Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Offers Advice on Choosing the Right College

By Catherine Groux
Posted December 05, 2012 11:00 AM

Students should see if a school is right for them in terms of coursework, affordability and quality.
Students should see if a school is right for them in terms of coursework, affordability and quality.
When choosing a college, the most important thing students can do is determine whether it is the "right fit for [them] in terms of coursework, affordability and quality," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a tweet to U.S. News University Directory. To further analyze Duncan's advice, several higher education experts shared their opinions on what students should look for in terms of these three factors when selecting a school.


This might be the most obvious factor students should consider when picking a college. Dean Skarlis, an Aristotle Circle expert and college admissions consultant, said students must pick a school that offers the major they are interested in. Additionally, students should be focused on finding a college that offers coursework that is the right fit for them academically. This means that their courses should not be over their heads, but also not under their ability level. 


When searching for the right college, it is also important for students and their parents to consider whether they can realistically afford to attend prospective schools. Skarlis said careful planning during this process is absolutely crucial.

"People are not doing enough planning on this issue and it's a very expensive mistake that could possibly be made if you do not find the right school," he said.

Ideally, students should sit down with their parents and begin analyzing their finances during sophomore or junior year of high school, Skarlis explained. That way, students have plenty of time to see what they can afford and how much financial aid they are likely to receive before they become attached to attending schools out of their price range.

To make college more affordable, Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance, said students should consider attending a community college for a few years while they complete their general education requirements. Schrage also urges students to make sure they understand all the forms of financial aid available to them.

"There are a variety of scholarships available based on gender, race, religion and other factors," he said. "A great resource to use to assist in choosing the right college is the National Association for College Admission Counseling website."


While it is important for students to consider the quality of a school before attending, it is often the most difficult factor to judge. Today, many individuals determine a college's quality based on its rankings and prestige, but Diane Dean, an assistant professor at Illinois State University and co-author of Generation on a Tightrope, said this is not always the best idea. Prestige can often be based on factors like athletics and faculty research, she explained, which will most likely not affect the average student on a day-to-day basis. Instead, students should be focused on what they will be able to get out of the institution.

"It's not just what's on a big banner. It's not a football team selling out seats or a faculty that's known all over the world," Dean said. "It really comes down to the type of contact you're getting in the classroom, whether it's online or on campus. It is that connection and the attention given to you as an individual student."

Skarlis said that a good way to determine the quality of a school is to look at its four-year graduation rates, freshman to sophomore year retention rates and the percentage of faculty with terminal degrees. While these elements can give students a good idea of what type of institution they are looking at, Kim Medina, director of admissions at Johnson & Wales University's Denver campus, said that sometimes when it comes to quality, students can get the answers they need simply from visiting the school.

"Quality is subjective," Medina said via email. "A student can help determine this by visiting the colleges they are interested in. There is something to be said about your gut feeling when you walk onto a college campus for the first time. 'Are the facilities well-kept? Are people friendly? Do they offer co-curricular programming or student clubs and organizations that I would be interested in?' Asking these types of questions, combined with the environment and atmosphere of the campus, are integral to making the right decision." 

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