When your parents were looking for a place to live, there were endless choices in a variety of locations and prices. Now that you're considering life after high school, you're faced with the same situation, with literally thousands of colleges and universities available throughout the United States and abroad, and with listed costs ranging from almost nothing to more than $25,000 per year.
With this wide variety of options, how do you start to find the school that's right for you? You start by not excluding a school you're interested in because of location or tuition until you have seriously explored this option.
This is especially true when it comes to tuition. Don't be intimidated by the listed cost of a college or university, because you'll find that most of the more expensive institutions also offer more substantial financial aid packages based on academic achievement and/or financial need. And although a more expensive private institution may not be able to make the cost of attending the institution the same as tuition at a public college or university, many times it can provide financial assistance to make it possible to attend.
When thinking about the cost of a college education, you also need to consider your ability to graduate in four years from that institution. Ask college representatives about the four-year and five-year graduate rates, and retention rates, of their schools. Graduation and retention rates are important because these indicate the school's commitment to helping students achieve a degree in a reasonable amount of time, and student satisfaction with the institution. And the added cost of an extra year or two in college is great -- both in the additional tuition and other costs you're paying, and the income you're losing from not working.
As you research colleges, check out two other relatively new tools: guidebooks and other publications, and the World Wide Web.
In recent years there has been an explosion of guidebooks (such as Peterson's Competitive Colleges and Barron's Best Buys in College Education), and newspapers/magazines (such as U.S. News & World Report and Money) that rank and provide information about schools. These publications are good tools for getting preliminary information, especially on schools outside the area you may initially be considering. They can provide information on how some institutions in your region are regarded or ranked on a national level.
Most colleges and universities now have a site on the World Wide Web. If you have access to the Web, this is also a great way to get initial information, as well as get an idea of what a campus outside your area may look like. Most college Web sites include basic admissions and academic program information and photos of the campus. Most also have direct e-mail links to college representatives, which is a great way to get quick answers to questions you may have about the school, or to have more information sent in the mail. Some helpful indexes/directories of college and university Web sites: ``College and University Home Pages'' (www.mit.edu:8001/people/cdemello/univ.html); ``Web U.S. Universities by State'' (www.utexas.edu/world/univ/state/); and ``American Universities'' (http://www.clas.ufl.edu/CLAS/american-universities.html).
-- Ken Sieg is director of admissions at Nebraska Wesleyan University.