For the lucky student who is in a position to choose between competing offers from one or more colleges, some observations and advice:
As I said recently to just such a client, there are essentially two methods that I am aware of with definite merit. The first of these involves assembling a set of facts and making a rational, logical choice, based on the result of the comparison. The facts I believe to be relevant include the total cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, books, fees and estimated personal expenses) less any awards (grants and scholarships). Do not include loans in the award category – this only refers to “free money” that doesn’t need to be paid back. The resulting figure is your adjusted cost of attendance for one year.
I would balance the adjusted cost against multiple indicators of the strength of the institution. These might include recognized ranking systems, such as those used by U.S. News and Kiplinger, which are based on key institutional variables. I have my own set of variables that I scrutinize on behalf of clients. These include the selectivity of the school, the freshman retention rate (the percentage of students who return for a second year after the first), the 4-year graduation rate, the average class size and student/faculty ratio, and the percentage of classes taught by professors rather than by graduate assistants. With freshman retention, 4-year graduation stats, and classes taught by professors, the higher these numbers the better. With class size and student-faculty ratio, the lower the better.
For those who have a good idea of their academic major, or interests in particular programs like a sport or study abroad, scrutinizing programs and departments is a good idea. You may wish to initiate contact with these offices to see how receptive and friendly they are to prospective students. If you want to really get down and dirty, seriously plumb deeply buried institutional reports and see if the college has recently undergone accreditation review, or if it participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement. If the answer to either is yes and if any of the summary results are available, the information can be quite eye opening, as it will feature both strengths and weaknesses of the institution in comparison with others.
The alternative method may seem to be quite ephemeral in comparison with the logical comparative method, and yet I can’t discount it. I believe that a student’s gut response following a campus visit is absolutely important and not to be discounted. So many happy and successful college students that I’ve known have said something like the following: “I just knew, within minutes of setting foot on campus that this was the place for me.”
My best advice is to weigh rational assessments and gut reactions together, especially since I absolutely believe that there are multiple right colleges for each student. An institution with a strong profile that is making an overture of interest (possibly in the form of an award) AND that feels like a good fit will probably wear well over time. Happy deciding!