In the months before high school graduation, college-bound students encounter one of the most important decisions they have ever faced — where to go to college. The college choice is a decision that deserves careful consideration, but many students lack the framework to consider all the relevant factors. As scholarship providers and college success practitioners, we work with students through a pivotal moment in their lives and can help provide guidance around this monumental decision.
How do they feel about relocating to another town, or even another state? How will they manage financial responsibilities that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars? Have they considered the typical career path and earnings for graduates of a particular program, or whether the college’s graduation rates are a potential red flag?
When it comes to college choice, there’s no one answer for every student. Choosing the “right” college is a deeply personal decision, that should take each student’s individual circumstances into account — their financial situation, responsibilities outside of school, academic and professional goals, and hopes for the future. We are here to provide the framework and a new perspective so that students are empowered to make the choice they feel is best for their college journey.
Our goal at the Dell Scholars program is to help our students graduate on time with the least amount of debt, and we know they are best prepared to do that after making a well-informed decision to enroll at their best-fit school. For other programs supporting students’ success in college, learn more below about how our advising team engages students around college choice and what factors we recommend keeping top of mind.
College Choice Advising
For students who are undecided on where they plan to enroll in the fall, a quick phone consultation probably won’t move the needle much. Coaching students around college choice is an intensive process as advisors learn about each student’s plans for the future, understand their personal circumstances, and educate them on factors they may want to consider.
At the Dell Scholars program, student information is gathered through our application and onboarding processes – whether the student has made a college choice, and if not, his or her top three preferred schools. Financial aid award letters are also required, allowing advisors to quickly evaluate unmet need, and we also help guide students through the verification process to ensure they have all the information they need to make an informed decision. Our advisors focus on the students who are undecided and evaluate their ranked college choices according to a list of potential risk factors (more on these below!).
For students who are lower risk, Dell Scholars ambassadors, our program’s peer mentors, are trained to support them through the process. Program advisors are then able to focus efforts where their support can have the greatest impact. It can be a labor-intensive, relationship-building process with multiple calls (and plenty of text messages) over the course of several weeks. Advisors may find themselves on the phone with parents or reaching out to a trusted high school counselor for reinforcement. But it’s an effort that delivers, a collaborative process that can lay the groundwork for students to succeed in their college goals.
Factors to Consider
So what are students and advisors chatting about in those intensive phone calls, anyway? This coaching is all about putting all the cards on the table, empowering each student to make the best choice for themselves. To determine the most suitable institution, we consider four primary factors: affordability, location, college profile, and individual needs.
By this time, Dell Scholars have already submitted their financial aid award letters. This is a good starting point, since financial aid packages can sometimes be hard for students to decipher. Does the student understand their level of unmet need, and what that would amount to throughout their time in college?
Going back to the numbers can be powerful for students with their hearts set on a particular school. For example, financial aid may be limited at their dream school, so students need to make this decision with eyes wide open. On the other hand, students looking to save money may be laser-focused on community college, but depending on their financial aid offer, a four-year university may be just as or even more affordable.
It’s worth reminding students that they aren’t just choosing where to go to college — they are choosing where they plan to live for the next several years. Is the location a good fit? Has the student considered the cost of living or transportation options? Are they prepared to handle five months of snow each year to go to college in Massachusetts?
When it comes to our Dell Scholars, college choice is automatically flagged if they plan to enroll out of state. For some students, distance from home can help them focus on their academic goals without the distraction of outside responsibilities. But for others, a long-distance move can bring up feelings of homesickness, or may leave them without a support system in the area. Enrolling out-of-state can also mean higher tuition costs and a decrease in financial aid due to non-resident status. Ultimately, students will be the best judge of where they are most likely to be successful.
While researching colleges, students may have come across an institution’s graduation rates, but these can be hard to interpret without additional context. They may wonder if a 75 percent graduation rate in six years is a positive or negative indicator, or even whether more rigorous institutions produce lower graduation rates. In fact, lower graduation rates usually demonstrate a college’s lower level of commitment to student success. And where there is evidence of a gap in outcomes between Pell recipients and the general student population, it’s clear the college isn’t providing adequate support to students from low-income backgrounds. Does the student have the support system they will need to thrive in college?
When it comes to community college, we already discussed the misconception that they will always be the most affordable option. But for some, the potential cost savings and convenience of attending college close to home can make this a great option. If the student intends to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university, they should have a transfer plan in mind. Universities aren’t required to accept more than 66 community college credit hours, and not all credits will transfer to certain institutions. By planning ahead, students can avoid adding on additional semesters to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Persisting through college can be challenging. Students have a long road ahead of them with many potential obstacles, so it’s important for them to stay motivated by pursuing a college journey that will make them happy! Does the college have a strong concentration in the student’s intended area of study? Do they feel a sense of belonging on campus, and are they excited to engage with cultural activities? Consider the size of the school and diversity on campus. Is this a place they will look forward to spending time over the next several years?
Ultimately, choosing where to go to college should be a thoughtful decision. As advisors, we know that students won’t always follow our advice, but we can still play an important role encouraging them to make an informed decision. Looking back on years of experience, we can also share our insider tips on where our students tend to thrive or to struggle, and which colleges usually offer stronger award packages. In the end, this process is intended to empower students around the choice they make and to carefully consider where they are most likely to succeed.
By the time our students reach graduation day, they may no longer remember these early conversations. But their long-reaching impact has surely shaped the journey to a degree.