9 Different Criteria When Researching Colleges You Should Consider

Learn about some of the key objective factors to consider when choosing the college you want to attend.

9 Different Criteria When Researching Colleges You Should Consider
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In a previous article, we discussed choosing the right college for you. But that covered more of a broad sweep of ideas to ponder when deciding on a college. Here, we’ll dive into more detail on learning how to make your selection more effective by highlighting the most crucial different criteria when researching colleges in order to decide on where to go.

While this article does naturally cover aspects of your personal criteria, here the focus is more on the concrete factors to zero-in on when researching colleges to apply and potentially attend. When evaluating schools, there are different criteria when researching colleges that you should apply to all the prospective schools you’re interested in. These range from your understanding of what level of academic performance is expected of you, to determining if you can or cannot afford a college before you become too interested, to a school’s level of accreditation and much more.

Read on to find out nine different criteria when researching colleges that will help ensure you’re homing in on the best school for you.

1. Your College Major and Program Selection

It’s perfectly normal, and very common, for both prospective college students and current college students to not have decided on what their college major will be. However, it is a good idea to have a general, even vague, idea of the majors you may be interested in pursuing when researching colleges. Of all the different criteria when researching colleges, making sure the colleges you’re interested in offer programs that are in line with what you want to study is critical. Though this may seem obvious, many prospective college students fail to consider the program selections at the colleges they’re interested in, instead focusing on other factors to influence their decision. 

You should not only make sure a college has a program covering the major you’re interested in; you should also research the general education and core class requirements. It’s important to know general education requirements so that you can get an idea of how to fit your major’s requirements into your overall schedule. If you have in mind a major that is interdisciplinary or unique, you should research which colleges enable students flexibility in crafting their own major. It’s also a good idea to research what your intended major’s department is like, such as its organization, its faculty, the resources it has at its disposal, and similar characteristics. You wouldn’t want to attend a college where your intended major is underfunded or treated as an after-thought.

2. Academic Record and Intensity

Many students want to get into a highly regarded college with a strong academic record. However, the flipside of this desire is the fact that highly selective colleges can also be very challenging in terms of their courses and requirements. Even the best high school students can find themselves at a college that demands academically too much for them to handle without unsustainable levels of stress. If you have some difficulty with high school educational requirements, then attending a two-year community college can be a good move to help transition from high school to a four-year college. If you excel when it comes to high school education, it is still essential to research how rigorous your target college’s academic standards are. 

A good way to gauge the academic intensity of colleges you’re interested in is to ask for help from your college counselor, as well as current and former students of that college. Between your counselor and current and former students, you can ask questions about the instructors, typical course load and course load for your specific major, what midterms and finals are like, and the general expectations for students.

3. Support Systems Available for Students

Among the different criteria when researching colleges, this factor is frequently overlooked and really should not be. When investigating the colleges you’re interested in, check out what kinds of support systems the schools have in place to help students achieve success. These kinds of support systems can include mental health centers, which can be invaluable when academic stress gets overwhelming; career services departments, which can help guide you both while you’re an undergraduate as well as when you’re an alumnus; tutoring services can be a huge help when you find yourself in a course that is especially demanding yet necessary for your major; and student financial aid services, which can help you navigate the labyrinthine world of how scholarships, grants, and financial aid apply to your college in particular. 

4. Campus Life

The nature of campus life at the colleges you’re interested in is often one of the top factors prospective students consider when applying to school. While campus life is important, it shouldn’t be the number one factor you should consider among the different criteria when researching college. Still, understanding what campus life looks like at your colleges of interest is very important. Most freshmen live on-campus in college housing at four-year public and private not-for-profit colleges, while after freshman year, many students decide to  plan on living in residences — like apartments or fraternity and sorority houses — that may be on-campus but separate from the college itself. 

However, campus life encompasses more than just living arrangements at college. When researching campus life, you should look into some of the following aspects of the college campus: The size of the campus, layout, and architecture; dining options offered by the school as well as restaurants independent of the college; extracurricular activities, such as fraternities and sororities to social clubs; transportation options, such as campus buses, trams, and shuttles; diversity of the student body; as well as what entertainment options are available, both on and off-campus.

5. Size of the College

This factor is related to the one mentioned above, but deserves its own entry. There can be a world of difference in experience between a large public college and a small private college. For instance, large state schools often possess big social scenes and competitive sports teams, which can appeal to many high school students. At the same time, big public colleges can leave some students feeling small, overlooked, and unable to craft a unique or interdisciplinary major. Smaller, private not-for-profit colleges can often provide a flexible academic program and greater attention to individual students, but lack the energy you may find at a large state school. Additionally, students are more likely to get personalized attention at small colleges, but they might have fewer resources at their disposal and less diversity among the student body. Thus, among the different criteria when researching colleges, the size of the school should be a central consideration of yours.

6. Tuition and Affordability

The cost of college is definitely one of the most important factors among the different criteria when researching colleges. Having a clear idea of how a college’s costs will fit into your plan to pay for school is critical when choosing the best college for you. The cost of college can vary dramatically depending on whether the college is public or private, where the college is located, and its academic record. 

When researching the costs of attending a college, it’s important to look beyond simply the cost of tuition. Visit the schools’ websites and look at the full breakdown of the typical costs of attending. You’ll find that there are a lot more expenses than tuition, such as various required fees, mandatory food plans for underclassmen, specialized program fees, residence service fees on top of room and board, and potentially much more. While most colleges offer plenty of information on any financial aid available, many schools might be bad at conveniently displaying this information on their website.

If a college you’re interested in seems out of reach in terms of your financial situation, always remember to investigate scholarships and grants. There are thousands of scholarships available out there, some appealing to specific applicants while others are far more broad. With persistent research, you can almost certainly find a scholarship that you can qualify for to help pay for the costs of college.

7. Graduation and Retention Rates

Tuition costs aren’t the only numbers you should consider when researching colleges. Some other key numbers to take into account include graduation rates and retention rates. Graduation rates are typically given as the percentage of undergraduates who graduate within a six-year window (this is common despite the fact that colleges are usually divided into four academic years of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year). Retention rates measure the percentage of students who return for their sophomore year.

Both graduation and retention rates can be useful measures of how appealing a college is to the students who attend it. You shouldn’t use these rates as the end-all-be-all metric of whether you decide to apply and attend a certain college, but they can be a good way to gauge the educational experience at a college. Low retention rates can indicate that the college doesn’t offer an environment that students want to continue being a part of, whether it’s for academic reasons or campus life reasons. Low graduation rates can be a reflection of the students’ lack of academic drive but also a lack on the part of the school of commitment to getting its undergraduate students to graduate. A college with both low graduation rates and retention rates could imply that many students drop out or transfer.

8. Scholarships and Financial Aid

Though this is related to tuition and affordability, scholarships and financial aid deserve their own heading because not all colleges accept the same forms of financial assistance. For example, many colleges have funding that is available only to their students rather than college students in general. Other colleges, especially large public schools and universities, may offer reduced or free college tuition to in-state students and applicants that possess high grade point averages. On the flipside, there are schools like Ivy League colleges that, technically, offer no sports scholarships, but will go out of their way to get strong high school athletes accepted. Thus, it’s important to research what kinds of scholarships the colleges you’re interested in accept. Financial aid through the federal government, via filling out the FAFSA form, is accepted by nearly every college in the country. 

9. Academic Accreditation

Though listed here as the last of the different criteria when researching colleges, checking whether a college has the proper accreditation is a key if often overlooked factor. As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, “accreditation is the recognition that an institution maintains standards requisite for its graduates to gain admission to other reputable institutions of higher learning or to achieve credentials for professional practice. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.”

Accreditation in the US involves both non-governmental entities, called accrediting organizations, and government agencies on the federal and state level. Accrediting agencies are important because they make sure that colleges are living up to the educational standards they claim or advertise to prospective students. If you end up attending a college that does not have accreditation, it can pose a serious problem for students who want to transfer out since the school’s credits may not be recognized and carry over. What’s more, if you attend a school that’s not accredited and pursue a degree that requires a license to practice professionally, you may not be able to do so since your prerequisite education won’t be recognized as legitimate. Fortunately, the Department of Education has an entire section on college accreditation and which schools are accredited.

The Bottom Line on Different Criteria When Researching Colleges

Colleges and students are infinitely variable. While one college might appeal to many students in your class, it may not appeal to you at all. Choosing the right college for you is a very subjective process. However, in this article, we tried to present some of the most crucial objective criteria to consider when you research which colleges to apply to and potentially attend. Some of the criteria mentioned here may be more important to you than others, and that’s perfectly normal. But you should take into account all of these factors to a certain degree. Although you can always transfer out of a college you don’t like, getting it right the first time is definitely more desirable.

Andrew DePietro

Author: Andrew DePietro

Senior Researcher, and Content Strategist

Andrew DePietro is a finance writer covering topics such as entrepreneurship, investing, real estate and college for BrokeScholar, Forbes, CreditKarma, and more.