And it is not always a barrel of fun. But there IS a lot to think about and I can tell you from experience that the more thought you put into it BEFORE they go off, the better off you will be and hopefully the happier your child will be.
At least, that is the theory!
Let's get started.
Cost- How much does your school of choice cost? Take a good, long look. You typically will find general tuition and room and board costs pretty easily. What may be harder to see are things like library costs, parking fees, and other trivial things. But trust me, those seemingly trivial things can and will add up fast. Don't forget a meal plan: college students do like to eat!
Scholarship opportunity- Does the school offer a wide variety of scholarships? Often the more expensive schools have more scholarships to offer and, therefore, can end up being your cheaper way to go. I know, crazy right? Do not eliminate a college just by a glance at their price! Scour their website for scholarships they offer, but do not forget outside scholarships as well. Even places like Target offer scholarships in many states! Who knew? Service organizations are often untapped scholarships as well.
Location- How far is your school of choice from your home and why does it matter? First of all, travel should be considered as part of the cost of college. Ask me how I know this! When our oldest went to school a good two day drive away from our home, we forgot to factor in how many plane tickets home or nights in hotels and gas that would cost. Lesson from the wise, don't overlook that! Those small details can easily equate to not so small pocket change out of your budget! Also, is your child a homebody? Do they want to be near siblings or come home for an occasional weekend? In my opinion, part of being in college is the experience of being in college and learning to be independent, but, if you know your child will be back and forth, choose a college that is close enough to home to make that a reasonable thing.
Major- Yes, it is important! I know that the old mantra is go to school and do general education for a few years and see what you like. That mantra has produced a lot of 5 and 6 year college grads. If that is ok with you, fine, but be careful. What we are seeing more and more is that many colleges are spreading gen. ed. classes out evenly through the four years and allowing students to immerse themselves in their major pretty quickly. Some schools are even forgoing many of the traditional gen. ed. classes completely. It is probably a good idea to look for a school with your child's interests in mind. If they really have no idea what they want to do (they are only 17 and 18 for goodness sake), then make sure you steer them to a liberal arts school with a lot of good, solid choices for majors. If they want to pursue specialty training, then send them to a place for that training. No use in wasting their time and your money on things that do not matter to them.
Private vs. Public- If you and your child decide that religious affiliation or values are important to you then you will more than likely want to look at private Christian schools. Be forewarned that the name "Christian" in a school is not a magic formula. Do your research. Also be aware that there are wonderful Christian organizations even on secular campuses across the states if that is a desire for your child. In addition, state schools are usually cheaper, especially when combined with in-state tuition rates. Private versus public also usually plays a role in school size as well, with many private schools being smaller in size.
Size- Which brings us to size. How big is the campus? How many students attend the school? How big is the town the school is in? Some kids thrive in large groups of people while others prefer more intimate settings, whether it be class size or just the sheer number of people on campus or in a town. This is one of those things that a few quick campus visits will answer. See what your child is comfortable with and lean in that direction.
Security- Years ago, this would not have even been a thought in my brain. Now, well, it is obviously important. Be ready to ask questions. What is campus security like? Who does it consists of? What training do they have? What emergency plans does the school have in place? If a school does not take their campus security seriously, you need to look elsewhere.
So now what? Once you identify a few schools, go through these college considerations and probably a few more. I would then suggest you have your child make a chart with the parameters that are important to him or her so you can compare each school. I would also add a notes column for any additional things you see, especially on campus.
And then, yes, go to the campuses of your top choices one by one. There is just no better way to get a feel for a school than to step foot on their campus. Go for a tour, attend a few classes, whatever it takes, but go visit. Take more notes, ask more questions, and let your student feel things out. Then go home and process for a few days!
Talk things out as a family, but in the end, make sure your child is happy with his/her decision. You may be paying for it, but your child, after all, is the one attending, and you want him/her to be happy and thrive!