Finding the right college or training program
High school graduates have many opportunities and options for education and training after high school. This makes the possibilities nearly limitless, but a final decision can be very difficult. There are no magic formulas for selecting the "perfect" postsecondary school. Thoughtful planning and research, however, can help you and your children focus your efforts and successfully manage the process.
Why go to college?
When beginning the college search, the first question your children need to answer is, "Why college?" What is it that they hope to achieve in college?
There are many reasons for going to college. Benefits include:
- Greater knowledge. College level study enhances critical thinking and communication skills. It results in more knowledge about our complex world. This knowledge produces a more skilled family member, community member, employee, consumer, and lifelong learner.
- Greater potential. Education opens the doors to achievement and self-actualization. It provides greater awareness of options and reduces barriers to accomplishment.
- More job opportunities. The world of work continues to require education beyond high school for more and more jobs. Those with more education have greater flexibility in the changing labor market.
- More money. Earning power is directly linked to level of education completed.
Your children may have other reasons for continuing their educations after high school. Whatever their reasons, they will want to be clear about their needs and expectations before they actually begin searching for the "right" college.
What are the steps for finding the "right" college?
The college search begins as early as middle school. During high school, you and your children can discuss their dreams and goals, talk about paths for accomplishing those goals, find out the educational requirements, and begin to identify schools that offer programs that meet those requirements. On family trips, you can even begin to visit campuses to make the idea of college more real. These types of discussions will make the work of a serious college search much easier. Don't wait until the beginning of your children's senior year!
You should encourage your children to take these steps.
During their junior year:
- Set their goals for postsecondary education. Answer the question, "Why college?"
- Set their criteria for schools they will consider. Prioritize their criteria so they know which characteristics are most important and which are least important.
- Research schools. Request school catalogs, review school Web sites, talk to people who attended the schools. Attend college fairs and talk with school recruiters.
- Compare information from the schools they have researched. As they begin to create a list of possibilities, they may find that they need to reset their criteria or reprioritize.
During the summer between their junior and senior year:
- Visit schools your children are seriously considering if at all possible.
- Review their list of schools and decide which schools they want to apply to. Put the application deadlines on a calendar.
During their senior year:
- Apply to schools.
- If accepted at more than one school and undecided about which to attend, visit.
- Start early. Don't wait until senior year. For very competitive colleges, students will need to know entrance requirements in 8th grade in order to plan a four-year high school program that will meet those requirements. If possible, visit schools during late sophomore and junior years to get a "feel" for the different types of colleges. Many applications are due fall of the senior year, so some decisions need to be made before then!
- Don't be biased. Keep an open mind about all the options. Parents and students may underestimate the value of a small career school or a community college and overestimate the value and relevance of a school that offers four-year degrees.
- Be an informed consumer. Read about the school in publications. Explore the school's web site. Talk to people who have attended the school. Talk to faculty at the school. There are as many points of view about what constitutes a great college experience as there are people who have experienced college. The more perspectives students explore, the better able they will be to evaluate schools for their individual needs.
What kinds of criteria are important?
Program of study or college major should be the first consideration. The cost of a four year college degree in Oregon, including living expenses, begins at $47,500, so a four-year college degree is a sizeable investment. If your children plan to achieve a particular career goal, it is essential to be sure that the program of study or major desired is offered at the schools they are considering.
This consideration also includes type of degrees offered. Some areas of study do not require four years of college. Many programs are offered that culminate in an associate degree or a certificate. In fact, a number of students in our state's community colleges have already earned four-year college degrees; when they decide to return for a certificate or associate degree in order to advance their careers. A four-year liberal arts education is valued in many enterprises, but it is not the only or the best educational choice for all students. Once again, the vital question is "Why?" If achieving a specific occupational goal is in the answer, availability of an applicable program of study at the appropriate degree level is a key factor to consider.
Other criteria your children might consider will be more personal. Your children will want to create a list of things that are important to them. Many school characteristics are easily documented through use of comprehensive career resources like Oregon Career Information System (CIS) or each school's own Web site. Other criteria that prospective students might consider are more subjective, requiring you and your children to evaluate the school on your terms.
Look over this list of possible criteria with your children. Write down those that are important and describe the criteria. (For example, under admission requirements, you might write "moderate to difficult" because your child wants a college that is selective but not too selective.) Order the list of criteria with the most important at the top. Then research schools based on these criteria.
- Admissions requirements
- Breadth of academic offerings
- Career and job placement services
- Class size
- Community life and activities
- Community setting (urban, suburban, rural)
- Computer access and requirements
- Diversity of student body
- Evening and weekend classes
- Faculty reputation
- Financial aid
- Location (area of US, state, city)
- Part-time study options
- School accreditations
- School activities
- School calendar
- School size
- Science labs quality
- Sororities and fraternities
- Special programs and services (such as ROTC, study abroad, and services for students with disabilities)
- Student to faculty ratio
- Transportation and parking
- Type of school (public, independent, religious affiliation)
Various organizations also rate schools nationally and regionally. The most well-known of these ratings is an annual review done by U.S. News and World Report. Remember that all school rating systems are based on a set of assumptions and values which you and your children may or may not share. You should first look carefully at how the schools are evaluated and then decide how to use the information.
How does my child choose a private career school?
Private career schools are another option for training after high school. Because the quality of private career schools varies widely, it is critical that your student checks out the school before he or she enrolls. Your child may want to select a school based on the length or intensity of the program or additional services the school may provide. Some schools, for example, will offer additional training beyond the minimum requirements. Other schools will help your student find a job after training is completed.
- Determine whether a private school is good or not. Don't be afraid to call a school and ask for references from among their current students, graduates, and related businesses.
- Make sure the school will provide you with quality skills that will help you in your career. Do research before your child pays any fees or tuition. Investigate several types of training programs before committing to a school. Make sure formal training is necessary or recommended to get the job your child wants. A school's good reputation may not help if jobs are scarce in the field when your child graduates.
- Ask for printed information about the school's accreditation and licensing. Accreditation means a private educational agency or association has evaluated the school and found it meets certain minimum requirements. In most states, private career schools are registered. However, cosmetology and barber schools are usually licensed. Contact the Oregon Department of Education if you have questions about a school's licensing.
- Ask the school's administrators and instructors about the success rate of its programs. Find out what percentage of students graduate from each program. A high dropout rate could mean that students are dissatisfied with the program.
- Learn about the school's faculty and classroom facilities. Ask about the qualifications of the instructors and the size of most classes. Examine the school's equipment, such as computers, to see if it is up-to-date and in good working order. Find out if the equipment used in the program is the equipment most employers use. Check out the textbooks.
- Investigate the job placement aspect of the program. Ask about job placement rates, the names of employers the school has placed students with, and the name of the contact person at each company. If the school says it will help your child find a job, what does this include? Will the school contact potential employers and set up interviews? Will your child receive counseling on how to interview for, obtain, and keep a job?
- Check with local consumer protection offices before enrolling. See if any complaints about the school have been filed with the local Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, or consumer protection unit of the State Attorney General's Office.
- Ask to review a copy of the school's contract. Read the contract carefully before you sign it. The contract explains your student's rights and responsibilities in dealing with the school. Make sure all the school's promises are in writing. Know the tuition and supply costs and understand the school's cancellation and refund policies. The school must explain its refund policy in writing. The school must tell students about any changes in that policy. Does the school have a re-entry policy if you have to leave school because of prolonged illness, pregnancy, or family problems?
Parts of this information were adapted from the Oregon Career Information System (CIS) with permission.