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Choosing a College

The Importance of Making
the Right Choice

We encourage talented low-income students look very closely at top-ranked colleges with good financial aid when making their college choices. This is for two reasons: one, top ranked colleges are more likely to be able to support you through college; two, while we suggest it is a smart decision to attend a top-ranked college with strong financial aid, we strongly suggest that you do not simply pick the college with the highest ranking in US News & World Report that accepts you. Clearly, within this pool of exceptional colleges, your own ‘top ten’ list might be quite different from the national rankings. In sum, aim high, but in this lofty group of elite schools, pick the one that will best allow you to build the life you dream for yourself.

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First, talented low-income students face the same questions other students face. Questions such as:

  • What majors and programs do the schools I like offer?
  • How will these majors and programs benefit my career goals?
  • How strong are my fellow students?
  • There are also other questions of each college’s personality, mood, geographic location, and otherwise.

Secondly, talented low-income students face questions specific to being low-income:

  • How good is the financial aid?
  • Will the financial aid drop from year to year, and if so, why?
  • Can I transfer in credits from other colleges to save money?
  • How expensive is it to live in the area?
  • Is the college interested in supporting economic diversity?
  • Will I be able to afford to go home and see my family on my financial aid package?

Questions that pertain directly to low-income students are sometimes much harder to answer than general ones and require special investigation.

Finding a College That
Best Fits Your Goals

Not every college is the best fit for everyone. Naturally, at age 17 or 18, particularly if you come from a home where few people attended college, such choices can be difficult and equally uninformed. It’s helpful to have some idea what you might want to focus on in life. It’s even helpful if you can rule things out. Often, college allows this professional and life exploration which is difficult in high school. In the undecided case, it’s important to attend a college that suits your general range of potential interests, your personality, and even your relative academic strength. A college that is perpetually too difficult for your skills can lead to underperformance, both in college and as an applicant to graduate or professional school. Alternatively, attending a college which is too easy for you can prove equally frustrating and unrewarding.

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As a low-income student, it’s especially important to think critically on which college will provide you with the tools to succeed in life. When you graduate, chances are you will not receive family help in getting your first job, or be able to receive financial support from your family after graduation. Or, if you are interested in graduate school, you will need to be competitive for the schools you’re interested in, as well as plan for payment of these school fees. And unlike undergraduate financial aid, there’s generally no such thing as free money from schools or government grants for you to attend medical, law, or other graduate programs. Most people pay for graduate school entirely with loans they must repay with interest after they graduate. Whether you choose to work right after college, or choose to pursue graduate studies immediately, what undergraduate school will give you the most tools to help you build your future?

Financial Aid

One of the biggest concerns for low-income students is determining the quality of financial aid over four years. It costs $160,000 to pay for each low-income student. Unfortunately, some colleges use the practice of offering a larger financial aid offer in year one than in years 2-4. This bait and switch is obviously a problem for both low-income students and middle-income students. How can a low-income student determine which colleges will support them financially for four years and which ones cannot or will not?

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There are two ways to look at this. One is to look at the endowment per student at the college you are interested in. The other is to look for colleges that have promised to pursue need blind admissions in a group called the 568 group.

The overlap between these two lists is particularly compelling as it represents colleges and universities with both a stated commitment to enabling low-income to attend their colleges. Particularly with small liberal arts colleges, which are expensive and may at first glance seem too small to provide strong aid, this analysis can be very useful.

In presenting these lists, QuestBridge is not promising that any of the colleges listed above will meet all the need that you have or perceive to have in paying for college, but just that this is a very good place to start.

On the other hand, there are also many less endowed schools with strong commitments to helping low-income students who may have special programs for their most talented low-income students even if they cannot meet all unmet need for all students. There are also top colleges not in the 568 group who also focus both on need blind admissions and meeting all unmet need.

This is meant more as a guide than a directory, but should be a good place to start. You might be surprised that many small liberal arts colleges have more money per student than even several Ivy League colleges.

For more information on paying for college, please see our Paying for College section.


Important Things to Consider when Choosing a College

Besides looking at the academic fit of a college and the strength of its financial aid, there are also considerations of personality and lifestyle. Questions such as weather can be very important to some students. A student who has lived entirely in a warm, sunny climate may be miserable in the snowy Northeast. These personal happiness questions may seem inconsequential at first. However, choosing a college that facilitates your personal happiness will greatly enhance your undergraduate years.

  • Your academic interests and available programs.
  • Your learning style and the learning style of the school. Things to look at include student to teacher ratio, academic requirements of each school, research opportunities, and accessibility of professors. Some professors may be exceptionally welcoming of students, whereas others may be focused on their research. Explore the feel of the schools on your list.
  • School size. The size of a school can influence the academic as well as social atmosphere. Do I want to be a big fish in a small pond, or can I swim with big fish in a big pond? Would a big school or a small school benefit me most? This depends on your learning style and what your interests are. In terms of social atmosphere, smaller schools are more intimate and people may have more opportunities to know people better.

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  • Student diversity. You may want to look at the ethnic diversity of the student population, how many students receive financial aid, as well as geographic diversity. These factors can help build a picture of the student body at each school, and this information can generally be obtained from school websites or speaking with admissions offices.
  • Non-academic opportunities, such as opportunities to participate in musical groups, dance groups, art, etc. What interests you, and do the schools on your list provide an outlet for your extracurricular interests?
  • Social life considerations, such as on-campus versus off-campus social life, fraternity and alcohol presence on campus.
  • Urban, suburban, or rural setting. A college in a big city will have a much different atmosphere than a college in a rural setting. Schools in big cities are often integrated into the city, and as a result, may not be as cohesive. On the other hand, the city offers great opportunities to explore and can be very convenient. Schools in rural settings tend to be very cohesive, as social and academic life generally centers around campus.
  • Distance from home can be a consideration. How often do you want to be able to travel home for visits? Do you take care of family members at home?
  • Geographic location and weather can be important to many people on a personal level. Each region has its own quirks and personality.
  • Opportunities to engage in things you personally enjoy. For example, if you are an avid hiker, you may wish to go to a school in an area with plenty of hiking trails.


Beyond questions of which college will provide you with the most financial aid and the biggest career boost, there are also questions of college personality. Do you prefer a single-gender or co-ed college? Do you have specific geographic preferences? For these considerations, please read our Additional Notes on Choosing a College.

The point is that low-income students, and middle income students also, must answer many more questions than students who do not have to worry about paying for college. This is all the more reason why it makes sense for low-income students to aim as ‘high’ as they can academically, as there is a great overlap between top ranked colleges and those with ample financial aid and resources. From these lists, it is clear that low-income students should look closely at less well known top small liberal arts colleges with generous financial aid, which in some cases will even exceed the resources available at selected Ivy League colleges.

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