Step 1: Decide What Type of College Fits Your Academic Interests
The nature of higher education is surprisingly diverse and includes more than just more “traditional” public, private and community colleges. Before nailing down which specific colleges your student wants to apply for, they need to first identify what their interests are and what type of college fits those interests.
The broadest classification of higher education is the four-year public or private university. These are larger institutions that offer a varying range of majors for undergraduates, ranging across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. Students take a range of courses, not necessarily just within their major, to receive a well-rounded education. Universities also offer more than just undergraduate programs, including graduate or professional programs awarding higher degrees.
Many universities also have a focus on research, meaning that faculty will split their time between teaching and pursuing research. Because these universities are also comparatively larger, that may result in an increased reliance on teaching assistance and larger class sizes.
While their structure is largely similar, public and private universities differ most noticeably when it comes to tuition.
- Public universities are called such because they're funded by the public, often through state taxes. Because of this, tuition is usually decreased, especially for in-state students.
- Private universities tend to have higher tuition rates, but that also means they tend to have higher endowments. This means they can usually provide more financial aid to those who need it.
Liberal Arts Colleges
Most universities have colleges within the institution that are focused on undergraduate education. Examples of this are the Yale College within Yale University or the College of Arts and Sciences within Cornell University. However, there are some Liberal Arts Colleges that stand alone.
Liberal Arts Colleges tend to offer majors that are one expansive area of study, whereas universities may break up these larger majors into two or three different tracks. Classes at Liberal Arts Colleges also tend to be smaller in size with lower student-teacher ratios since these colleges are usually smaller than universities.
Tuition at Liberal Arts Colleges is higher since they are mostly private. However, they also tend to have large endowments so can provide more need-based financial aid.
Other Types of Colleges
While the two most common types are larger universities and smaller liberal arts colleges, there are some other types of colleges your student might be considering.
- Community College. These are typically two-year programs that award students with associate degrees. Some students choose to start college here because of the lower tuition and higher admission rates. If your student plans do to this and then transfer to a four-year program, they need to make sure their community college course credits will transfer over and count toward their bachelor's degree.
- Vocational-Technical Colleges. These are perfect for students who have more specific skill-based career goals and are interested in gaining the specific skills required to excel in that field. These programs can range from two to four years and focus specifically on career-related courses. Upon completion, students are awarded a certificate of completion of an Associate of Science degree. Vocational-technical colleges tend to be more expensive than community colleges.
- For-Profit Colleges. Similar to vocational-technical colleges, for-profit colleges offer career-oriented programs, rather than subject-based majors, targeted to students interesting a particular line of work. The difference is, tuition is their main source of revenue, so their acceptance rates tend to be higher. While this may be attractive to some, it's important to do some research before sending in an application. Many for-profit colleges have been receiving backlash for overcharging students while providing low-quality education. Also, make sure to check that the school has regional accreditation. These may be more competitive and expensive, but the degree is more highly regarded (and sometimes required) by employers and other four-year programs your student might transfer to.
Step 2: Build Your College List
Now that your student has decided what type of college they're interested, it's time to start building and narrowing down their college list. There are three categories that are used to refer to colleges relative to your student's admissions criteria:
- Safety: These are schools where your student exceeds the average admissions criteria
- Match: These are schools that are the right fit for your student's admissions criteria
- Reach: These are schools that are particularly selective relative to your student's admissions criteria
We recommend that your student applies to three safety, three match and three reach schools to minimize the risk associated with the college admissions process. To determine which schools fall into which category for your student, there are certain statistics that you should pay particular attention to.
But before we dive into the criteria your student should be looking at to build their list, we want to address this idea of systemically inflected self-selection. This is when students in the lower half of the socioeconomic status distribution substantially undermatch, meaning that they attend a college at least two selectivity levels below the level that they actually qualify for.
On the flip side, there is little evidence that students perform worse at institutions with higher average SAT scores than their own. So rather than only applying to safety schools, we recommend taking a chance and applying to some reach schools as well. You never know what might happen!
Now let's dive into the qualifications and metrics to consider when building your college list. These criteria can fall into two main categories: academic and financial.
To help you on your search, we've put together this downloadable college list builder worksheet. On it, you can keep track of important criteria and develop a ranking for colleges to apply to.