Choosing a college can be one of the biggest decisions in a person’s life.

With costs totaling somewhere between a used car and a small home, it can pay to slow down and think through a decision.

Let’s take a look at factors that can make a difference.

PREPARATION

A dream school could become a nightmare if that coveted admission letter never arrives.

Not every school has the same admission requirements. Some are open enrollment, meaning any student who meets their standards can attend, while others are selective. Specific programs at open-enrollment universities may have select admissions, too.

Some schools require high school foreign language or additional math or science credits, or a certain ACT score might be needed. If you know where you want to go, do your homework early — ideally while there’s still time to meet those requirements.

Even then, it’s best to have one or more backup plans in case that admission letter doesn’t come or something significant changes in your life.

“I normally encourage students to apply to three to five that they would be happy with,” said Carla Hartenhoff, guidance counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs. “Have that Plan B, C, D, E and F ready to go.”

PRICE

While money can be the primary driver of a college decision, it shouldn’t be the only factor. It’s often better to invest a little more in an education that results in a completed degree and a job, and there are other ways to avoid racking up a mountain of debt.

Comparing the cost of attendance can be tricky, said Cindy Cammack, director of admissions at Peru State College. Student fees, room and board, book fees and other costs can add thousands on top of tuition. But it’s not enough to compare scholarship or financial aid awards, Cammack said, because a smaller award might still stretch further at a more affordable institution.

At the same time, don’t just compare sticker prices on institutions’ websites. Have a conversation with an admissions counselor about the actual costs.

“Sometimes that sticker price can go down,” Hartenhoff said.

PROGRAM

While money shouldn’t be the only determining factor, academics could be. Let’s be clear: If a school doesn’t have the right academic program, it’s not the right fit.

That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t other options. Students wanting to go to law school, for example, don’t need a pre-law program. They could study history or philosophy, or a less traditional subject such as mathematics, to prepare for law school.

Class size, undergraduate research opportunities and other factors play into the quality of a program. Hartenhoff recommends paying attention to degree completion and job placement rates, too.

PARENTS

While they may not have the final say over which school to attend, parents can be a critical factor. Their income determines student aid awards, and a family legacy of attending an institution can be hard to break.

More important, their support — whether that’s financial, emotional or in the form of loads of laundry — can make or break a college experience. Plus they’re often aware of safety and other considerations that might not otherwise cross a student’s mind.

The bottom line? “They have to be on board, too,” Hartenhoff said.

PROXIMITY

Commuter schools carry a lot of practical advantages, but some students are determined to go away to college. Even then, there’s a difference between driving to Ames, Iowa, or Kearney, Nebraska, versus flying home for the holidays from a coastal university.

Living situations are also a factor. Some colleges have apartment-style dorms, while others more closely resemble barracks with communal showers. For students planning to live at home, proximity can be a deciding factor.

Relationships are also often overlooked. If your high school sweetheart is staying in town, it makes it harder to move away for school. Be realistic about those choices.

POPULATION

The college experience can be radically different at a small liberal arts college like Cornell College in central Iowa, where students take one course at a time, versus a large land-grant university like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Groceries can be hard to come by in a small town, while a metropolitan institution may not have a parking spot in sight. Different institutions naturally draw different sorts of students. Sometimes it comes down to whether it feels like somewhere you’d fit in.

PRESTIGE

Students are often told it doesn’t matter where they go to school, but that isn’t always the case. Some schools offer stronger programs or more networking opportunities than others, and academic pedigree — including name-brand schools versus state colleges or public versus private institutions — can carry weight in some professions.

Hartenhoff encourages students not to value the school’s reputation as elite, or its athletic prowess, but to consider specific academic programs, which can vary greatly within an institution. She said to make sure alumni are getting jobs in their field.

PROMPTNESS

College options start to narrow the closer to enrollment you wait.

Cammack said sometimes students are afraid to take the next step and let a school know they’re interested before they’re ready to apply. That can backfire, though, if they miss scholarship, priority admission or other application deadlines.

“These students who wait around start to miss out,” Cammack said. “If students would engage with us, we’d be able to give them more time to consider their options and make their final decision.”

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