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What the Data Say About Choosing a College

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Data Choosing College

It’s a bewildering place, the world of college admissions. Students don’t know where to apply, or they pin their hopes on one or two “reach” schools that stand a good chance of letting them down. Whether it’s a yearning for a big-name university or a search for the school that will be “the right fit,” the decisions of which colleges to apply to and attend feel like the lynchpin that will determine whether these students are headed toward a happy future or a miserable life.

This phase of life would be far simpler and more relaxed if applicants and their parents listened to the advice of the real experts: the people who have been there. And luckily, those answers are available. A Gallup poll interviewed 95,000 people who had reached various levels of post-high-school educational attainment, and at different kinds of schools, to find out who was most satisfied with their college experience.

Think about it. Students attend college for four years or a bit more to earn a bachelor’s degree. That’s barely a blip compared with the many years they’ll live with the educational decisions they made as teenagers. So satisfaction after graduation matters more than happiness on the admissions-decision date.

The results of this 2017 poll , conducted with the Strada Education Network, can offer a surprisingly effective antidote to application jitters as well as a smart guide to thinking about higher education:

The college counts less than the major

Three-fourths of people who earn a bachelor’s degree are satisfied with the colleges they attended, so looking at schools’ graduation rates is probably more important than looking at whether they have a climbing wall or famous professors.

Close to 40 percent of college grads wish they’d picked a different major. In other words, it’s probably more important for students to think long and hard about their planned course of study than about attending one particular school, unless it’s the only one with that major.

People who had majored in STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – were much likelier to be satisfied with their college decisions than those who majored in liberal arts, with a big BUT attached to that:. Liberal-arts majors were just as likely to be happy if, during those years, they had worked in jobs or internships. The message here: Study what you love but get a taste of the work world to see how your course of study might fit into it. It might be more important to attend colleges that help students get internships and other jobs related to their majors than ones that have prestigious names but little connection to the career world.

College prestige doesn’t matter much

As the recent college-admissions scandal shows us, it’s easy to become obsessed with the prestige or other benefits you think a degree from an elite school will mean. Yet people who had attended those dream schools were barely more likely to feel satisfied with their choice than people who attended any of the hundreds of fine colleges and universities.

And here’s an important corollary to the finding above: Students who attended public colleges and universities were just as likely to be happy with their undergraduate educations as those who had attended far more expensive private schools.

Consider the cost

Related to that finding, one of the biggest factors shaping how happy people were with their college educations was student debt. Those who graduated with substantial debt had a lot more regrets than those who were debt-free on graduation day. It might be necessary to take out some loans for higher education, but a low-cost experience is generally going to lead to more satisfaction down the line.

Look for nonprofit schools. Students who had attended for-profit colleges and two-year technical training schools were far less likely to emerge satisfied with their educations.

These aren’t the kinds of discussions that parents and students tend to have while looking for schools. They worry quite naturally about class sizes and dorm meals and campus social life. The poll offers a tool for thinking about college in a completely different way: What’s most likely to make me happy with college after I’ve graduated? The answers help students focus their thoughts on what they plan to do at college in terms of study and career, rather than as passive recipients of what a college offers. And they give parents a perfect argument for urging a close look at lower-cost public schools. We’re all happier with a bargain, right?

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Karin Klein-profile-picture

Karin Klein is a freelance writer based in Southern California whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Atlas Obscura, YES! magazine and many other publications. She is thrilled to have gotten her three kids through college without any debt.