There are more than 4,000 colleges in the United States alone. As you begin to whittle down your list of reaches, matches, and safeties, there are all sorts of things you can take into account: sports teams, geographic location, alumni network, study abroad programs.
But there’s one big classification you’ve gotta take into consideration—and doing so might do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. The biggie we’re talking about? College type. Read on for our breakdown…
Think Small: Liberal Arts College
At even the nation’s top liberal arts colleges (LACs for short), the emphasis is on the undergraduate. The hallmark of an LAC education is its breadth. While all students will be required to pick a major course of study (or even multiple majors and/or minors), they will also be encouraged, and in some cases required, to take classes in a number of different areas.
Best for students who…want individual opportunities for attention, research, and personal growth. Here, class sizes are small—under 20 students, typically—as are student : teacher ratios. You’ll also find policies against teaching assistant; at these schools, full professors are at the helm of lectures, seminars, and most labs.
Might not be great if…you’re looking for a combined bachelor’s/master’s program. Because LACs offer smaller student bodies (thousands, not tens of thousands), their departmental programs tend to be less diverse. While some offer niche areas of focus, if there’s a particular subject you know you want to study, do check to see if it’s offered before you enroll.
Large Scale: National University
Flagship state schools often rank high on lists of national universities, where students will find tens of thousands of other degree-seekers from diverse backgrounds pursuing a range of arts, science, master’s, and doctorate programs. These schools typically receive federal and state funds as well as numerous research grants, all of which allow them to maintain enormous campuses…and state-of-the-art facilities where some of the world’s most innovative research takes place.
Best for students who…are insatiably curious, and not quite sure what it is they want to study now, next year, or four years down the road. National universities offer a complete array of majors, minors, and concentrations—and there’s a greater chance of you finding a professor that fits your niche of choice in a department of a fifty rather than one of fifteen.
Might not be great if…you thrive best in a smaller environment where everyone knows who you are. Big fish from small high school ponds might find themselves suddenly overwhelmed when they dive into the ocean that is a national university. Take a close look at class size and teacher interaction. While infamous intro classes my overload a large auditorium, junior- and senior-level courses might offer the same small sizes you’d see at an LAC.
Go Flexible: Online Schools
Two decades ago, an online education was incomprehensible. Ten years ago, nobody took it seriously. But with big names like University of Illinois, Boston University, Pace, and University of Southern California vying for top spots on new online education rankings, they’re something all students should consider. This biggest don’ts: signing on for a program with a for-profit university, not checking for accreditation for state and national higher education associations, and checking it’s word-of-mouth reputation with potential employers in industries you’re interested in.
Best for students who…require a flexible schedule. Whether you’re trying to work while you go to school, intern or apprentice for hands-on experience, travel, or assist family members, many of the reputable online schools out there now offer the support of a fully qualified professor and the technology to make his or her expertise and assistance readily available to you.
Might not be great if…you lack the discipline to be successful without the set schedule and in-classroom guidance that a brick and mortar school offers. Be honest with yourself about how efficient and productive you’ll be if you’re at home doing school work 24/7—especially if you’re working it in around family or work commitments.
Get Specific: Vocational Schools
For many well-paying, stable industries (think: auto tech, service industry, cosmetology, vet tech, nursing, and aviation), a degree or certification program from a vocational or trade school is the best step toward launching a secure future. There are no gen-ed requirements here, no capstones or theses. This is all about learning what you need to know to get on the job after graduation.
Best for students who…know what they want. Sometimes, a four-year degree with requisite internships, shadowing, and grad school considerations aren’t the path to your future. Often, local trade schools will do the job quite nicely, letting you stay in a community you know while you get the training you desire.
Might not be great if…you’re just not ready to commit to your future. A community college can offer a great general education with courses that are transferrable to a state university. (Get the skinny on community college benefits here.) And there’s a lot to be said for working before you sink money or debt into higher education. If you need more time to make such a big choice, don’t hesitate to take it!
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