I recently sat down with a community college graduate who was trying to decide between two transfer universities. One was in-state, one out of state. One had full tuition covered and the other would require tens of thousands in loans.
She was torn and feeling a lot of anxiety about making the "right" choice.
I shared with her the key things I thought she should look into, and she found them so helpful that I thought I should share them with you too!
If you're not sure which university will be the best choice for you, here are five things you can do:
1) Visit each campus
Get up-close-and-personal with the campus. Ask the admissions office to visit a class and/or the program director or dean of your intended major. Eat in the cafeteria. Go to an athletic event. Sit in the library.
Don't just do the standard walk-around-tour. Some colleges even offer a chance to stay overnight - do it! This is an investment and getting as close as possible will reveal a lot and will help you make a better gut-level decision.
2) Check out alumni on LinkedIn
LinkedIn has this new feature that I'm obsessed with. Go to LinkedIn.com/edu and click on the "Prospective Students" tab. Then type in the universities you're considering and after you click to "view" the school you're looking for, click "explore careers of alumni." Keep clicking "show more" until you find the industry and/or company that most closely matches your dream career.
You can click on one industry or a few, and then scroll down and explore the alumni of that college. Look at a few profiles that intrigue you and consider their career path. Is it something you want to model?
For the bold, reach out to a few alumni that you admire and ask if they'd be willing to share their experience with the university. Nothing is better than a first-hand account. Sometimes admissions offices will also arrange an alumni conversation.
If you have a very specific post-college goal then also be on the lookout for alumni who fit that profile.
For example, the student I talked with really wanted to go to graduate school at an ivy league after she graduated with her bachelor's, so I told her to try to find out which university prepared more graduates to study at an ivy league and/or had alumni who worked at her dream organizations (e.g. The New York Times).
3) Talk to a current student
When you visit campus be bold and ask students around you quick questions. Walk up to a group eating in the cafeteria and explain you're a prospective student and ask them if you can ask them a few questions about how they like the college.
The worst thing that can happen is that they say no, which may tell you something about the campus culture.
Some questions to get you started: 1) What made you choose this college? 2) What is your favorite part about going here? 3) What is your major? 4) What do you like most about classes here? 5) What do you like to do for fun here? 6) What do you know about [program you're interested in]? 7) What is the most challenging part of going to this college? 8) What is one thing you wished someone had told you before enrolling here?
4) Research your intended major/career
One of my favorite websites for this is InsideJobs.com. Explore your intended career intensively and consider your major with a lot of thought. Then look at the programs at each college to determine which one will best prepare you for what you really want to to learn and do.
One of the best things you can do is connect with someone doing your dream job and tell them about the colleges and programs you're trying to decide between. There is nothing better than getting advice from someone who is in the industry and knows what kind of weight their industry places on particular colleges and programs.
I put cost last very deliberately. I think community college is a great option because it is so cost effective, but that doesn't mean you always have to go for the cheapest option.
Wait until you've completed steps 1-4 and then consider your financial aid offerings from each university and map out the cost.
Here are a few reasons when it can be a good idea to go with the more expensive university: 1) if there are a ton of alumni who went on to your dream organization or dream graduate school 2) if someone in your dream industry says that university opens A LOT more doors in your field than the other 3) if the academic program you want to major in is one of the best 4) if it's an ivy-league university whose recognized name can open a lot of doors
Small loans are fine as you are the best investment you can make. However, if after doing all the research you think you can get all of the things above for less money at an accredited school, then go for it.
There's no reason to take out crazy loans for a private school if it doesn't really offer the things that you want and need for your future.
And finally, remember that you've just graduated from community college - something not everyone is able to do. You should be so proud of how far you've come and realize that you have proven you can make the best of wherever you go to school.
Be smart and strategic, but do not be anxious. Whatever choice you make, as long as you continue to work hard, commit to the experience, and build a college community, you are going to be successful.