We’ve all been there at some point. That moment when you stand at a crossroads. That moment when your academic future rests at the click of a button. You know what I’m talking about. College decisions. You’ve finally made it past what I call the Randomizer Stage, where you pick 10-20 colleges and apply to all of them. You’ve made it past the Waiting Stage, when you’ve checked your email 50 times per day, waiting to see which colleges have accepted your application. Now, you’ve narrowed down your choices to four colleges or universities, and you’re stuck. How do you decide what’s for you? Especially amid a global health crisis? Or maybe you are not even a senior yet, and don’t know where to even start? Regardless of your grade, here are three steps you can take to turn a crossroads experience into a fully charted path.
1. Don’t jump at the cheapest but look at what’s affordable and start searching early.
Let’s face it, college is expensive. The best way to avoid student debt doesn’t have to mean going to the cheapest college, but instead you should look for scholarships early on, minimizing your loan balances, and taking advantage of any grants or aid for which you qualify.
Let’s go back to my example. Out of your list of four colleges and universities, which ones offer you more aid? If you haven’t received any aid letters yet, each college or university should have a net price calculator to help you determine how much aid you can receive. Even with all this frugality, don’t forget that college is supposed to be enjoyable for you. Be sure to research each college more in-depth, looking at student reviews, safety protocols, campus events and recreation, and the overall school culture. Research early so you will have less to decide on when you reach the end of your senior year. I had picked my college in eighth grade, so I already knew where I wanted to go and how much everything would cost. Even if you don’t start that early, it’s best to start thinking about college and college costs ahead of time to avoid any surprises.
2. Consider an online school and don’t avoid private universities.
Don’t rule out online schools just yet. I know we are all itching to get out and go places again but studying online can be fun and provides you with more flexibility to pursue your interests and stay close to home. Many people associate the “college experience” with an on-campus-only experience. However, I can tell you that being an online student has its own set of perks and challenges as well. You still get to meet new people, try new things, and be challenged academically. I credit online schooling with my own character development and even maturity. Time management is a big takeaway! Many students are new to online learning due to COVID-19, but I chose to study online before the pandemic began because I run a nonprofit called Canary Academy Online and enjoy staying engaged in my local community. Studying online provided me with more time to mentor students, volunteer, and manage the nonprofit.
Did I mention, my university is a private one? Yes, Liberty University is a private university headquartered in Lynchburg, VA. Their online programs are one of the top-ranked in my state, and they are equally academically challenging and engaging. People tend to avoid private universities because they cost more to attend. However, private universities are more selective, meaning they accept fewer applicants. Thus, they have more financial aid to distribute among their student body.
As far as expenses go, private colleges and universities can have what are called “tuition freezes” where their tuition stays the same for multiple years, allowing students to save more money in the long term. My university also provides books free of charge for online students, making tuition much more affordable. The only downside financially for online students is that there are typically fewer scholarships and financial aid options available because tuition is already discounted.
In the end, your decision to study online or in-person will depend on your sense of adventure, how many other obligations you have, and how much you want to spend. It is best to compare online schools and in-person schools before deciding.
3. Pace yourself but stay aware of deadlines.
A key mistake I made in the college search and selection process was rushing things. I felt like everything was moving so fast, and even though I had picked out a school early on, I wasn’t sure what I would major in or how I would pay for it. I felt like I was racing against time. Every second wasted was a second of my academic future I’d never get to see. Boy, was I wrong! At this point, I had not received any scholarships and had no selected major. What was I rushing for? I was only a junior in high school. I had to wind down a bit and take a step back. I had to find my pace--my groove--or I’d never make a good and wise decision. Eventually, after a lot of reflection, I decided to major in Early Childhood Education with a minor in General History. How I came to that conclusion is another story. I can only say that it was one of the best academic decisions I had ever made. Shortly after the long and eye-opening journey of selecting a major and preparing for college, I had secured a scholarship from a local community organization, received grants and federal loans enough to cover remaining expenses, and was attending college as a freshman in the Fall of 2020. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta breathe! It is good to prepare early, stay aware of application and admissions deadlines, and research colleges top to bottom. However, it is even more important that you make time for yourself and the ones you love, take a breather every once and a while, and make a decision that suits you and can be proud of
In the end, preparation, planning, and a healthy dose of reflection will help you navigate the college world and prepare for the post-secondary life you’ve been dreaming about. By using these tips above, you can select the college that is right for both you and your wallet.
About the Author
Nasiyah Isra-Ul is a homeschool graduate, a current junior at Liberty University, an NSHSS Collegiate Council Member, and the founder and CEO of Canary Academy Online Inc. She loves working within her community to advocate for awareness on a plethora of topics, including homeschooling, diversity in history, and equity in online education. She enjoys mentoring peers, reading, volunteering in her community, working with young children, and is currently studying to be an early childhood educator. She is also a $10,000 Be More Fund grant recipient.