Daniel F. Chambliss is a Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College and an author (with Christopher G. Takacs) of “How College Works,” a coming book from Harvard University Press.
For high school juniors who attend a prep or elite public school, advisers are readily available to help you find the right college. For everyone else, here are the basics.
The No. 1 Rule in College Basics
First, you must go. Unless you have a good trade (electrician, plumber) or plan a military career, a college degree is necessary for a decent life in 21st-century America.
Unfortunately, college will be very expensive. The good news, however, is that a decent college education is the best product you’ll ever buy. It never breaks. It doesn’t rot, it can’t be stolen, and it won’t burn down. It’s impervious to floods and global warming. If you sell it (and you will), you’ll still be able it to sell it over and over again. It will make you wealthier, healthier and better at solving problems. All told, an excellent purchase.
Think About What You Want
“It’s all about ‘good fit’ — figuring out what you want out of college, and finding the college that best fits,” said Cassie Magesis, a college counselor at Goddard Riverside Community Center.
Think seriously about your goals, your strengths and your weaknesses, how you work, what support (financial and personal) you’ll need and so on. Once you know what works for you, you’re halfway there.
Calculate the Costs
Of course, financial “fit” is crucial. Unless your parents are wealthy or savvy savers, you’ll probably have to borrow some money. Figure out what you think college will cost — and include everything.
“I can’t tell you how many kids have to drop out of CUNY, which they commute to, because they can’t afford the monthly MetroCard,” Ms. Magesis said.
Check the financial aid packages available. Some of the most expensive private colleges offer lavish financial aid packages to lower-income students they want. Harvard famously charges nothing — nothing — to enrolled students with family incomes under $60,000.
One more thing: Don’t borrow so much that you change your career plans and your life to pay for college. College exists to help your life, not your life to help college.
Do Your Research
How do you find the right school? Guidebooks, available at most libraries, can help you get a feel for different colleges, and U.S. News listings provide a rough guide for different quality of institutions. Lots of people knock the rankings, but realistically, prestige does matter. People (employers, for instance) will care where you went to college.
It’s also a good idea to talk with college graduates, especially people familiar with various colleges — teachers you trust, family friends, graduates of different schools.
Online programs, I should note, are not for your typical recent high school graduate. They work best for strongly motivated adults who have a clear career path or want training for specific jobs. They basically increase access by providing less college: less face time with caring teachers, less campus life with other students, less “atmosphere.” A good traditional campus with close faculty member contact is a better choice for most young people.