometimes, they find themselves going around in circles, flipping from one characteristic to the next.

  • College A is the least expensive college.
  • But, College B is stronger academically in the student’s likely field of study and has a better college ranking.
  • But, College A is closer to or further away from home.
  • But, College B is near a big city and College A is isolated in a rural area.
  • But, College A has better cafeteria food than College B.

The solution is to assemble a decision matrix, with colleges listed in the columns and key characteristics in the rows.

A decision matrix helps you reach a decision, because it displays all of the most important criteria on a single sheet of paper. Presenting all of the most important information in an at-a-glance format will help you clarify your thinking.

Assign points to each row based on the characteristic’s importance to you. There are several approaches:

  • Identify one college as a winner, giving it all of the points.
  • If there is a tie, split the points among the colleges that win.
  • Assign points to each college on a scale from 1 to 5, with a 5 ranking best and a 1 ranking worst.

Sum the points in each column to yield an overall score for each college. Or, count the number of “wins” for each college.

It may also be helpful to circle each cell for which a college has a win for the characteristic. This will visually highlight the colleges with the best overall performance.

If any characteristic does not distinguish among the college choices, cross the row off the list. This will help you identify the characteristics that are not only the most important to you, but which also differentiate among the colleges.

The Most Important College Characteristics

The rows should include the following characteristics:

  • Financial Match. This dimension will evaluate colleges according to their affordability and value. What is the college’s net price? How will the net price change each year? Does the college practice front-loading of grants. Is the cost of attendance figure realistic, or does it underestimate the cost of textbooks and transportation? What is the average debt at graduation? What is the average income after graduation? What is the return on investment?
  • Academic Match. Does the college offer majors of interest to the student? If the student is undecided concerning field of study, does the college offer a strong core curriculum and many academic options? What is the student-faculty ratio? What is the graduation rate?
  • Social/Environmental Match. Are there a lot of extracurricular activities of interest? How’s the cafeteria food? (If you dislike the cafeteria food the first time you try it, you’ll hate it after four years.) How far is the college campus from home? (Is it an hour’s drive, a day’s drive, or does it require flying cross-country?) How’s the weather? Is the college located in an urban, suburban or rural setting?

Parents tend to focus on college rankings and cost, but the difference between the college ranked 12th and the college ranked 24th is rarely meaningful. 

A good place to start:

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