The college search is nearly over for many students this year. Acceptance packages start arriving in mailboxes around the country in February each year, forcing them to decide soon, “Which college is best for me?”

Unfortunately, they don’t always make the right choice.

  • 32 percent of college students transfer at least once before graduating, says the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Only 66 percent of first-year college students returned to the same institution for their second year, according the most recent annual survey by ACT, the nonprofit organization that administers the college entrance exam by the same name.
  • Students who transfer take eight months longer on average to graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With average yearly tuition at $26,273 and $7,020 for private and public four-year colleges, respectively, according to the College Board, ending a college search by identifying the best institutional fit can save students and parents major headaches and big bucks.

Here’s a review of the more common problems that cause transfers or dropouts, followed by experts’ tips on what students should look for — after the initial college search — when they decide which school to attend from those that accepted them.

The problems:



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Visit the campus

“If (students) just go by reputation, when they arrive at the campus in the fall, they might be in for a big surprise because it may not feel right,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. Even if you’ve already taken an admissions tour, go back for a more in-depth look, but this time explore on your own.

“It’s important to get perspectives beyond just that of the host,” says Carol DelPropost, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. Homesickness is often a factor in transferring or dropping out, so DelPropost advises scheduling an overnight stay if you plan to live on campus.

Talk to various students, from club leaders to athletes to those hanging out in the student center. “They will tell you the truth,” says Pimentel. “They don’t get paid to sell the campus.”

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Research transition programs

According to an ACT academic retention report, successful first-year transition programs include orientation; first-year seminars; academic support systems, such as tutoring, skills development and learning assistance programs; faculty and peer mentoring; and placement testing. Many institutions even have programs for accepted students who’ve not yet enrolled to help them make that final college choice.

For admitted students, all colleges offer some sort of orientation program. “Opt for a campus that has a more extensive orientation program, not just one or two days in the summer or even just a freshman week,” says Wes Habley, ACT’s principal associate who has been conducting the survey since 1983. Some colleges offer special transition programs for students at higher risk of dropping out.

To help students throughout their college years, Rosa Pimentel, associated director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA, suggests looking for strong personal counseling services. “Personal issues can blow up and not make the student successful,” she says. Students who develop a strong connection with their university tend to persist even despite other potential difficulties, such as poor academic performance, according to the ACT retention report.

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Examine all financial aid components

Unfortunately, says Wes Habley, ACT’s principal associate, students often choose the least expensive school, even though it is not necessarily the best institutional fit.

Students who receive financial aid generally experience less financial stress and have lower dropout rates than those who receive none, reports the ACT.

Compare the net cost over four years for all schools you are considering and, “Don’t confuse loans as free money — they need to be repaid,” says Roger Dooley, co-founder of CollegeConfidential.com.

Consider debt-to-potential-income ratios. The average student loan debt among graduating seniors, excluding PLUS loans, was $23,186, according to recent figures calculated by FinAid.org.

“A good rule of thumb is that a student’s total education debt should not exceed their expected starting salary,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. Says Dooley, “You don’t want to saddle students with many years of debt — particularly in many categories of degrees where the student isn’t likely to earn a lot of money.”

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Look for learning programs

Of some 1.5 million high school students who took the ACT and graduated in 2009, only 23 percent met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmark Scores, in English, math, reading and science. Students who do poorly in academics their first year in college often quit, according to an ACT report, “The Role of Academic and Non-Academic Factors in Improving College Retention.” Whether you think you’ll need academic support, check to see if programs like writing and math centers and one-on-one tutoring are available for all students, and not just those academically challenged. Strong learning programs have proven to be the best student retention tools across the spectrum of vocational technical, two-year and four-year institutions, according to a 2009 ACT survey, “What Works in Student Retention?” On every campus, says Wes Habley, ACT’s principal associate, “There are students who are under prepared compared to the average student on campus. Some of those students — if they don’t have the services available to them — won’t survive academically.”

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Compare scores

Compare your academic scores, like GPA and SAT/ACT score to the median scores of the schools you are considering. “You don’t necessarily want to be the best student and you don’t necessarily want to be the last student,” says Tom Weede, vice president of enrollment management at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Students whose academics tower above the rest may become academically bored. Those who barely squeaked in may find themselves struggling to keep up. “You need to have an honest conversation with yourself on how you learn and how academically prepared you are,” says Weede.

Academic boredom also happens even with a good academic fit, says Wes Habley, ACT’s principal associate. “(Students) look at the first year curriculum and say, this is nothing but a repeat,” he says. To avoid curriculum frustration, request a course catalog to see if there are classes that will interest you throughout your college career.

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Ask about academic advising

Unfortunately, the report also found most institutions underutilize or poorly utilize academic advisers.

To ensure you’ll be paired with a faculty member who does more than just a sign off on a course list, ask the admissions office if you can speak with your assigned academic adviser ahead of time. “Ask about the faculty adviser’s training, commitment and accessibility,” says Carol DelPropost, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. If one hasn’t been assigned to you, ask to speak with faculty members in your intended program of study or areas that interest you. A good academic adviser will help steer students to appropriate courses and help them balance their schedule for academic success.

“The faculty is always going to be the first line of defense against an academic problem,” says Tom Weede, vice president of enrollment management at Butler University in Indianapolis.

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Look to the future

Look at a school’s graduate school acceptance rates, says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. “Look at the preparation that each university has in terms of programs or staff or offices that are responsible for professional or graduate school development.”

For most students, the end goal of a college degree is to secure a job in their chosen field. Job placement rates can provide a good indication of how helpful the institution will be in a future job search. Other questions to explore: Does the university have a career center with career counseling, resume workshops and interviewing sessions? Does it have a strong alumni network? Does the university bring recruiters to campus or are you on your own in the job search process?

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

Before you choose: Review retention and graduation rates

If you were not accepted to a highly selective school, you may find a diamond among the less selective or non-selective schools by examining the institution’s retention and graduation rates. In general, the higher these numbers are the better. They’re often an indication the institution has programs in place to keep students in college and on the path to graduation. The numbers don’t guarantee you’ll stay at that schools, but, Tom Weede, vice president of enrollment management at Butler University in Indianapolis, says, “If the school has really low retention and graduation rates, a reasonable question to ask is, ‘What’s going on there?'”

If the school meets all your other criteria but falls short on one or both of these numbers, ask the admissions office to explain why, advises Carol DelPropost, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

Recap: The problems



Campus culture shock

— If the campus and its student body don’t match the student’s personality, the student will ultimately feel out of place.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lifestyle transitions

— Students often underestimate the difficulty and challenges of collegiate life and have trouble handling transition issues, such as developing time management and study habits, forming new relationships and choosing a major.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Financial stress

— Students who must work to pay for college are at greater risk of dropping out than those who are more financially secure, according to an ACT college retention report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Unprepared for college

— Most students are not prepared academically for college, according to an ACT report.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Academic mismatch

— Colleges that are either too easy or too difficult, often cause students to transfer or drop out altogether.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Lack of academic guidance

— One of the primary factors affecting college retention is the quality of interaction a student has with a concerned person on campus, often in the form of an academic adviser, says an ACT report on improving retention.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


Students outgrow the school

— “Many students are thinking ahead in terms of going to medical school or law school or getting graduate degrees,” says Rosa Pimentel, associate director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. They may find, though, that the school doesn’t have the resources it needs to move them ahead.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »


School selectivity issues

— An ACT survey shows 72 percent of students in “highly selective” schools — those with the majority of freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class — graduated within four years, as compared with 49 percent at “selective” schools; 31 percent at “traditional” schools and only 30 percent at “open enrollment” schools.

Solution: What to consider before you choose »

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