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Non-academic Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

Succeeding in college isn't just about finding one that offers the classes you want. Students also need to consider things like cost, location and extracurricular and social activities if they want a balanced college experience.

For some students, the ability to play sports is a deciding factor -- one that may even offer scholarship opportunities. "My son plays club soccer, or school soccer. He doesn't want to play college soccer, but for some of his friends, that was a decision," says Scott Shillings. His son Clayton will attend Texas A&M University starting in fall 2008. "Football and baseball are big, but A&M doesn't have a men's soccer program. But they have a big intramural soccer program, so he knows he can continue to play."

Don Johnson, a high school student in Brookfield, Illinois, only considered colleges where he could play football and study physical therapy.

"I wanted a school with football, physical therapy [courses], in or near a bigger city, and co-ed," Johnson says. "I also wanted to get away from Illinois and get out there and experience new places and people." Two of his top choices were the University of Hawaii and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

While some students, like Johnson, want to attend school far from home, others prefer the comfort of being a little closer. Callie Runestad, whose family lives in Illinois, visited about 10 campuses before choosing Winona State University in Minnesota, where she is now a senior.

"When I first visited [the town of] Winona, Minnesota, it certainly influenced my desire to attend Winona State. Like the school, it had an aura that was down-to-earth, beautiful and welcoming. The fact that it was three-and-a-half hours from home made it a perfect distance as well."

Chloe Vaast grew up in Costa Rica, so every college she considered in the United States was going to be far from home. But having relatives in New England narrowed her focus.

"It definitely helped my decision, because when I was applying, I mainly applied in New England. My mom's family is from here, so we had visited often," Vaast says.

Despite being far from home, her eventual choice of Providence College in Rhode Island still felt like home to her. "Having family here helped. Even with the transition from tropical weather to cold weather, where all of a sudden I had to buy my first big coat and scarves and gloves."

Some students feel more at home on smaller campuses, while others prefer the excitement of a large university. That's why campus visits are so crucial.

"The nine to 10 schools I researched varied in student size," Runestad says, and included both rural and urban campuses. "As I visited the various schools, I found I wanted a small- to medium-sized school."

Something else that played a big role in Runestad's choice was that Winona State University offered her a chance to pay tuition at in-state rates and receive a school scholarship. She says, "If I hadn't received in-state, I probably would not have attended a school outside of [my home state of] Illinois."

Scholarships were also an important consideration for Johnson and his mother, Donna Lang. "I'm a single parent, so tuition, scholarships and financial aid were all important," Lang says. "So is ensuring that he can get a good job after college since he'll have loans to pay back."

Lang says that financial aid forms are so daunting that some parents give up, but it's worth taking the time to fill them out as accurately as possible.

"There's this thing called an EFC [Expected Family Contribution] estimator. You can go online and it will give you a basic idea of what amount you're going to be responsible for as a parent," she says.

Johnson's mother earns too much for him to qualify for federal grants, but not enough to have been able to set aside tens of thousands of dollars in a college fund.

"I had heard that because of what I earn, Donny wasn't going to be eligible for financial aid." But filling out the EFC also showed her what options were available and gave her an idea of what her FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] results would be.

"This is how they've explained it to me: The school will get my FAFSA and will say, 'This parent can afford to pay $12,000 a year, so the balance is $16,000. Let's see how we can get Donny some of that money,'" Lang says.

Johnson qualified for a $7,000 academic scholarship at Sacred Heart University, and is also hoping for a football scholarship. "The football coach said you have to fill out the FAFSA and CSS [College Scholarship Service] forms before they'll even talk money," Lang says, reminding parents to check filing deadlines, which can vary from state to state.

"Winona State was the school that gave me the most money out of all of the ones I looked at," says Runestad, "but that [alone] was not the deciding factor. Initially, intramural sports, outdoor club and faith-based organizations drew me to my school."

Fraternities and sororities are an important part of the college experience for some students.

"Fraternities are big at some schools, but not at others," Shillings says. "Clayton knows some people through church that went to A&M or Baylor who didn't join Greek fraternities, but Christian fraternity organizations gave them more choices. So Clayton can say, 'I can go to A&M, play intramural soccer, and I can join a Christian fraternity because there's a lot of them there. I don't have to join a Greek fraternity, but I can if I want.'"

Fraternities or not, some parents want their kids to go to their alma mater. While Shillings went to Texas A&M, his wife went to the University of Texas (UT) -- both of which were on Clayton's short list.

"It's kind of the state rivalry," Shillings says. "On my side of the family, my sister and brother-in-law also went to A&M. My wife, her brother and sister-in-law went to Texas, so there's a lot of rivalry. So we both influenced him because we wanted him to have good impressions of those schools."

Making the decision more difficult was that both schools have good engineering programs, which was Clayton's number one requirement. A campus visit left Clayton with the impression that UT wasn't the right fit for him, so he opted for A&M.

Each school has plusses and minuses, so in addition to academic reputation you need to consider everything from location and campus size to extracurricular activities and the availability of financial aid. When you factor in all your specific wants and needs, the right school for you should start to become clear.