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Inside Infomation on How to Find the Right College for You

Updated on January 13, 2016


You have decided to go to college and seek a degree. There are hundreds of choices--how do you know how to pick the right one? I have taught at several different types of institutions--big research institutions, small regional state institutions and a couple of church based private colleges. Each have their strength and weaknesses--it's important that you choose the one that will be the best fit for you.

How can you figure that out? Well, read on . . .

The three types discussed

  • Research 1 institutions. Big state schools with a lot of degree programs but also a lot of competition
  • Small religious colleges. Fewer programs with more focus on vocations. The campus ethos presents a shared community.
  • Regional state institutions. Fewer programs but with more of a chance to connect with the faculty.

Step one--Know the type

As I mentioned earlier--there are several different types of colleges and universities. I am going to focus on the three I have taught in since I know these best. These are the big R1 (research) university, the small state regional campus and the religious based small college. Each one brings something different to the table. But, you need to understand the mission and role of the type of school before you can make an informed choice.

The Historical Difference Between Colleges and Universities

Step one, type one: The big state institution

R1--or research--institutions are perhaps the best known and are what people tend to picture about when they think about a university. These institutions are quite large--usually between ten and twenty thousand students--and are spread out over several acres of prime real estate. R1s will have hundreds of majors divided up into several schools.

These are called "research institutions" because that is one of their primary goals (the other is to provide an affordable education to in-state residents--hey, I just read the mission statements, not write them). Professors typically teach one or two classes a semester and are required to maintain an active program of studying and publishing . . . something. Sometimes you will hear the phrase "publish or perish" in regards to the faculty. What this means is that faculty are expected to produce original research and to apply for, and receive, external funding. If they don't do so in short order after beginning their career . . . well, it's not pretty.

TAs--The rest of the story.

The R1 institution relies on graduate teaching assistants or TAs. We ALL know TAs are a bad thing right . . .? Well, not so fast. If there were no TAs, there would be no future instructors. TAs have the disadvantage in that they are learning the trade and they are not nearly as seasoned as full-time faculty, but the way they learn how to be faculty is by being TAs. Some TAs are very good at teaching and some TAs are . . . not as good. In the same way, not all faculty members are skilled at teaching (yet are still in the classroom). Don't completely dismiss a university because it uses TAs--some of the most enthusiastic and engaging teachers come from their ranks.

TAs are needed because the faculty has a high research load. If you go to a R1 school, expect to be taught by TAs in the "service" (general education or required) courses. You will see the faculty in the upper level courses, usually at the 300-level (sophomore/junior year) and higher.

University of Missouri-Columbia


Step one, type two: The small, church supported school

Another choice you have are schools that are affiliated with religious denominations. These schools are much smaller and have missions that are tied to the doctrine of the denomination they are tied to. Most people who attend, and teach at, these schools are people who support the aims of the denomination if they are not members of that denominations. Not everyone at a Jesuit school may be Catholic, but they are not going to actively oppose the basis for the belief system.

But what about the programs?

Because they, or at least most, are smaller than the R1s, religious institutions offer fewer majors. These majors are also going to be more focused on application--they are going to center more on vocations than theory. There will be a lot of chances for engagement--internships, mission trips both in and out of country, service learning projects, church-related activities. It is very easy to immerse yourself in activities related to your field.

Step one, type three: The small regional state college

This is the type of institution where I teach currently. Regional campuses may be connected to the big R1 schools as either feeder schools--where you can take complete the first two-or-so years of coursework and then transfer--or as small, stand alone campuses. In either case, the small regional campuses will offer degree programs, just not quite as many as the big main campus (or, as I like to call it, the mothership)--anywhere from a dozen up to fifty or sixty.

Small regional campuses sometimes confuse people in regard to what the faculty do. Most small campuses focus on teaching first. You will generally see members of the full-time faculty teaching introductory classes--something that happens all the time at religious based schools but hardly ever at R1s. Faculty also have more time to work with undergraduates and help them find and a path. Faculty also have a research requirement, although this is usually vaguely defined, and are rarely publish or perish institutions. Faculty are very open to working alongside students on research projects, especially if that student is interested in graduate school.

Purdue University North Central


Who are these not-TAs?

Small regional campuses, like campuses everywhere, have several "service" courses. All of the sections cannot be staffed by full-time faculty--that would drive the cost of education right through the roof--so universities employ adjunct faculty. These are people who have professional careers but will teach one or two courses a semester (for very little money) because 1) they love teaching, 2) they love money or 3) a combination of both. Unlike TAs, adjuncts are people who are seasoned teachers. Many adjuncts teach at the same institutions for several years for a variety of different reasons. Again, there are good and bad adjuncts like there are good and bad TAs like there are good and bad professors. Listen for the word of mouth.

A note on student-faculty relationships (not those kind . . . )

Because students and faculty members have more contact, the faculty get to know the students by name and by interest. This helps the faculty steer students towards opportunities that become available. Faculty can also selectively release these opportunities to students they know are interested in an area and can handle the work. These can be scholarships. internships, service-learning projects or job openings. This will not always be the case in the R1 institutions where you will be one of many students competing for attention.

Types of Schools

What type of school did you attend or are planning to attend?

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Step one: Know the Type--Which is Best?

This is not for me to determine. All have their benefits and all have their drawbacks.

What it comes down to is the type of experience you are looking for. Some people find themselves lost in the R1 environment while others dive right in. Some may feel that the smaller schools don't offer enough to interest them while some see the ability to create their own path a plus. Where do you feel like you can get the most out of your four (or five) years in higher education?

Differences between public and private universities

Step two: Contact the Admissions office

Once you have narrowed down the number of schools you are considering, contact the Admissions office at each campus for information. The Admissions office serves as a clearinghouse of sorts--all of the campus forms, rules, documents, etc. that you will need to start your application will be there. Admissions counselors will be extremely happy yo help you choose their school.

A little secret about the Admissions office--they are the sales office for the university. It is their job to get you interested in a campus, get you to come to campus for a visit and then attempt to get you to enroll. That's their function. Don't be surprised when you continually receive e-mails or letters from them after you make contact. Use them as a convenient point where a lot of campus literature comes together, but don't make your decision solely based upon what you read from them.


Do you think college admissions personnel should get bonuses based upon how many students they successfully recruit?

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Step three: Contact the department you are interested in.

Once you complete your visit to the Admissions office, contact the department whose program your are interested in directly. Schedule a meeting with a faculty member and see if you can attend a class (if you go during the middle of a semester or trimester). But you need to do your groundwork--investigate who the professors are and who is involved in an area you might be interested in. Start with the university website first, but don't stop there. Do an Internet search on the professor to see where he or she is mentioned, what types of research he or she conducts and, I can't believe I am saying this, check out sites such as "Rate My Professor." While not objective data, the information you pull there can be used in conjunction with other information you get to form a more complete picture.

Please note: If a department refuses to let you visit a professor, that should be a red flag. It is understandable why you might not be able to see a particular professor--he or she is busy or out of town--but a department refusing to let you meet any professor should make you wonder how accessible they will be if you are a student.

Step four: Visit the Campus Announced and Unannounced

Campus tours can he helpful--they show you how campus is laid out and where the major services are (financial aid, library, bathrooms). But realize that when you are a tour, you won't see everything. Before you take the "official" tour conducted through the Admissions department, go onto campus and just walk around. Get a feel for the atmosphere of the place. See how people interact (when you are not being treated like an endangered species to be guarded during the tour). See how you like the campus when it is not being filtered by someone with a vested interest in your attending.

Sometimes you can gather the best information by just looking around.

Step five: Remember, You Have to Like Them

Colleges and universities make you "apply" meaning that they "get" to choose you. Making a choice is a two-way street. Be ready to turn down schools that accept you but you don't feel good about attending.

There is only one real good reason to choose a school--you feel they are the best fit for what you want to study. Don't let any of the following get in your way:

  • The school's reputation as being "good." How agencies and organizations define good schools and programs are pretty esoteric. Don't rely on ratings and rankings to make your final decisions.
  • "X" went there. Good for him or her! It may not be the best place for you, though.
  • They have great sports programs. Good for them! They have absolutely nothing in common with what you will be doing (unless you play a sport).

Do use the following criteria:

  • The program leads to what you want to do. Don't think specifically about a job, but more about a field of study. Make sure that the school not only offers that degree, but also offers the courses to get the degree.
  • There are opportunities for you on and off campus. Here is where visiting with the faculty helps. Admissions generally will tell you to get involve--in campus activities--he faculty member will tell you how you can get involved.
  • You like the place. Realize that it is not perfect, but that it is somewhere you can be happy.
  • You like the town that it is in. Realize that it is not perfect . . . .

Step six: Get Registered.

As soon as you get accepted to the college you want to go to, get in and get registered for classes as soon as the school will allow it. You want to make sure that you aren't stuck with a schedule but that it has a good mix of courses.

  • You should try to get into basic courses. Composition and Speech should be taken early, no matter the major (but avoid the 7:30 am classes because, well, they are at 7:30).
  • Try to get into at least one class that is related to the field you want to study. If you decide you don't like astrobiology, it is better to figure that out in your first couple of semesters. It is easier to change majors when you are a Freshman than when you are a Junior or Senior.
  • Try and get into a course that sounds interesting, even if it isn't related to your field. You need to take several "free electives," courses that don't slot anywhere into your program of study. Find a subject you always wanted to study or seems like fun (yes, education can be fun)--you will thank yourself later.

What are your college plans?

What are your plans for college?

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These are five things that I have seen help people over the years. You need to know what you are getting into, and that takes information. Knowing the background and how to get that information will help you, the prospective student, make an informed choice.


  1. Know the type of institution
  2. Contact the Admission Office
  3. Contact the department you are interested in
  4. Visit the campus announced and unannounced.
  5. You have to like them.
  6. Get Registered.


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