What Really Matters When Picking a College

Avoid the temptation to place superficial concerns above your critical needs.

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As spring break arrives, high school juniors head out to college campuses to narrow a field of prospective schools. There are numerous factors for future college students to consider: cost of tuition, room and board, academic reputation, and campus life, to name a few. In the end, everyone values these factors differently.

Thanks to research conducted by college consultant agency Noel-Levitz, we have a good idea of which factors matter most and which should matter more.

Cost. Cost and financial aid are the biggest considerations to prospective students—regardless of the type of school. With tuition increasing at alarming rates, it’s heartening to see future students take these costs seriously. However, should they be the most important?

Unfortunately, one thing that is not evident in the survey math is whether we are talking aid availability or loan availability. These are two distinctly different financial alternatives that are frequently lumped together. Cost, grants, and scholarship are all important factors to the overall cost of a college, but it’s important to start the college search with a simple number in mind: the total amount you are willing to pay (not including books and school supplies).

As such, acquiring student loans should be a secondary factor after you’ve made your top college picks.

Academic reputation. Many institutions offer a degree upon completion, but what’s that degree really worth? If step one is limiting education costs, step two should be making sure you find employment after graduation. The academic prowess of your post-secondary school is often related to your starting paycheck upon graduation or shortly thereafter (hopefully).

However, there are caveats to this as well. Researchers have found Ivy League institutions pays better than B schools, which pay better than C schools. The problem is students frequently have trouble picking their school out of a lineup. They also tend to weigh word-of-mouth over other sources of information. Academic reputation is indeed an important characteristic when picking a college, but it’s a factor that needs to be weighed against costs of the institution and the true reality of the school’s ability to enable you to land employment after college.

Size. For many, after cost factors and reputation comes...size of the student body.

I was surprised to find that more than two-thirds of prospective first-year public school students picked size as a major deciding factor. It could be that larger schools tend to offer more programs or perks. However, there is no place to boast of one’s school’s size on a resume—nor is it likely to come up in an interview. In fact, larger schools are more prone to packing their students into giant lecture halls, where there is less opportunity for individualized attention.

Location. Out of eight factors for private school students, location ranked second to last. It’s hard to disagree with the importance of cost and school reputation, but large numbers of college applicants overlook the location factor.

If you want to be in nanotechnology, Albany is the city for you. Information technology? Consider Kansas City. Certain cities have bustling industry hubs, and where there are growing companies, you’ll usually find a local college that is helping to feed the labor force. In fact, it’s usually the local talent pool produced by native universities that draws industries into these central locations. Granted it won’t be a major factor for every career, but it’s worth considering.

This is just a look at the average student’s preferences. It’s important you make a list of your own and keep these factors in mind when visiting college campuses. It’s easy to get caught up in the amenities, like extra-large dorm rooms and cafeteria menus. If, for example, your biggest consideration is cost, make sure you sit down with the financial aid office before you leave.

Above all: Avoid the temptation to place superficial concerns above your critical needs.

JP is a writer for the money blog 20's Finances. He is an MBA and the financial officer for a nonprofit organization.