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Choosing a college is one of the most important, but complicated choices in a student's life. The choice of a college can determine your future career, your lifestyle, your home, and even your future spouse and family. This is a choice that has to be made carefully. There are many factors involved in choosing a college. Here are some of them:

These are the basic questions:

  • Is the college good enough for me?
  • Am I good enough for it?
    • Can I get in?
    • Can I survive?
  • Does it have what I want or what I might want?
  • Will I like living there (if not commuting from home)?
  • Can I afford it?
To answer these basic questions requires finding out the answers to these specific questions:
  • How big is the school (population and area)?
  • Where is it located?
  • What is the college's philosophy?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How rigorous is it academically?
  • What is the graduation rate?
  • What are the acceptance rates into graduate and professional schools?
  • What is the job placement rate (for specific majors)?
  • What majors and classes does it offer?
  • How flexible are they about changing majors, custom majors, double majors, etc.?
  • What kinds of honors programs does it have?
  • What kind of facilities does it have (including libraries, computers)?
  • What kind of research do they do?
  • What research opportunities are there for undergraduates?
  • What kind of reputation does it have?
  • How hard is it to get the classes I want?
  • Can I graduate in 4 years?
  • What are the class sizes?
  • What is the campus like?
  • How safe is the campus?
  • What health facilities does it have?
  • How do I get around?
  • What is the student housing like?
  • How is the food?
  • What is the neighborhood like?
  • What is the region like?
  • What is the weather like?
  • What are the faculty and staff like?
  • What are the students like?
  • What extra-curricular activities are available (clubs, sports, recreation)?
  • What jobs/internships are available?
  • What are the entrance requirements?
  • What is the acceptance rate?
  • How much does it cost for tuition, housing, books, living expenses?
  • What financial aid is available?
To find out the answers to these questions requires doing the following:
  • Assess what your interests, strengths, weaknesses, and goals are.
  • Assess what your academic abilities are.
  • Make a list of priorities for what you want in a campus.
  • Research the different campuses:
    • Read independent reports and guides about the colleges
    • Go to college fairs
    • Visit the colleges' Websites
    • Read their catalogs and brochures
    • Visit the campuses, especially during open house days
    • Talk to people on the campuses
    • Talk to alumni
    • Visit the departments, classes, and facilities you are most interested in
  • Look for special programs for high school students at the campuses you are most interested in, e.g. summer classes or workshops. The best are residential programs, where you can live at a campus while taking college-level classes (See You get to experience college life, get to know a campus really well, and this looks very impressive on a college application. (See here for UC summer programs.)
UCSC view of athletic center

College Type Decisions

Community Colleges

The California Community Colleges is a system of about 118 colleges in communities all over the state, serving over 1.5 million students. It is the largest system of higher education in the world. Like elementary and secondary schools, they are supported by a combination of state and local funds. CC's are the least expensive way of getting a college education without financial aid. Most students who go to CC live at home and commute to school. The majority work at least part-time. CC's usually do not have student housing, but about 10 CC's in more rural areas do. CC's are located all over the state. Most medium and large cities have CC's. They are even located in rural areas with only small towns. They tend to cater to the needs of their community, so CC's in farming areas will tend to have more agriculture-related classes, while those in places like the Silicon Valley will have more classes in technology areas. CC's usually have very simple admission requirements. Often, a high school diploma or just being over eighteen is all that's needed. In many CC's, high school students can also take classes with permission, which can be very helpful in college admissions. CC's provide vocational classes for those who are looking to get an AA degree and go onto a career in two years. Many older people who are already employed take classes for interest or to train for a better job. CC's often offer evening classes to accommodate students who work during the day.

Many high school students who intend to get a four-year degree can spend their first one or two years in a CC, then transfer to a four-year college. Some 57,000 California CC students do this every year. This has several advantages: CC's are much easier to get into than most four-year colleges, they are much cheaper, they tend to be less competitive, and CC transfers often get top priority at public universities. It is typically easier to transfer from a CC to a UC than from another four-year college, like a CSU, to a UC because UC figures that CC students have no where else to go to continue their education, while four-year students can stay where they are.

On the downside, being mostly commuter colleges, students at CC's miss out on some of the social aspects of college life that are experienced by living in residence halls with other students. Also, transferring into a competitive four-year university at the upper division level can be somewhat of a culture shock in terms of the rigorous level of study required. Most transfer students take their general education classes in CC. This gets them out of the way, but one reason to take general education classes at a university is to experience different subject areas that a student may want to major in. The range and depth of these subject areas tend to be more limited at a CC than at a university, so it is harder to get a feel for these different areas. Another problem is that while the credits from CC courses may be transferable to a four-year college, the grade point average may not be. That means the final grade point average for a two-year CC transfer to a four-year college may be based only on the final two years of college. Since upper division classes tend to be more challenging than lower division classes, CC transfers may have to work harder to maintain their GPA than four-year students who have received high lower division grades. However, studies have shown that CC transferees to a four-year college do as well as those who started there as freshmen.

CC's are an excellent choice for motivated students who want to get a degree at a four-year college, but don't have the grades, the test scores, or the financial resources to enter a four-year college directly. They are also good for students do not feel ready to go off on their own to college. Students whose long-range goals include graduate or professional school may want to go to CC in their first two years of college in order to save their money for post-graduate school.

California State Universities

The California State University system serves over 380,000 students in twenty-three CSU campuses all over the state. They range in size from around 860 at the California Maritime Academy to over 30,000 at Fullerton, Long Beach, and San Diego State. The CSU campuses typically offer  a number of degrees: around 1,600 bachelor's and 240 master's degrees. A few (primarily San Diego State) have doctoral programs. CSUs are more difficult to get into than CC's. They take the top third of high school graduates. They have the same entry requirements as UC's in terms of high school classes required. The GPA and test score requirements are lower than UC's. Some CSU's are residential and most have some on-campus housing, but many urban campuses tend to be commuter colleges. Since there are more than twice as many CSUs as UC's, students are more likely to find a campus close to home.  The fees of CSU's are higher than CC's, but lower than UC's. On-campus housing costs are about the same as UC's. Though much research is done at CSU's, that is not their primary focus. The emphasis tends to be more towards teaching and vocational training, towards practical application more than theory.

University of California

The ten (which includes one graduate-level only) UC campuses are state-funded research universities. UC Merced is the newest UC campus. It opened in Fall of 2005. All have degree programs all the way up to doctoral degrees, including professional (law, medicine, etc.) degrees. On the average, they are the most difficult public universities in California to get into. They accept the top 1/8 of the state's high school students. They have minimum GPA and test requirements that are higher than CSU's. They use a comprehensive review process to evaluate 14 criteria for admissions. A new program, called "Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC)," allows students in the top 4% of any participating high school in California who have completed the required classes to be eligible for and guaranteed UC admission, though not necessarily at all campuses. Certain campuses (UCB, UCLA, UCSD) are in such high demand that they require far more than the minimum UC requirements to get in. On the other hand, traditionally, UCSC and UCR have accepted everyone who met the minimum UC requirements. All the campuses have high academic standards, but they greatly differ in size, environment, lifestyle, and special emphases. Because the UC's are research universities, classes tend to emphasize theory, concepts, and analysis over vocational training. Because the instructors are also researchers, they tend to have an intimate knowledge of the latest developments in their fields. Many campuses allow and even encourage undergraduates to get involved with research projects. The UC faculty includes some of the top researchers in their fields, including Nobel laureates. To support this research, the university has extensive libraries, laboratory facilities, and computer systems. The UC's, especially the ones in the smaller cities, tend to be residential schools more than commuter schools.

Private General Colleges

There is a huge variety in private general colleges, from tiny religious colleges to huge universities, like USC. They include some of the most prestigious universities in the world, like Caltech or Stanford. Some are easy to get into. Others, like Caltech, Stanford, and the Claremont Colleges, are extremely selective. Their requirements may be tighter than the top UC's. They may require letters of recommendation, interviews, auditions, submissions of work, special tests, etc. Extracurricular activities, community service, outside interests, and jobs can be very important in the admissions process. Since they are not supported by public funds, most private colleges need to charge tuition, which makes them more expensive than the public colleges. Some of the more expensive colleges can cost around $40,000 per year, but they may try harder to help students with financial aid. The main reason to go to a private college is that they tend to be more individualized in terms of their style and philosophy, and these may suit the student more than a public college. Most tend to have smaller classes and closer student-faculty interactions. Many have religious affiliations. Some of these require religious studies and may have strict standards of conduct. A few, most notably USC, Caltech, and Stanford, are research universities that are heavily funded for doing high-level research and issue doctoral degrees. Others are liberal arts colleges that concentrate on undergraduate education. Some are totally residential schools, while others are totally commuter schools, with every variation in between.

Private Specialty Colleges

These schools tend to be focused on particular vocations or professions. They concentrate on certain areas of study, such as art, music, healthcare, business, religion, industrial trades, or technical fields. They are best suited to students who know exactly what careers they want to go into, without having to take a lot of unrelated classes. Because these schools have a more focused curriculum, they can often offer degrees in a shorter amont of time than at regular schools. These schools tend to be dedicated to creating highly-skilled specialists, rather than well-rounded scholars. Many of these schools offer licenses, diplomas, and certificates for 1 or 2 years of study, as well has higher degrees. Some offer classes to the general public. Being private, they charge tuition. Many are for-profit schools that are run like businesses. Like any business, they can go out of business, leaving their students out in the cold. Out of the more than 3,000 vocational schools in California, some 10% close every year. They rely on tuitions to stay in business. Some charge by the unit or by the class. Going to a specialty school can mean a large investment in time and money. Students need to investigate the schools carefully to make sure they get the most out of their investment. Admission requirements can range from very loose to very exclusive. For instance, some of the art and music schools require submission of a portfolio or an audition to be judged for acceptance. Other schools will allow anyone to take classes as long as they pay the fees. Some schools are small, young storefront operations that may or may not be accredited. Others, like Cal Arts, are larger and older institutions with world-class reputations. These schools have some of the most talented experts and specialists in their field, which attracts gifted students and creative to them. This concentration of talent can make for a school atmsophere that inspires and stimulates creativity. 

Remember, when you visit a college, unless you plan to commute from home, you are not just touring a college, but you're looking at what could be your new home for the next 4 or more years. Do you feel at home there?

Everyone has their own priorities and preferences. There is no one right college for everyone. You have to find the one that fits you the best. For instance, the top-ranked California school, Caltech, is definitely not the best school for a performing arts or athletics major. The highest-ranked CSU, Cal Poly, is not a place to go if you don't have a definite major in mind. You may not like USC and UCLA if you hate big cities. Conversely, you may not like UCSC if you want to be in the middle of a big city. You probably won't like UC Davis or UC Riverside if you can't tolerate hot weather. You need to look at all the characteristics of a school and see what best fits your requirements.

Created by Ronald Horii
Last update:3/2/2006, migrated from Geocities 11/09.