HOW TO CHOOSE A COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY

One of the biggest decisions of your high school career is what to do after you graduate.(See I’M GRADUATING HIGH SCHOOL…NOW WHAT?) If you have been thinking or have decided on going to a university, you may feel overwhelmed about where to go. There are so many options out there for you to choose, and even if you think you want to go to the school of your dreams, there may be reasons why you should choose another route to begin with.

While some students in high school dream about Ivy league universities, others may be looking at going to the school their parents’ went to or have made a choice based on where their friends are going. Some students may not even be sure their grades, tests scores, or college applications are good enough to get into ANY college. Your high school advisor or guidance counselor should be able to help you with some of your expectations when it comes to college, but even though they can see your test scores and high school record, they may not know you well enough to help you make the right decision. There are so many factors to consider before making a choice including:

  • What you want to do for a living
  • Your and your parent’s financial situation
  • Your academic experience
  • How far away you want to be from home, and why
  • Do you even need a degree for what you are interested in doing?
  • Are there schools that are specialized in what you want to do?
  • Do you need to brush up on basic skills before going to college (writing, math, etc.)?
What you do after high school is a big decision!

As you can see, there are a lot of questions to ask yourself and research to do. The first thing I want you to know, is that a college education isn’t for everyone. You may be able to get a certification at a trade school or get on the job experience or an apprenticeship somewhere, depending on your field of choice. So, don’t waste your time and money on a university education if you are not 100% sure you need and want to go down that path.

Ok, so now you have decided that you definitely want a secondary education, so what choices do you have? If you aren’t sure what you want to do yet and you know you could use a couple of years learning some basic skills or even getting an associate’s degree in something, you should look at COMMUNITY COLLEGE. Community college offers students a chance to continue their education while figuring out what they want to do next. You can usually get an Associate’s degree while at a community college, or transfer to a university once you graduate.

TRADE SCHOOLS or schools for specialized degrees offer more of a high school like atmosphere where you learn only what you need to know to get a degree in your specific field. This is very useful for many hands on types of jobs like auto mechanics or hair stylists, as you can become an expert in what you want to do. These courses are also usually 12, 18, or 24 months long, which means you can get to working and earning money much faster. The drawback of this is that, although you can get financial aid if available to you, it is usually pretty costly and you will be expected to pay any loans back 6 months after graduation. The upside is that these schools usually have job placement programs, where they will help you find a job right away with your new degree.

Four year UNIVERSITIES offer a wide array of topics in which to major, and also gives you the time to explore what you want to do and change your mind if you need to. Universities offer a “well-rounded” education, meaning that you will have to take courses in all of the major subjects, plus your specialized courses for your major, plus electives based on what you find interesting. This allows you to explore many different subject areas and find ways to connect different areas of interest in fun ways. Going to a university is, of course, the more academic route, so you are expected to spend the majority of your time writing papers, researching topics, and really delving into the subject matter you are interested in, in a real world way. Universities also offer a lot of community service opportunities, social opportunities, and a chance to become an independent adult, while still having some sense of protection…what I mean is your parents are still helping and you aren’t expected to do EVERYTHING an adult has to do on their own, but you have lots of chances to practice.

No matter what it is you think you want to do, one of the main things to consider is your and your parents’ financial situations. It is easy to get caught up in what you want to do and what you think are meant to do BUT if you don’t figure out your financial responsibility early on, you may become one of the millions of Americans who owe thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Here is what you need to plan out before you make your final decision on your future:

You need information before you make big decisions!
  1. Talk to your parents. You probably have no idea what your parent’s financial situation is, what their debts are, how much they are worth, etc. Ask your parents what THEIR plan is for you financially: Have they been saving money for your education? Do they (or another family member) have a 529 account for you? Do they plan on helping out with any of your expenses, like rent or food? When I was getting ready to graduation high school, I had assumed I was going to college because it just seemed like what I was meant to do. I had applied for universities, got my acceptance letters, and narrowed down where I wanted to go. Once I had made a decision to stay close to home (because I had a boyfriend – another bad decision), and I had filled out all the paper work, my parent’s informed me that they had no intention of helping me out with ANY college stuff, including the necessary paperwork I needed to apply for financial aid. I was lost and confused for a year, because I had thought that we had all been on the same page. I never knew, still don’t, their financial situation, and I truly didn’t even know ahead of time what I had to do to get financial aid. I was on my own. A year later, I was able to go to one year at a University, but with lack of support and no real direction, I got depressed and dropped out. There is a happy ending to this story, eventually (and a lot of experience I gained along the way).
  2. Compare prices of schools. Whether you have already chosen which type of school you want to go to or not, you should look into the prices of each school you are considering. Every school’s website will have a page with all of the expected expenses listed. These are usually based on past prices, so make sure you plan for paying more than what is listed. Don’t just look at tuition. Tuition is a small part of what you need to consider. Fees, living expenses (on and off campus), meal plans (sometimes required), books and supplies (varies every semester at a university), gas and car maintenance (if you are commuting), parking fees (if you choose to have a vehicle on campus), and travel expenses for holidays and breaks are just a few of the things you need to figure out. Trade schools may offer a set price which includes books, supplies, fees, and tuition, but you may need to get an off campus apartment and pay an arm and a leg for housing. College is expensive. If you are planning on going to college out of state, look at the difference in tuition rates…it is SIGNIFICANTLY higher than staying in state. And although there are plenty of way to pay for it, remember that you WILL be responsible for any money you take out!
  3. Look at your financial aid options: Different options for financial aid exist for different types of schools. There are also different kinds of student loans (subsidized, unsubsidized), grants (money you don’t have to pay back), and parent loans (if your parents are willing to take them out, but don’t assume they will). When you fill out your FAFSA application for financial aid, you will have to fill out a section that will assign you and your parents some financial responsibility based on what they earn. So while you may have scholarships and grants, you may still have a portion of your tuition that needs to be covered with student loans. Or you may have enough in grants and scholarships to pay for tuition, but if you choose not to work during school, you may need student loans to pay for your other expenses (not the best option). You will also have the opportunity to apply for work study, which allows you to have a job on campus that limits your hours and works around your schedule. And, of course, you may just need to get an off campus job or two in order to make ends meet.

Please don’t look at any of this as a discouragement to secondary education or to universities in particular. I absolutely loved my university experience and would do it all over again (told you there was a happy ending). . . once I knew what to expect and how to make it happen. Just be prepared for all the unexpected aspects of your choice BEFORE you feel stuck and regret what you have decided. Not every person is cut out for a 4 year school and not ever person is financially ready to make that commitment at 18 years old…and that is ok!!

Let me know if you have any other questions about what to do after high school! I’d love to hear from you. Please follow Being Grown Up on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook and look for my podcasts on Anchor.fm/kim-stamler or Being Grown Up on your favorite podcast subscriber. XOXO

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