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HOW TO PICK A COLLEGE: 6 Factors to Help

Can you imagine wanting a car and heading to the dealership located close to where you typically park, then seeking acceptance from your friends and family for your purchase? This seems like a ridiculous way to buy a car, yet this is exactly how most families approach higher education. Most families select a college based on location and flash when other important factors should drive the selection.

As college consumers, we must change the way we approach higher education. Families must save for, shop for, and save on the cost of college. So far in our series, we have talked about saving and covered information about shopping for college. Saving for college means starting as soon as you can. Accounts like the 529, custodial accounts, and taxable brokerage accounts in the parent’s name help satisfy the saving portion. As we know, shopping for college occurs when the student is close to the age of 18 and means developing a budget so you know how much you and your student can spend on higher education.

Shopping for a school also means knowing the best fit for the student socially, academically, and financially. These are important characteristics because they will ensure a better fit, thereby resulting in more happiness and satisfaction and a lower cost. However, many families don’t properly consider these characteristics, which results in longer academic careers, higher costs because of the extended time at school, lower satisfaction, and missed income from the student not working.

How we pick a college

Most students choose a college that is within a few-hour drive from home. When families tour colleges, the larger names spend large amounts of money to create a warm, glowing front. Admissions counselors tour the state or region, attending college fairs to attract the next freshman class. We can’t forget about sports; how often do we hear a university’s name for the first time during a sporting event? Think about the NCAA basketball tournament and the big names – and the “Cinderella” teams that rarely take part. The point is, the flash mentioned earlier is all around; reputation is a big factor in choosing a college. The reputation may be for academics, research, sports, or partying.

For those families that do a little more research, popular rankings like the US News and World Report one become a common tool. However, the question remains: Do these rankings correlate with success and better well-being after college? In a 2012 blog post (link to the post), a popular college admissions expert, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, notes: “Unfortunately, the methodology fueling the rankings are a collection of subjective measurements that students and families are supposed to rely upon to pinpoint the schools doing the best job of educating undergraduates. U.S. News relies on proxies for educational quality, but these proxies are dubious at best.”

She goes on to note four ways in which the rankings hurt students and parents.

– Rankings encourage the college to favor well-off students.

– Rankings encourage admissions tricks.

– Rankings encourage cheating.

– Rankings encourage debt.


Over the past few years, researchers have made breakthroughs that can help families make better college selections. Two research powerhouses, Gallup and Purdue University, developed an index. The two institutions joined forces to “respond to increased accountability among higher education institutions… (to provide) insight in the relationship between the college experience and whether college graduates have great jobs and lives.”

After all, isn’t this what we really want for our children? As parents, in selecting a college, we lose the forest for the trees; we get bogged down by the “flash” of an institution and overemphasize unimportant characteristics such as the school’s reputation or sticker price (not to be confused with the price that families end up paying).

How did Purdue and Gallup help?

The Gallup-Purdue Index was the result of interviews of more than 30,000 college graduates from all over the nation. From research already completed by Gallup, we know that having a good job is an important factor in life (1-p1.), as it provides a mean of establishing one’s self-identity. The study focused on the well-being of the interviewees.

Well-being, according to Gallup, builds on five elements (1-p2.).

Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals

Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life

Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security

Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community

Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to perform one’s daily tasks

As mentioned before, 30,000 college graduates from many types of colleges and universities were interviewed.

Factors in choosing a college

The study produced interesting findings. Whether a college was public or private, large or small, selective or not – none of these traits mattered more in terms of well-being or work life than the worker’s experience in college. Among the study’s other important aspects was the revelation of six factors that lead to increased well-being (1-p4.).

  1. When a student feels like a professor cares about them as a person.

  2. Having a professor who makes a student feel excited about learning.

  3. Having a professor who encourages students to follow their dreams.

  4. Having an internship or job where the student applies what they were learning in the classroom.

  5. Involvement in extracurricular activities and organizations.

  6. Working on projects that took a semester or more to complete.

The higher the number of these factors students experience in college, the greater their engagement and the likelihood that they maintain overall well-being.

Factors vs. traditional college selection

As you can see from the traditional way we select colleges versus the use of a factor-based approach, the student will likely end up in a better situation in the long run. The process for college selection evolves to become more objective or straightforward. However, a factor-based approach does not mean the student will graduate without debt or will not experience any of the questionable practices of a higher education institution.

Rather, using a factor-based approach helps a family and student identify the key characteristics to look for in a college as tours and research accumulate. The student should also start by answering the following questions: Do I want a small or large institution? Do I want an institution focusing on faculty research or undergrads? Are sports important me? How far away from home am I willing to go? Do I want a technical or liberal arts education? These questions will help narrow the focus and achieve the best fit for the student.

Where can I find information related to these factors?

Ratemyprofessor.com– Here you can find information about specific professors based on the student’s perspective. Here is a snapshot of Ball State University on the university level. Notice the clubs and opportunity ranking. This may help you make evaluations based on factors four, five, and six listed above.

Niche.com– This site also grades a university, according to the categories shown below. The professor rating helps with evaluating factors one and two. While not isolated, this still gives prospective students something to consider.


Collegedata.com– Hidden among the data is a section under the Students tab called “After Graduation.” Here, the viewer will see a percentage of graduates who have a job offer within six months of graduation. When looking at placement data, one should keep two items in mind. First, data can be manipulated. This was hinted at earlier in Lynn’s article, and the Hechinger Report covers this topic in more detail. (http://hechingerreport.org/placement-rates-data-colleges-provide-consumers-often-alternative-facts/). Second, majors affect placement rates.


College-bound next steps

  1. Work on answering the questions posed about the type of institution first.
  2. Compose your list of schools.
  3. Use the resources listed here to help compare the universities based on the Gallup-Purdue Index.
  4. Find out how much you can afford to pay for college.

Do you like this article? Please share it with other families that might find it useful.

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  1. 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report
  2. http://www.thecollegesolution.com/how-u-s-news-college-rankings-hurt-you/ (access 1/12/15)

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