Collective advice and wisdom about choosing a college

I have the joy of single parenthood, and by that design I have only limited experiences to draw upon when trying to guide my son. He’s already finished two years of college in a hybrid high school/college program, but now he’s looking to head out on his own and has been accepted into several schools of interest (in the US and abroad) and provided with very generous financial aid to the point that cost isn’t really too much of a consideration. There are arguments for each, but the specific strengths and weaknesses of colleges are well known by us.

However, there are other things that come up as a student that made me both delighted (schedule flexibility) and frustrated (a closet with two tiny beds is NOT the same as a dorm!) when I was in school, and I’m curious what types of tips or thoughts you have from your own experiences that a potential student might want to think about and look out for.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

I have really only my own experience and that of my brothers to draw on, but one good thing we all had in common was an opportunity to work personally with the educators. Usually that’s a function of small schools; my own alma mater had only 2000 students. Small schools also tend to work well if you’ve got a good idea of the field you want to study, as they tend to specialize. That’s not to say a larger school can’t be a good one; it certainly can, but you’ll want to find out up front if you’re going to be able to work directly with the professors and how deep their offerings are in your field of study.

My advice is to look at schools that are large enough that when they change majors they have options. Maybe they won’t need that but it will insure that they are at a place where they can be exposed to different types of thinking.

I appreciate the comments, guys. Passing that along :)

One thing to ask that is often overlooked is how strong is their alumni organization. I went to a small college but the Alumni Organization was very tight and when you graduated a good starting job could usually be found through them.

My advice: the type of degree is 1000% more important than the school its from. If we are talking about 4 year degrees, get an engineering or computer science degree or save your time and money and do something else from the jump.

The culture of the school is important. It has to be a place that he feels comfortable and you won’t know that till he’s walking around grounds. I had a chance to go away for high school (scholarship) and I let the rankings control much of my decision making. That was a mistake.

For me - I had a lot of growing up to do when I went to college. I probably would have been better served going to a smaller, private school where they were used to such things. Instead I ended up at one of the largest public institutions around, designed to weed students out rather than grow them. I failed out, but eventually earned my way back in and paid my own way to getting my degree from one of the better institutions in the world, and I’m proud of that accomplishment. It was also a lot of years of my life questioning myself without a lot of guidance. In hindsight, a smaller private institution which wanted to keep its students in school once they were admitted would have been better for where I was maturity-wise.

So, think about your son and what kind of environments in which he will thrive. Is he ready physically, mentally, emotionally and socially to live away from home and study independently and not get too distracted while growing up and studying? Or will he be better off with a more hands-on approach to help keep him focused?

As to rankings, in many cases they will only matter if your son is solidly decided on what he wants to study. I liked chemistry and was good a math and figured chemical engineering would be good for me… then I got to school and realized that I would only get to choose 5 electives over a 4-5 year program and I realized that I wanted to dabble more before committing. I ended up taking classes in everything UCLA had to offer, from Art History to Physics and the Biology of Aids.

What he said. Don’t end up like my recently-graduated friends with useless MSs and BAs and BSs who are making 13/hr or going active duty as enlisted with the hope of getting a “fun” officer position. The University of Montana now has a >1/10 default rate on loans for students.

If I could go back in time I would make sure I got a practical degree or a couple. Unless you’re doing something like engineering or architecture there’s no reason why you can’t graduate with a major and minor. I dabbled in a ton of different stuff. interesting for sure but not very useful in the long run.

I went to a small private college ( <5000 students total ) and I found it much more enjoyable as I really got to know a lot of people and on average class sizes were less than 25 people. There was a hands on level of support from professors that was amazing. So if he can and he likes the idea, I’d push for a smaller size college.

I agree with the comments above, get a computer science , engineering, or mathematics degree. I also agree with getting a minor or two, they are usually just a few extra courses, and you’d be surprised how many times they were brought up in interviews when I was first looking for a job.

I got a comp sci degree , with minors in management of info tech and business, the 2 minors were at most 6 extra semester classes I had to take during my last 2 years. Having to pay my own way with loans and scholarships did get me in a mindset of , this shit is real expensive and I can’t me messing around.

I guess I’ll be the dissenting opinion here and say don’t force a comp sci/engineering degree if that’s not his area of interest. I started CompE in 2005 and the first year made me so miserable that it lead to a brief period of depression and nearly losing my scholarships. I switched over to MIS which, while being related focused on areas that I was much more interested in and also gave me enough flexibility to pick up a minor and nearly double major in economics (9 more credits iirc, but it would’ve been entirely on my own dime which was unfeasible). I was infinitely happier and actually enjoyed studying and going to class which wasn’t happening the first year. This was at a private school with about 4k undergrad/5k grad students.

A lot of schools these days have sample 4-year plans for their degrees available online that will show what courses are taken when. The same degree at different schools can allow for different areas of focus, which you may want to take into consideration. Also, I don’t know your son and wouldn’t base my decision on it, but having general requirements that will transfer over to other majors early on will make him feel less ‘trapped’ if he changes his mind. It’s a bit absurd to think what we’re asking 18 year olds to decide when they go to college, but I digress.

GeeWhiz is also spot on here - in my experience and most people in my courses agreed, networking (through student orgs as well as official networking-type channels) is the most valuable thing you’ll get from a university experience vs self-guided learning. Unfortunately it can be hard to suss out which schools are legitimately good for this and which ones are promising you the moon.

I think, in general, big schools have more resources over more areas but you have to actively seek them out; very little hand-holding. It is easy to get lost. But some students thrive in that environment, lots of choices, lots to do, many different groups of people to meet.


I started off at a small school and finished up at a large school. I was much happier at the large school. The problem with a small school is that the dominant culture either works for you or it doesn’t and you often don’t know until you’ve been there a while. The small school ticked all of the boxes I was looking for and I thought for sure it was going to be a great fit but I really did not relate to my classmates. (Primarily wealthy prep-school kids coming from privileged backgrounds.) I had plenty of friends because I’m a social guy but they really weren’t “my people” and I was accordingly unhappy.

A large school has a diverse student body and you will find people who share your interests and sensibilities.

Obviously, every one is different. I know plenty of people like lordkosc who went to small schools and loved it. 'Just food for thought.

I approached it from the opposite side, went to one of the better institutions in the world and failed to succeed due to a lack of maturity, lack of discipline in the face of freedom, and a failure to grasp what I really wanted to do with my life. The way I like to tell it is that I told them I wasn’t coming back next year and they told me “damn right you aren’t.”

So I ended up at my home state’s “elite” state school (you know, the one I settled for while other kids were elated to be admitted), bounced around from the art school to the english department, and left with a journalism degree and a wife. Then went to a private top-25 law school on the East Coast for a very expensive learning experience.

So, based on that, here’s what I know about college, and the advice I will be giving my sons:

  • For God’s sake don’t overspend. Student loans will haunt you for the rest of your life, they are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy and this leads to absolutely no discipline whatsover by lenders. They don’t care because the government (if it’s not the lender itself) is their collection agency. You can literally be in a situation where your Social Security benefits are reduced to pay off your loans from 40+ years ago. Paying off my law school loans was like buying two houses at once and getting to live in the cheaper one.

  • Private schools tend to be more expensive unless you can get grants, scholarships, etc. State schools tend to let students sink or swim, but at more affordable rates. It’s OK to price shop, and like many things in life, you are doing yourself a disservice to get your heart set on any one thing, that’s when you can end up really taking a beating.

  • If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, then don’t pay somebody else big bucks while you try and figure it out. You will likely waste the money and lose the opportunity to earn money and gain valuable real-world experience. There’s no rule saying you have to go to college straight out of high school. Be honest with yourself and if there’s no particular thing you feel compelled to accomplish, maybe you should spend some more time exploring your options before entering what will likely be one of the 2 biggest financial commitments of your life.

  • If you are thinking about any kind of post-graduate study, you are better off with a high rank from a middling school than a middling rank from a high-rated school. Also, nobody cares where you got your undergrad degree once you have a post-grad degree. So, really, don’t overspend and consider making yourself look good by taking on weaker competition.

  • If you get a degree that can’t be used to earn money from employers other than academia, then you just wasted your time and money. The academic sector is currently contracting, not expanding, and hungry grad students are pissing away valuable years of their life trying to get one of a shrinking pool of “real” teaching jobs in liberal arts areas like English, various “studies” departments, philosophy, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the whole tenure system collapse in the next few years, it’s not a sustainable model.

  • If you don’t have objectives to achieve at college, then you won’t get positive results. College can get you exposure to things you never knew you would enjoy, a network of connections and friends, a spouse, useful work skills, and a prestigous credential to carry with you for the rest of your life. But if you don’t personally value these things, why bother? If you are doing it just to make your parents happy, you are doing it wrong. If you do have objectives to achieve at college, pursue them unapolagetically and don’t let others interfere with your goals.

  • Yes, I know I spent a lot of time talking about reasons not to go to college. If you can be talked out of it, then you aren’t ready and you shouldn’t be there.

If your son has a passion for a particular academic subject (science, math, humanities, arts, etc.) then encourage him to pursue it in the most rigorous environment available. Help him find the best cultural campus fit (size, location, finances, demographics, reputation, etc.), which means he has to do some soul-searching on his own. Recognize that interests are liable to change over time. If your son has a wide range of subjects that he wants to explore then find the campus that offers the most robust academic offerings. Have a conversation about college as being a balance of education and vocation. A couple of these comments about going computer science, engineering, or bust are particularly malodorous. I deal with far too many students who have been pushed down this path or were convinced that this is the one true way. For some, this dream becomes a mirage that, unfortunately, has long-term consequences. Assist your son in the pursuit of his passion - the rest is his path to walk.

Indeed. I tried to fit my square peg in that round hole and learned to my regret that I wasn’t destined to be an engineer, I wanted to study in a humanities area to be determined. If your heart isn’t in it, you will always be bested by the folks with a genuine passion for the subject matter.

I’m not sure I would go for the all or nothing stuff with degrees that are more obvious to get hired. I went to a very small liberal arts school, I majored in Economics with a minor in Philosophy (wanted a double major but I sort of did it wrong/didn’t like the course requirements for the Philosophy major and then my minor would have been Political Science). Then I chucked all of that and went and got a very expensive MFA in film production. Here’s the small bit of advice I’ll offer.

Most important thing is that your son sort of click or feel at home on campus. He has to live there for a few years, so it may as well feel like a good fit. Only way to get an idea of that is to go spend a weekend at that campus. A lot of schools have programs like that for possible students.

I wasn’t sure what year your son would be entering school, as a transfer junior or as a first year? If the former, hopefully he has some general idea of the directions he’d like to pursue. If it’s the latter, I think it’s perfectly fine to find himself a little bit before going full steam ahead. It’s a pretty important decision and getting a taste of certain fields might make him realize he’d enjoy something he really hadn’t been exposed to before. I would probably also agree that what your undergraduate degree is in probably doesn’t matter a ton if he’s pretty sure he wants to do grad work - barring the ridiculous like taking no sciences and then wanting to do med school or something like that.

Sounds like financial aid stuff isn’t too big a factor, but I will say that student loans can be a real life altering albatross. I pay roughly $800 a month for mine and will continue to do so for quite a while.

There is way more to college, potentially, than just the degree that gets the job. I went when I was 18-22, like a lot of people. These are the years that are going to put the finishing touches on your son’s growing up, which may be touchy feely, but it was the case for me. Given that, I was really happy to have gone to college where I did. There’s a lot of life that comes after college and you can always go back and study something else later. But going to college during the college years is a one shot deal, so I would say go where you are happiest and study the things that captivate you the most. You can’t be sure how that knowledge will help you out in the future even if you end up applying it in some really circular ways.

Maybe part of this but we learned with my oldest daughter that having an AA didn’t mean the college accepted all your classes that went into that AA. Also you should check to see if the college you are looking at has pre-requisites that may be required for him getting started in his major. We found that with my daughter they wanted a class that was already full and her inability to get it would have set everything back a semester. Luckily we were able to find the class and enroll on-line for it at a junior college that was acceptable to the 4-year college.

Also as far as dorms, my daughter hated the dorm with a passion. We ended up finding her a studio for just a little more money and she really seemed to blossom.

I’d absolutely agree with that and there are a hundred ways to make a big school smaller.