August 17, 2019
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7 tips for starting your college search

John-Mark Kuznietsov | Unsplash
John-Mark Kuznietsov | Unsplash

Spring is here. For many families, visits to colleges are underway. With about 5,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S., where do you start? Here are seven tips that can ultimately save time, money, and increase the likelihood of a better fit between school and student.

Do your research online.

This can streamline your search and focus on schools that may be of interest. For example, at the College Board’s Big Future website you can search based on a number of factors, including many covered in this article.

Start looking close to home, even if you want to go far.

A study published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows that 75 percent of college students study 230 miles or less from home, and half of college students less than 100 miles. A backyard search can help define desired school characteristics, before you invest time and money in a longer, more expensive trip. Maine colleges, for example, include public and private, large and small, city and rural, religiously affiliated and nonsectarian, National Collegiate Athletic Association division I and division III athletics.

Focus on your major, but don’t worry if you’re undecided.

Think about areas of academic interest — for example, business, health professions, liberal arts — but don’t worry if you don’t have a desired major. At many colleges, students apply for admission to the school itself, not to particular majors. Even at universities with specialized programs, entering as an undeclared student is an option. For example, 10 percent of first-year students in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New England arrive as undecided majors, and are assigned a professional academic advisor to help choose majors, explore possible careers and plan coursework.   

Look for extracurricular opportunities, too.

Students should also think about their areas of extracurricular interest, including athletics. For student-athletes, this may include NCAA programs — although, only 6 percent of high school athletes will go on to participate in an NCAA program, according to recent data. Other activities include the arts, media, student government and community service.

Look beyond the sticker price to financial aid.

There is often a big difference between the advertised price of a college and the net price that a student and his or her family actually have to pay, after financial aid is factored in. Financial aid may include merit aid, which is awarded on the strength of the student’s academic record — or it can include need-based aid, which is based on what the student or family can afford to pay

Some schools award both kinds. Focus on location, programs, extracurriculars, and student success early in your search, and then research financial aid options as a means to narrow your list. You can use a net price calculator — a tool on each college’s website, required by law, that allows students and families to estimate their net price at a particular school.  

Ask about student outcomes.

Student outcomes are becoming more important than ever, particularly since the great recession of 2008. There has been increased focus on the return on investment of colleges to students and families investing their educational dollars. Colleges and universities are being held more accountable — and should be — to demonstrate the success of their graduates, and not just anecdotally. What percentage of a school’s recent graduates are professionally employed or entering graduate school in their chosen fields? How do third-party organizations rate the return on investment of specific colleges?

Talk to your networks.

Connect with others who have already been through this process. School guidance counselors, friends and family members already in college, and teachers can be good sources of information. The one caveat here is that, ultimately, the school has to be a good match for you — not your friends or siblings.

Scott Steinberg is the dean of University Admissions at the University of New England, with responsibility for undergraduate and graduate admissions. He has held admissions leadership positions at Bates College, Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine. He earned his M.B.A. from Columbia University, Graduate School of Business, and a B.A. in mathematics and music from Bates College.



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