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Your Guide on How to Compare Colleges

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author's opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been reviewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Choosing where to go to college is a big decision. You’re advised to apply to a number of schools — The College Board suggests five to eight, though others may say more — and making a choice can be challenging.

Receiving acceptance letters from schools is a huge achievement and an amazing moment. But as soon as those letters come in, the real work begins. To make the best decision for you, it’s important to do your homework and identify the biggest influences in your evaluation, such as cost (often a big factor) or ranking.

If you’re not sure how to compare colleges, the steps below can help you through the process:

How to compare colleges (thoroughly)

Once you have your list of potential schools, narrowing it down becomes more complicated. Reviewing your choices online may not provide enough information, so if it is possible, try to visit a school in person to get a feel for its culture.

Take a tour

Scheduling a tour with the university admissions office allows you to see the campus, talk with current students and ask staff questions about what to expect.

You can get a great idea of what the school is like, how big the classes are, what the dorms look like and what activities are available on-campus.

Touring also can give you insight into how you would adapt to the environment. There’s a big difference between attending a school located in the city versus a college in a rural environment. Some people have determined preferences for and against either option, so seeing the school for yourself can help you decide.

Spend the night

A campus tour is wonderful, but keep in mind that a school-planned tour will be a very polished, prepared view of the college. You may not hear about any of the downsides or get insights into what an actual day on campus is like.

If possible, schedule a night on campus. Some schools will partner you with a guide to shadow — you can attend classes with them, eat in the cafeteria and spend the night in the dorm.

You’ll get a firsthand glimpse of what to expect in a class or what the nightlife is really like. You may get a completely different impression than you got on the official tour.

Talk with alumni

If you’re interested in a particular major, reaching out to alumni in the field can be helpful. For example, if you want to study computer science, ask the school’s office to connect you with alumni working in the technology industry.

Connecting with graduates can give you a unique perspective, and tell you about their experience in finding a job in their field of study after graduation.

Another tip: search for graduates from a particular school on LinkedIn and send them a message with questions about their experience. Many professionals are happy to answer questions from students about their alma mater.

Take notes (and video)

If you applied to several schools, they may all start to blur together after a while. It’s important to stay organized when you compare colleges.

Take notes after each tour or visit and clearly label them with the school’s name. Write down your key impressions about each school.

If you have a smartphone or camera, filming portions of the tour or your overnight stay may help jog your memory about key details. It can help you recall what you enjoyed or disliked about each school.

10 factors to consider

When figuring out how to choose a university or college, there are a number of factors to consider and priorities to set.

For many students, the biggest one that affects their decision is cost; especially those who want to keep their student loan debt to a minimum.

Others might care more about college ranking or graduation information. Below are some key things to keep in mind as you compare colleges.

1. Cost

College can be prohibitively expensive. The average cost for just tuition and fees at a public four-year and in-state college for 2019-2020 is $10,440, according to The College Board.

Keep in mind tuition is only part of the cost. Room, board, textbooks and fees can add dramatically to your bill. When looking at schools, make sure you have the total cost of attendance so you can make an accurate comparison.

2. Financial aid

When evaluating cost, also consider financial aid. Some schools give out very few scholarships while others give some form of aid to a large percentage of the student body. When you apply to schools, make sure to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application, and list all schools you are considering, not just one.

With your acceptance letter, each school will also send you scholarship offers, work-study options or student loan information.

It is important to note that sometimes financial aid information will come after you get your acceptance letter, so don’t worry if it doesn’t come in the same envelope as your acceptance, as timing varies depending on the college and the date you sent in your FAFSA.

Before ruling out a school based on the price, make sure you look at the complete offer. In some cases, a pricey school can end up being a bargain. For example, if a private school offers a large scholarship it might eclipse the lower cost of a public institution.

3. Work options

Another aspect to consider — especially if you’re looking to limit the debt you take on — is what work options are available. Some schools may have limited on-campus opportunities, such as work-study programs offered by the school, and those may come with fierce competition. At others, there’s work available for any student who wants a part-time job.

If you’re thinking about working off-campus, evaluate how realistic that is. Is the school located in the middle of farm country without many businesses nearby? If that’s the case, getting an off-campus job would be difficult.

4. School rankings

In some industries, where you went to school isn’t a big deal as long as you have a degree. But if you’re planning on entering a competitive field such as law, college ranking and even school prestige, could have a big impact on your career.

The Princeton Review is a terrific resource for comparing schools. They rank each school by prestige, cost, academics, demographics, and quality of life. Compare your prospective schools’ rankings — depending on your desired career, this may hold more or less weight in your decision.

5. Graduation data

When evaluating schools and cost, consider how many students graduate on time. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 42% of students overall who started at a 4-year institution in 2011 graduated from that same school within those four years — and it could take as many as of five or even six years to get a degree. That can add substantially to your costs.

The admissions office of each university should be able to provide you with how many students graduate with a degree and how long, on average, it takes to complete their education.

6. Campus size

Campus size can impact whether or not a school works for you. Going from a small high school to a large college can be an intimidating transition.

But at the same time, smaller schools may not offer the same amount of extracurricular activities and social events. What works best is up to your individual comfort level.

7. Student-teacher ratio

The student-teacher ratio is another important factor. The size of a class can affect how you learn and how much individual attention you can expect. Check with the admissions office to find out the average class size.

8. On-campus housing options

Make sure you understand all of the housing options. At some schools, dorms are coed by room, so you may end up sharing bathrooms with the opposite sex. At others, there’s separate buildings for different genders, as well as quiet halls for those in intensive study programs.

And some schools have luxurious apartments or even townhomes, but they are often reserved for upper-level students.

Many universities and colleges also offer guidance for living off-campus too, which may be more affordable than on-campus housing.

9. Major availabilities

Some schools may have limited major options, or have very limited programs in the subjects you want to study. Make sure you understand what majors the school is well-known for, and speak to alumnae who graduated from that major.

10. Pure emotion

When choosing a school, you should be practical and consider all of the factors — but don’t ignore your gut. Sometimes, your final decision comes down to pure emotion.

When you’ve narrowed down your list and have just two or three options left, ask yourself where you see yourself being happiest.

Tools to help you in your journey

Comparing all of the different factors can be difficult. Thankfully, there are a number of tools that can help you make an informed decision.


CollegeData offers a comprehensive database of information on schools nationwide. One of their most powerful tools is the Financial Aid Tracker.

You can enter your financial aid awards for each school that accepts you, and the tool will break down which is the best offer and why. It’s an objective comparison that can help you understand the complete value of your financial aid package.

Big Future

If you’re not sure where to start, Big Future (from the College Board) offers checklists and guides to help you evaluate each school. They also have videos featuring education experts sharing advice and testimonials from students.

College Scorecard

College Scorecard is an interactive tool provided by the U.S. Department of Education that allows users to investigate a wealth of information on colleges and universities.

The data-rich College Scorecard offers users the ability to search and learn about schools. Searches can include campus setting, type of degree and major programs and location, among other options.

Each scorecard comes with five important pieces of data: graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed by students, costs of the institution, and employment after graduation.

Choosing a college

Choosing where to go to school is a big decision in your life and it can have serious implications for your future. Take your time, thoroughly do your research and get as much information as you can, so you can thoughtfully compare your options.


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