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Lessons for Picking the Right College

By Jason Emmert, Ph.D. & Jean Drasgow, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As parents of freshmen in college we have experienced first-hand the highs and lows of the college search process. We have learned that it does not need to be daunting and in fact can be rewarding if you set some criteria before you start. Determining the factors that are important to you and your child are better than any ranking system. Some factors that we considered were:

Finances – How much are you going to support your child in their higher education? How much are they expected to contribute (to the tuition/housing costs, and to miscellaneous living expenses)? How much is available in scholarships/loans? 

Educational quality – Whichever institution you choose make sure that it is accredited. There are several sources that rank programs; be aware of how the rankings are determined. Reviewing how graduates succeed in both jobs as well as further education is perhaps even important to consider. You can see college outcomes by checking the College 411 data sheet

 - check the four year graduation rate at each school.  4 years = 8 semesters of tuition. Is it a wise financial decision to attend a cheaper school if your child ends up going for 5 years vs. a more expensive school with a great 4 year graduation rate? 

- pay offers the College Return on Investment (ROI) report. The value of higher education cannot solely be measured on how much earnings are made post-graduation, but it does provide an objective measure. Is that Ivy League degree worth it? Maybe, maybe not.

Experiential learning opportunities – Will your student get hands-on learning opportunities? Will they be able to apply their classes to real-world situations? Are there leadership experiences, professional student organizations, a variety of study abroad options full-year; semester long, or short term? Are there scholarships to support these adventures?

Location – How proximal is the school? Is it an easy drive, flight? How does that impact the financials?


Extracurricular opportunities - Are there opportunities to engage in clubs or organizations related to your professional goals?  Are there groups that match your personal interests (music, dance, sports, outdoor activities, etc.)? You need to find something to be involved in; something that you can be part of, that will allow you to meet people, and that will energize you.


Student services – Most institutions offer counseling, heath services, student programming, but how about Career Fairs, job shadows, networking, etiquette dinners…?

Housing – Are there safe, affordable options that fit your child’s needs? In addition to traditional dorms, some universities offer living-learning communities and honors dorms. Additionally, some schools offer private certified options which may include faith-based housing, cooperative living environments and traditional sororities and fraternities. Each of these options offer different experiences and price points.


Fit – It is often hard to identify different cultures until you experience them first-hand. Traveling to different countries, working with different companies and even spending time with different families can help one understand that you can get a totally unique vibe from different places. Make sure you visit the campuses in which your student is interested. The “vibe” you get is a good sign of how well you may like the place/group/culture. This may be one factor that tops them all.

Room to grow – If your child changes their mind, is there a variety of other options for them to pursue?


There is no one perfect school. However, with a little homework, you and your child can approach the process logically and without too much stress. It takes hard work to prepare and be admitted for college. The selection process can be intimidating but you can work through it by reviewing the criteria above or making your own.  Trust us; in the end it’s worth your time and energy to find the right school!