How To Choose A College

Updated February 23, 2023 · 3 Min Read

College Choice ranks colleges based on affordability, flexibility, and academic quality. Program length depends on what type of degree you want to attain. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Two girls talking to a man on a college tour Credit: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

Selecting a college is a personal process, but certain factors weigh in on every student's journey. To find your best fit, use our criteria to take stock of your needs and wants, and reveal how your picks compare with national averages.


Which Type?

Are you seeking an associate or a bachelor's? Program length depends on what type of degree you want to attain. You can choose from:

2-Year vs. 4-Year1

Number of Institutions
2-Year College Public 870
Private Nonprofit 80
Private For-Profit 380
4-Year College/University Public 730
Private Nonprofit 1,300
Private For-Profit 300

If you'd prefer to stay at the same place for undergrad and grad school, consider enrolling at a research university. Here's how those institutions compare to liberal arts colleges.

Research University vs. Liberal Arts College

Liberal Arts College Research University
Private Private & Public
One College/Campus Multiple Colleges/Campuses
Undergraduate Programs Undergraduate & Graduate Programs
Multidisciplinary Studies Focused, Professional Programs
Small Student-to-Faculty Ratio Large Lecture Halls

Do you have a niche talent or skill? Would you like your peers to share your interests or values? Consider a specialized school.

  • Technical/Vocational
  • Art
  • Religious
  • Military
  • Women's
  • Historically Black Colleges & Universities

How Big?

Tallying up the number of students and faculty (and the student-to-faculty ratio) can give you a feel for a school's culture and class sizes.

Campus Sizes3

  • Average: 6,4452
  • Small: <5,000
  • Medium: 5,000-15,000
  • Large: 15,000-30,000
  • Huge: >30,000

Student Populations4

Total Enrolled: 19,645,918
Full-Time 11,991,721 61%
Part-Time 7,654,197 39%
Public 14,529,264 74%
Private Total 5,116,654 26%
(Private Nonprofit) 4,134,244 81%
(Private For-Profit) 982,410 19%

Faculty Populations5

1.5 Million Faculty Nationwide
Full-Time 54%
Part-Time 46%
Average Student-to-Faculty Ratio 14:1
Private Nonprofit 10:1
Public 4-Year 14:1
Public 2-Year 18:1
Private For-Profit 22:1

Where Is It?

Do you wish to study online? If not, how far from home do you want to be? How do you feel about living on campus? Off campus, would you rather be in a city or a rural area?

Delivery Format6

  • On-Campus: 65.5%
  • Online: 14.0%
  • Hybrid: 20.5%

Median Distance from Home7

All Institutions 13 miles
Public 2-Year 8 miles
Public 4-Year 18 miles
Private Nonprofit 46 miles

State Stats8

Number of Colleges by State
State 4-Year 2-Year
CA 262 154
NY 234 65
PA 155 63
TX 148 96
FL 128 48
OH 113 49
IL 98 58
MA 88 19
MO 75 22
NC 73 62
GA 71 42
VA 71 40
WA 63 11
MI 62 30
NJ 62 24
TN 62 24
IN 60 14
WI 52 17
MN 50 34
CO 46 21
SC 41 25
IA 39 17
KY 38 21
AL 36 26
AZ 36 32
KS 35 28
OR 34 20
MD 34 18
OK 31 20
LA 30 26
CT 28 12
WV 27 15
AR 27 27
UT 26 4
NE 24 12
ME 22 8
MS 18 16
NM 18 21
VT 18 1
DC 17 1
SD 17 5
NH 16 8
NV 15 7
ND 15 5
RI 13 1
ID 11 4
MT 11 12
HI 10 7
DE 7 1
AK 6 2
WY 1 8

On-Campus vs. Off-Campus9

Students Living On Campus
2-Year Public 4%
4-Year Public 33%
Private Nonprofit 56%
Private For-Profit 2%


Average City Population
Rural <25,000
Suburban 25,000 – 200,000
Urban 200,000+

Which Program?

It's crucial to verify an institution's reputation. Regionally accredited schools meet the gold standard of academic quality, so you can feel confident in your education.

Regional Accrediting Bodies11

  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

So what's everyone else studying?

Most Popular Majors12

Area of Study Percentage of Degrees Conferred
Business 19%
Health Professions 12%
Social Sciences & History 8%
Psychology 6%
Biological & Biomedical Sciences 6%
Engineering 6%
Communication & Journalism 5%
Visual & Performing Arts 4%
Education 4%
Computer & Information Sciences 4%

Not sure what you want to study? Good news: It's common for first-year students to be undecided. Even after declaring a major, you might change your mind.

Students Who Change Majors13

2-Year Program 4-Year Program
Total 28% 33%
1 Time 19% 24%
2+ Times 10% 9%

Depending on your program, you could earn credits in another country.

Study Abroad14

341,751 Students

  • 1.8% of Undergrads
  • 55.7% in Europe

Don't forget about your interests outside of academics! Look for clubs and organizations that focus on:


  • Arts & Crafts
  • Community & Volunteerism
  • Competitive Teams
  • Culture and Language
  • Government
  • Greek Life
  • Leadership
  • Media & Technology
  • Military
  • Music
  • Performance Art
  • Religious
  • Social Activism
  • Sports & Recreation

How Much?

Affordability should not be ignored, but keep in mind that a program's sticker price does not necessarily equal its out-of-pocket cost.

Average Tuition15

Public In-State $9,580
Out-of-State $27,437
Private Nonprofit $37,200
For-Profit $13,475

Financial Aid16

86% of Students Receive Aid

Types to Take Advantage of:

  • Direct Loans (Subsidized, Unsubsidized)
  • PLUS Loans
  • Perkins Loans
  • Work-Study Jobs
  • Scholarships
  • Grants

Average Debt17

  • Amount: $36,900
  • Loan Interest Rate: 2.75%
  • Monthly Loan Payment: $433

Will I Get Hired?

Higher education fosters personal and intellectual growth. Higher ed should help you thrive professionally, too. Given the cost of a degree, make sure to set yourself up for a high return on investment.

Average Graduation Rate18

All 4-Year Institutions 62%
Public 61%
Private Nonprofit 67%
Private For-Profit 25%

Job Status (Within 6 Months of Graduation)19

Employed 64.6%
Continuing Education 18.6%
Median Salary $52,714

Employment Rate (Ages 25-34)20

High School Graduates 74%
Bachelor's Degree or Higher 87%

Weekly Earnings (Ages 25+)21

High School Graduates $789
Bachelor's Degree or Higher $1,416

Highest Paying Jobs By Major (Early Career Pay)22

Electrical Engineering & Computer Science $101,200
Physician Assistant Studies $92,900
Petroleum Engineering $92,300
Metallurgical Engineering $79,100
Operations Research $78,400
Nuclear Engineering Technology $78,200
Welding Engineering $76,900
Medicine $75,500
Mining Engineering $75,200
Marine Engineering $74,700


1Characteristics of Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

210 Colleges With the Most Undergraduate Students, U.S. News & World Report, 2020

3College Sizes: Small, Medium, or Large,

4Total Fall Enrollment in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Attendance Status, Sex of Student, and Control of Institution: Selected Years, 1947 Through 2029, National Center for Education Statistics, 2019

5Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

6Number and Percentage of Students Enrolled in Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Distance Education Participation, Location of Student, Level of Enrollment, and Control and Level of Institution: Fall 2017 and Fall 2018, National Center for Education Statistics, 2019

7Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of "Place" in the Twenty-First Century, American Council on Education and Center for Policy Research and Strategy, 2016

8Number of Higher Education Institutions in the United States in the Academic Year of 2019/20, by State, Statista, 2020

9Trends in College Pricing 2019, College Board, 2019

10Should I Go to a Rural, Urban, or Suburban College?, PrepScholar, 2015

11Regional Accrediting Organizations, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 2021

12Undergraduate Degree Fields, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

13Data Point: Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017

14Trends in U.S. Study Abroad, NAFSA: Association of International Educators

15Average Cost of College & Tuition,, 2019

16Financial Aid Statistics,, 2020

17Average Student Loan Debt by Year,, 2020

18Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2020

19First Destinations: 2019 Bachelor's Degree Graduates Post Gains, National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2021

20Employment Rates of College Graduates, National Center for Education Statistics

21Median Weekly Earnings by Education, Second Quarter 2020, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

22Highest Paying Jobs With a Bachelor's Degree, PayScale

Time to Prioritize

It's important to consider all these characteristics, but they are not necessarily of equal value. Spend time figuring out which qualities mean the most to you, whether they are size, location, or cost. Compare and contrast the schools on your list, both when you apply and when accepting an admission offer. Soon enough, you'll be on your way!

An infographic detailing the ins and outs of how to choose a college; please see transcript below for full text.

Featured Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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