How to Pay for College: Choosing a College

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Choosing a college is a huge responsibility. For that reason, it’s a good idea to take some time to think about it and to put your thoughts in order.

Although your parents are probably going to help you pay for college, the decision about where to go to school isn’t really theirs to make. It’s yours. People are correct when they say that the decision can affect the rest of your life.

However, choosing college isn’t like choosing a mate. There isn’t just one perfect college for you. There are a variety of colleges that can help you turn your dreams into reality. In addition, there are some that can do that as well as meet your other desires such as location, climate, and programs of study.

Ask a Librarian

Librarians are the perfect people to ask about choosing a college. They can help you find information about systematic ways to choose a school or how to know exactly how you feel about the decision.

If you want books or websites or databases, your local library is the place to go to find out everything there is to know about choosing the right college for yourself or your child.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing your own mind. To choose a college, you need to know enough about yourself to know where you are likely to feel comfortable and where you will feel out of place. That doesn’t mean that you have to choose a college environment just like the environment you grew up in.

If you grew up in the suburbs, for example, you may decide that you’d like to try something completely different and think about attending school in Big Sky Country in the West. By the same token, you may decide to stray a little from your normal urban vibe and attend a prestigious college in a small town in the East. You may decide to stay right in your own town and attend the local community college for two years.

All of these are perfectly good options, and in every case you would be getting an excellent education. The difference is in what would make you happy and make you feel the most comfortable.

We've provided a checklist (PDF) to keep track of which schools have the options that you want. The chart can also help you figure out which options are the most important to you.

Campus Visits: Find Out the Skinny on Your College with This Top Ten List

In a short campus visit, it’s difficult to know if the college will be right for you or not. To make sure that you haven’t missed anything significant during your tour, follow this top-ten checklist from the College Board. 

  1. Wander around the campus by yourself.
  2. Ask random students what they love and hate about the school.
  3. Spend one night in a dorm room.
  4. Scan bulletin boards to see what student life might be like.
  5. Eat in the cafeteria.
  6. Read the student newspaper.
  7. Look for other student publications such as literary magazines, alternative newspapers,or departmental newsletters.
  8.  Listen to the college’s radio station.
  9. Browse in the college bookstore.
  10. Search for your favorite book in the library.

Four-Year or Two-Year?

I chose to go to a community college mostly because I could afford it. It was also close to my house, and I could continue to work. I looked at Alverno College in Milwaukee, but I couldn’t deal with the cost and the commute. Because of the articulation agreement in Illinois, my community college credits transferred no problem to a four-year school in the state. I started out at Northern Illinois University as a junior.

—Nancy L. McDonald, author and activist

The first choice you have to consider is if you want to attend a four- year or two-year school. The truth is that if you attend a two-year school, also called a community college, you will ultimately be transferring to a four-year school as a junior.

The good news is that four-year schools are tough when it comes to admitting freshman, but much less tough when admitting junior transfer students. So, you can get your two-year degree at a community college and still end up graduating from your first-choice school. 


Much is written about the joys of attending the same college for the full four years. It’s a chance to find yourself, to make friends for a lifetime, and to fashion a career for yourself. It can also be a time when you’re homesick, annoyed with your roommate, and wishing that you’d been nicer to your younger siblings. In short, those four years of school in the same location are pretty much what you make of them.

In this case, you need to understand enough about yourself to know if you will find that whole new life a worthwhile challenge or a hurdle too tall to leap. As with everything else, it depends on your attitude.


For many years, two-year colleges—community colleges —have gotten a bad rap. However, in difficult economic times, most students can understand the idea of a reasonable tuition rate with the option to work and still live at home.

What many students don’t realize is that the education at community colleges is first rate. Class sizes are small and usually taught by faculty, not teaching assistants. In addition, many faculty are ready and willing to help if students encounter difficulty with the subject.

Myth Busters: The Top Five Myths About Community Colleges

If you think that your local community college is just high school with ashtrays, check out the truth behind these five common misconceptions.

Myth #1: I won’t get financial aid at community college.

Truth: Financial aid is available for students at any accredited college. The tuition at community colleges is low, but students who need financial aid can get it. They fill out the FAFSA just as the students at four-years schools do.

Myth #2: I won’t be able to hack a “real” college after attending community college.

Truth: According to recent research, students who transfer from community colleges do as well as or better than students who have attended that college for all four years, although some students can experience a transfer shock of a half a grade point average.

Myth #3: Community college credits don’t trans-fer to four-year schools.

Truth: Actually, they do. Many four-year schools have articulation agreements with community colleges, which makes transferring credits easier.

Myth #4: Community college is only for people majoring in HVAC or other vocational-technical majors.

Truth: Not true. You can study any number of liberal arts and sciences at a community college. Community colleges were set up in the first place to offer college classes at a reasonable price. The idea was that students would spend two years at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school.

Myth #5: Only losers go to community college.

Truth: Lots of famous people have attended community college including the following:

  • Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright
  • James Sinegal, CEO of Costco
  • Jim Lehrer, news anchor
  • Maxwell Taylor, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former United Nations ambassador
  • Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author
  • Eileen Collins, NASA astronaut
  • Robert Moses, dance company founder and choreographer

—based on information from the College Board

Public or Private?

Your second big decision is if you want to go to a public or private college. In general, public colleges are called universities and are funded by tax money. Private schools are not funded by tax dollars. In most cases, the public schools are larger, and the private schools are smaller.

However, this doesn’t hold true for every school in either camp.

Public-Public schools include some of the biggest schools in the country and some of the toughest to get into. The University of Illinois, for example, is a public school, and it is difficult to be admitted. However, a variety of public universities are not particularly difficult to get into, and they offer a wide variety of majors to choose from. 

Public colleges and universities offer a huge variety of options if you don’t exactly know what you want to major in. They are also quite cost-effective. They offer many options for extracurricular events and college nightlife—depending on their location.

Private-In general, private schools are smaller than public ones. However, private schools are usually more selective when choosing which students to admit. Depending on where they are located, private schools can offer the same activities and nightlife as public schools.

Smaller schools can also offer smaller classes and more chance that you will get to know the faculty. You may get to know almost all of your classmates, as well, if the school is small enough.

Size of School

While most students do not choose a school solely because of its size, size does matter. For example, a very large school can offer more extracurricular activities and even some television-worthy sports teams to watch. A bigger school usually has a larger library with more books, more classrooms and lab facilities, and more dormitories.

In the midst of all those students, you may feel anonymous. If you’re from a small town, you may like the feeling. If you want everyone to know your name, you may not like it.

With a small school, you may feel that everyone knows your business. The faculty may know you by name, but if you didn’t do well on midterms they will all know that as well. You’re also less likely to meet a diverse bunch of people at a very small school.

However, you need to choose a size that will make you feel comfortable. When you’re comfortable, you feel confident and are ready to learn.

Compare: Big Schools vs. Little Schools

toolboxCollege Toolbox: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Both Big and Small Colleges

Think you know everything there is to know about big schools and small schools? Guess again. You may be surprised by the advantages and disadvantages that the College Board found with each one. Obviously, these points don’t apply to every school.

Big Schools 101


  • There are well-known teachers and famous authors on the faculty.
  • There are many majors and courses to choose from.
  • You can select plenty of different living arrangements, not just dorms.
  • Their big libraries contain hundreds of thousands of volumes.
  • Their big-time sports programs may or may not be on ESPN.
  • There is a huge variety of things to do, both social and academic. 


  • Big-name faculty may not actually teach the classes. Their TAs will.
  • Classes are held in large auditoriums.
  • There are more rules and regs to keep all the students in line.
  • Some faculty are more interested in their research than in undergraduates.
  • It’s possible to feel as if you are invisible.
  • Students who did well in high school are now pressured to be A students in college.

Little Schools 101


  • Fewer students equals smaller class size.
  • Classes are taught by faculty.
  • Faculty and staff get to know students well.
  • There is a strong bond among students.
  • You may have the chance to design your own major.
  • Small classes mean more discussion and less lecturing.


  • There are fewer options for academic and social activities.
  • Campuses have smaller buildings and fewer facilities (such as computer labs and libraries).
  • There are not many opportunities to watch or play sports.
  • Dorms are the only housing option.
  • There is a limited number of majors and classes.

Which do you prefer?

Big schools and little schools both have much to offer to students. Your decision is based on which option is the best choice for you considering your career goals, your study style, and your social skills. 

Colleges With a Particular Slant

Don’t Overlook Retention and Graduation Rates

While you’re checking out the male-to-female ratio at your chosen schools, remember to also check two other figures: retention rate and graduation rate.

The retention rate tells you what percentage of freshman come back after their first year. The graduation rate tells you what percentage of students begin as freshmen and actually graduate at the end of four years.

Both these figures can help you get a better picture of the quality of your school and how satisfied students are with the college’s programs.

—from information at

Maybe you don’t care so much about big schools or small schools or East Coast or West Coast. You’re looking for a different type of school, a school with a special interest.

If this is true of you, you may want to research the following types of special interest schools:

Single sex

About a hundred schools across the country are still single sex. One of them might be right for you if you don’t want the distraction of the opposite sex.


A variety of colleges are affiliated with a specific religion. You can search the Internet to find colleges for your faith.

Historically black colleges

If you are African American, attending a historically black college may be right for you if you want to be one of the majority instead of the minority. Attending a historically black college could prove to be an eye-opening experience for white students as well.

Hispanic-serving colleges

According to the federal government, a college can be called Hispanic-serving if Hispanic students comprise 25 percent of the undergraduate students.

Cost of School

While it would be nice to live in a world where the cost didn’t matter, in our world just the opposite is true.

Just as with the size of the school, most students do not choose a college based only on the costs. But costs do matter.

Obviously, if you live near your hometown, transportation to and from school will be cheaper as will the cost of moving in. Living farther away from school probably means fewer trips home.

The trick is to find a school that offers most of the things you want at a price that you and your parents can afford. Don’t forget, however, about financial aid. If the costs of school are higher, the financial aid package is also higher.

You don’t have to accept all the financial aid you are offered or sign up for the loans you qualify for. You can decide to work while at school or otherwise pay for school yourself.

Type of Environment

College Life?: Ask a Librarian

If you want to know exactly what it’s like to attend Boston University in Boston or Columbia University in New York City or even DePaul in Chicago, ask your local librarian.

Reference librarians can help you and your parents find books, websites, and blogs that will spell out exactly what it’s like to spend your days at BU, Columbia, or DePaul.

Whether you go to school on the West Coast, the East Coast, or somewhere in between, your local librarians can help you find out everything you want to know about living there.

One of the bigger decisions about your college is what type of environment you want. Do you want to live in or near a big city? Do you want to be able to hike or participate in outdoor activities? Do you want to see a part of the country that you’ve only read about?

All of these things are possible when you’re looking at schools. You just need to have some idea of what you’re looking for.

Urban-Every major city in the United States has first-rate colleges and universities nearby or inside the city limits. This is even true of cities overseas. You may decide on an urban college because it’s the opposite of where you grew up or because your career epicenter is in big cities.

You may also decide on an urban school because that school offers just exactly the major or program that you want.

Urban schools are usually easy to get around in, because there is public transportation. There’s nightlife, too, in an urban setting, and a chance to see the latest art show, play, or musical performance.

Suburban-Suburban schools offer the proximity to big cities without the congestion and parking headaches. Frequently, students drive to suburban campuses, although there can also be a bus system.

Suburban schools are also perfectly placed to allow you to get to the city to see the latest events, hear important speakers, and meet people who can help you in your career. Suburban schools offer a nice middle ground between the urban and rural environments because you can do either or both, depending on what you need or want.

Rural-Rural environments are perfect for those who love outdoor sports or want to major in something related to the outdoors. You can still get to a city, but the wide-open spaces can offer peace and tranquility that can be hard to find in urban settings.

Smaller towns and fewer people can also be relaxing. Life in rural towns can go a bit more slowly, and few people are racing to get to the next event.

Geography and Climate

Frequently, students choose a college so that they can see another part of the country or enjoy a completely different climate. If the college that offers the coursework you want is located in a perfect climate, it certainly makes for a win-win decision.

Region-No matter where you grew up, you may decide to try something different by living in a different part of the country for four years. You may decide to stay in the same geographic region but move over a state or two to attend school.

Whatever you decide, you need to think carefully about what will make you comfortable and what kinds of activities you like.

For example, if you hate every winter sport, it’s probably not a good idea to think about colleges in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Climate-If you grew up in the Midwest, you may decide to spend your college years in California to escape snow. You may also decide that because you like hockey, you ought to move someplace where hockey is king.

Whatever your reasoning, make sure that you’re choosing a college for a variety of reasons and not just because you can wear a bikini to class.

Being close to home-Frequently, students want to move far, far away from home. The thinking is that if you are far away, you will be able to manage things for yourself and really grow up. No matter how close or far you are from home, you are going to grow up. It’s inevitable.

The question for you to answer is how often you want to return home to visit family and friends. Going to school across the country makes this more difficult and more costly.

Academics and Prestige

Choosing a college because it offers the program or major that you want makes perfect sense. In fact, it would be nice if this were one of your top five college considerations. If your school of choice also happens to be one of the Ivy League schools (Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University) or a member of the select Seven Sisters colleges (Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College), that’s all the better.

Since you are presumably going to college to start a career, not just get a job, it makes sense to choose a college based on how it can help your future career prospects. Ivy League schools and Seven Sister colleges have been shown to help people establish themselves no matter their career.

However, a good education at a school with a specific professor, a particular department, or a special program is also a way to establish yourself in your future career.

It’s also a good idea to check the teacher-to-student ratio. Colleges often list this information on their websites.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Along with the obvious considerations concerning college location and distance from home, most students also think about where their friends or loved ones are going to school. Here are some additional things that you may want to consider.

Parents You may want to attend a particular college because your parents went there. You may also think about a particular school because your parents will only pay if you attend that college. There’s even a possibility that you want to attend a school because one or both parents couldn’t get admitted to it. Whatever the reason, remember that it’s your education and your choice.

Friends It may be tempting to go to college with your best friend or friends. However, you will make friends wherever you go to school. That will be easier if you are on your own. 

Again, choose a college because it’s right for you and your career goals, not because everyone else is going there.

Siblings Going to the same school as your brother or sister makes a certain kind of sense to parents. They only have to drive to one location to pick up both kids. Your sibling can help you move in and vice versa. In fact, your sibling can help you get settled in and walk you around the campus.

However, your sibling won’t be around to help you for the rest of your life. Sometimes it’s important to do things all on your own to prove to yourself (and others) that you can. Your task is to figure out if attending college is one of those prove-yourself-to-yourself moments

Boyfriend or girlfriend Although going to the same college as your friends is tempting, going to the same college as your boyfriend or girl- friend can be a tug-of-war. You want to be with the one you love, but you also want to do something just for yourself.

Common wisdom has it that your relationship won’t make it through the long distance and time apart. Only you can decide what’s the right decision for you to make about your future.

Just answer one question: If you go to the same college as your beloved, what happens if you break up?

Student life/nightlife All colleges, no matter how small, have nightlife and campus activities. Bigger schools tend to have more to do. Don’t choose a school just because it has a “party” reputation. You are, after all, supposed to be attending college in order to graduate and start a career.

That said, feel free to ask about nightlife and activities when you visit the college. Ask what people do on the weekends. Ask if it’s boring. The students who are taking you on the tour of the college may not be perfectly honest with you, so ask any random students that you meet.

In fact, it’s a good idea to plan some alone time on campus, so you can walk around, get a feel for the place, and play Twenty Questions with the students you meet. You may be surprised at what you find out.


Best in Show:

The Best Information About Colleges and Careers

If you want to search various career paths, then is the place for you. You can find out about hundreds of careers and what day-to-day life is like for many professionals.

If you want a digital tool to help you keep track of your college applications, the College Board has the app for you. It’s called My Organizer. You can keep track of the schools you’d like to visit and those you want to apply to. Signing up is free.

This article is the first in a series adapted from the book How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook.

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book cover: How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook How to Pay for College: A Library How-To Handbook by Editors of the American Library Association published by ALA Editions.






Photo credit: NoncommercialShare Alike University of San Francisco Graduation Commencement May 2010 by Shawn Calhoun.

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