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How to Choose a College in 2024

Written by Editorial Team
Updated: June 3, 2022
11 min read
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Pursuing a college degree can be a helpful step in achieving one's personal and professional goals so it's critical to know how to choose a college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers with higher education make more money than individuals with only a college degree; moreover, many jobs require candidates to have a bachelor's degree or higher.

That being said, choosing a college can be a very daunting task. Every student has a unique set of wants and needs from their potential school. Some may prioritize academic quality, while other students are more concerned with the campus culture; others, still, may have a preference for school size. Financial aid can also be an influential factor in this decision-making process.

Student holding books and standing on her campus steps

The college search process is two-fold: (1) What characteristics of a school are most important to achieving your goals? (2) What school best encompasses these traits?

A big part of your college decision may involve the costs of attendance at different schools you're interested in. Financial aid often doesn't go far enough, but, the largest independent scholarship provider in the country, is here to help. Sign up today and start applying for scholarships so you can afford your dream school!

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Factors to Consider When Choosing the Right College:

There are many factors to consider during the college search process. Because different students may prioritize different factors in deciding what the "right college" is for them, it can be helpful to compare how colleges measure up in different areas of interest.

  1. The "What college should I go to" quiz
  2. Figuring out how to choose a college in 2022
  3. Tuition costs
  4. Your major
  5. Location
  6. Extracurriculars
  7. Campus environment
  8. Career resources
  9. Narrowing things down

Figuring Out How to Choose a College in 2024

Tuition Costs and Financial Aid

While most people are aware that higher education comes at a cost, many students and families underestimate just how high that cost can be. When choosing a college, be sure to consider the total costs of your schools of interest.


Currently, the average tuition costs of a public college are $9,400 and $18,200 at private for-profit institutions. At private nonprofit institutions, average tuition and fees total $37,600. On top of tuition, students have to consider additional expenses like housing, food, and books, which can cost thousands of dollars a year. These costs can be discouraging to many people. In fact, almost fifty percent of families expect to go into debt from children seeking college education — and it's not hard to see why.


For many, federal student loans and aid don't offer enough funding to cover college costs, leaving students to go into debt as they seek financial aid elsewhere. Student loan debt in the US alone totals more than $1.6 trillion and affects over 45 million borrowers. People spend decades paying off student loans; about 8.5 million American borrowers are over the age of 50. This ruinous lending system prevents millions of individuals from achieving other milestones in life, such as buying a home, starting a business, or simply using their money for leisure.

Stressed student resting his head on his text book

Financial Aid

As college costs continue to rise in the U.S., financial aid is becoming more and more essential. Prospective students can speak with a school counselor about financial aid resources and opportunities, as well as contact their school's financial aid office. They can also apply for federal financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called FAFSA. By filling out FAFSA, college students can receive financial aid packages from the federal government like the Pell Grant, a need-based grant for undergraduate students.

In addition to federal aid, there are an estimated 1.7 million private scholarships (with a combined worth of $7.4 billion) up for grabs. On, there are many scholarships of all types for students to apply to; these scholarships are exclusive to, narrowing their application pools and boosting your chances of success!

Your Major

You're in college to learn, so the quality of that education will be a big consideration during the college search. It's important to choose a college that offers a major in line with your interests and goals. Once you choose your college major, it might become easier to find the right college for you.

A college major is a student’s chosen area of study to focus on in college. Academic disciplines generally fall into one of the following categories: Social Sciences & History, Biological & Natural Sciences, Business, Education, Engineering, Liberal Arts & Humanities, Performing Arts, Healthcare & Related Sciences, Communications, or Computer Science & Mathematics. Under these umbrellas are specific majors, like Biology, Political Science, or Music Education. Consider trying to gauge the career and research achievements of the faculty and staff in your target department; see if they've won any awards or been published.

Three college students walking out of class together

Some colleges offer specific majors or minors that are hard to find elsewhere. Students who want to study a very specific or obscure field should research what schools offer programs in that area. Even if your desired major is a very common one, you can still compare colleges' rankings in that category.

A school may have very esteemed faculty and staff in your particular department or major. Another may offer extracurricular activities associated with the department, like a student newspaper for students in the Journalism or Communications department.

Your major may help determine if a college is a good fit for you.


Location can also be a significant aspect when choosing a college, and may even be the deciding factor.

Some degree programs may be contingent on location; for example, a student studying music may want to receive their education in a city with a bustling music scene, while a student studying environmental science may desire proximity to the ecological topics of their research.

Moreover, students may simply have a preference for certain locations. Some students may desire a traditional college campus, while others may prefer a decentralized campus that is immersed in its city. Some may feel better suited to certain climates or prefer areas that are more urban or more rural. Some students may want to be close to family, while others may prefer to be far from family.

Group of college students standing outside of their class building

Sometimes location influences cost. Students should note that the cost of college includes more than just tuition; different cities have varying costs of living, so attending college in an expensive city will increase their overall costs.

Public colleges generally have much higher out-of-state costs when compared to the same degree, in-state. This is because most public colleges receive state tax revenue to help subsidize expenses, allowing them to offer lower tuition rates for individuals who live in the state and thus contribute to that revenue. Students and families who live in a different state from a public college (and, thus, have not paid taxes in the state) cannot benefit from this subsidy, resulting in higher out-of-state costs.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are a great way for students to get more involved on campus, make friends, and find enriching activities outside of class. Depending on one's interests, extracurricular activities could have a large impact on their college experience.

Many students enter college with extracurricular passions that they want to continue. During your college search, read about what extracurriculars are offered at your schools of interest. You can also use school rankings of different areas to help you compare colleges with similar offerings. Browse college websites to get a sense of their culture outside of academics.


Students who are interested in pursuing college athletics should research what types of activities are available at different institutions. If you casual and informal organization to have fun and make friends, look into intramural sports! If you want something a bit more structured and intercollegiate, maybe club sports will be your thing. Finally, if athletics are really your thing, you can try out for collegiate athletics teams; these NCAA-sanctioned teams are the most rigorous, competitive, and organized way to get involved with sports on campus.

Many collegiate sports organizations offer scholarships to skilled student-athletes. You can find other athletic-based scholarships in the 'Athletics' category of the scholarships page and you can read this guide to learn more about athletic scholarships.

Financial Aid Opportunities

Some extracurriculars can earn students financial aid. There are scholarships available for college students and high school seniors with particular skills, interests, or hobbies. Your particular college of interest may even offer scholarships to their students for participating in certain extracurricular activities. On, you can search scholarships by category and find ones applicable to your interests and strengths.

Campus Environment

Campus environment is a huge part of one's college experience and can be influenced by many factors. From student body size to diversity to climate, the environment you're surrounded by is an important part of your experience.

Two college students studying at a table outside

Types of Schools

When choosing a college, students should consider what exactly they want from their higher education experience. Because there are so many schools to choose from, it can be helpful to narrow your search by type.

Four-Year Colleges and Universities

Though they are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a college and a university.

Colleges are smaller than universities and tend to focus on undergraduate studies, offering students a wide variety of academic programs. Universities, on the other hand, are larger institutions offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Many universities also have a special focus on research. A university can encompass several colleges, offering a wide range of fields for students.

Public Colleges vs Private Colleges

Four-year colleges and universities can be further distinguished by public and private colleges.

Public colleges and universities receive funding from the state in which they reside, taken from state tax revenue. Because of this, public schools (also called "state schools") are generally cheaper and larger than private schools.

Private colleges and universities get their funding through tuition and private donations. Private colleges tend to be smaller and cost more than public colleges and universities.

Community Colleges

Community colleges offer a great selection of two-year associate's degree programs. They are generally less expensive than four-year colleges and universities and have less stringent college admissions criteria.

Students may attend a community college to take necessary classes or improve their transcript to qualify for certain professional or educational programs.

Community colleges are also a great choice for students who want to complete their general education requirements at a cheaper institution before transferring to a four-year college to get their bachelor's degree. Many two-year colleges offer helpful transition support to their students as they enter the next stage of their academic or professional careers.

Vocational Schools

College isn't for everyone — and that's fine! For students desiring training to head straight into the workforce, vocational schools are a great option.

Vocational schools can generally be divided into technical schools and trade schools.

Technical schools (also called technical colleges) offer certifications and degrees in particular trades. These can include cosmetology, culinary arts, HVAC, and automotive mechanics, among others. Trade schools generally focus on more "hands-on" professions like plumbing, electricity, carpentry, welding, and many other fields. Trade schools tend to focus less on classroom learning and more on hands-on training.

Class Size

Class size can have an impact on the quality of a student's education.

Small schools tend to have smaller class sizes, making it easier for students to interact with their peers and professors. Individuals can develop relationships, both personal and professional, much easier when there are fewer people. These schools may also have more individualized student support services and allow students to receive more individual attention.

College students in class

However, class size is not the end all be all of student success. Recent studies show that while class size may impact student achievement, the situation is quite nuanced. Students benefit from effective teaching strategies, which can be present in classes of any size. Also, how one measures "success" and "achievement" can be quite subjective.

Campus Size

Students may also have a preference for their school size and type of college campus. These factors can also have an impact on the culture of the school.

A large, centralized college campus often correlates with a rich campus life and many common spaces for students to socialize. A school with a more decentralized college campus may promote individualism and immersion in the city in which it resides; this is often seen with schools in urban regions wherein the college campus can integrate.

There are pros and cons to both types; some students may prefer to be immersed in the city, while others prefer to be immersed in campus life.

Career Resources

Most people pursue higher education in hopes of it leading to a successful career. You'll want to choose a college that offers a variety of career services that can aid in your professional success.

College career centers offer resources, training, and networking opportunities to help students find work in their field after graduation. The center may offer workshops that teach students to create effective resumes and cover letters. They also help students secure internships and jobs, through career fairs and direct correspondence with employers.

You might also want to look into what specific career advising resources are available to students within your department and field. Browsing college and departmental websites is a helpful place to begin this inquiry.

During your college search, read about the employment outcomes of different colleges. Investigate the employment outcomes of the school in general, as well as in your specific area of interest. Consider contacting college counselors; they may be able to offer you more information about the career resources offered at their institution. It may also be helpful to speak to a current or past student in your field about career prospects.

Narrowing Things Down

Now that you know what factors to consider, it's time to put that information to work. Which factors of a college are most important to achieving your personal and professional goals? Within those parameters, which schools best meet your needs?

College student sitting on the lawn and looking at his laptop

College Rankings

College ranking lists can be helpful in seeing how schools measure up to each other in different areas. Considering the factors most important to them, a student can cross-reference different ranking lists to see how their colleges of interest compare to each other.

Students shouldn't rely solely on these rankings, however. What makes one college "better" than another will vary by who you ask; because of this, different publications may have different metrics for deciding their school rankings. Rankings often rely heavily on the reputations of schools, but there are other factors in deciding how colleges stack up to each other.

Though it may be helpful to compare colleges based on others' assessments, it is also important for students to consider their own priorities.

Personal Fit

Choosing a college greatly hinges on each individual's needs and priorities.

A school may have high retention and graduation rates, but lackluster student life; it may offer excellent research opportunities, but have a student body that isn't very diverse. Ultimately, every school has its strengths and weaknesses; students should consider which strengths are most important to them and which weaknesses are complete dealbreakers.

Outgoing students may desire a college with a lively campus culture, perhaps including athletics and Greek life; large universities may provide them with the most compatible campus environment. Other students may be more successful in a small school with smaller classes and a close-knit student body. Different students thrive in different environments, and students should consider what big-picture things they desire in a college.

Many schools have unique programs or extracurriculars that may attract certain student demographics. For example, a student studying journalism may really want a school with a student newspaper they can write for. A student with a very specific area of interest may benefit from an individualized study program.

Putting It in Perspective

It can be helpful for students to write out factors they prioritize in a school. One way to do this is to make three lists: things a school must have, things it would be nice to have, and things that are dealbreakers. These lists will look different for everyone, but they can be a helpful way to narrow down your choices.

Colleges and universities often have reputations that precede them. It's important to note that these reputations aren't everything; what's important is how you feel about the school.

To give yourself the most agency in choosing a school you like, start applying for scholarships today so you can have the financial freedom to afford any school you're interested in! Editorial Team
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