Did you know that there are over 2,000 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the United States?! So many to choose from . . .  how’s a teen to decide?

So we encourage you to be open and even invite your teen into frequent discussions to help them narrow down their vast college options to serious contenders.

And setting important parameters is gonna make this process simpler and easier for both you.

The parameters will be different for each teen, and include things like whether your teen will live at home or on campus, how far the campus is from your home, whether your teen is looking for a small rural campus with a very personal feel or a large exciting, action-packed urban campus, and, of course, your teen’s college budget.

Here are some factors that many parents use to set up parameters for their teen’s college search. Just like ranking your “must-haves” when looking for a new home (3 BR, 2 BA, big porch, running water, etc.), it can be super helpful if you and your teen rank these factors in order of importance to your teen and your family. . (Feel free to add more or ignore any that don’t apply to your situation.)

  • Location—proximity to your home, campus environment (rural, suburban, or urban)
  • Size—undergraduate population, teacher-student ratio, class sizes
  • Tuition/costs—public versus private, in state versus out of state, financial aid, administrative fees, books, room and board
  • Housing—dorm and off-campus options, selective housing
  • Campus life—clubs, activities, campus ministries, recreational sports
  • Affiliations—religion, sports teams
  • Freshman restrictions—housing, courses, car

After you and your teen have picked and ranked your parameters, it makes it a whole lot easier (and faster) to search online for colleges that match up. Once you have collected a list of colleges to investigate, you can ask your teen to research  college admission requirements for each college, which generally include particular courses, a minimum cumulative GPA, and minimum college entrance exam (ACT, SAT, or CLT) scores. Your teen can create a spreadsheet to keep track of each college’s minimum requirements, majors offered, tuition costs, worldview, number of students, and other important categories for comparison.

PRO TIP: Keep an eye out for colleges with several majors that interest your teen. That gives your teen more options, since if they change their mind and switch majors midstream (or the college drops or changes a major), it could mean a costly (in time and money) transfer to another college.

Because college expenses are substantial—and we get that’s a major concern for most families—you and your teen may want to rule out any college that far exceeds your family’s financial resources, or that might require your teen to assume too much debt. However, even if a college has a hefty price tag, be sure to find out whether their average financial aid includes sizeable grants or work study opportunities, which could bring it down into your price range.

If two parameters—say, location and majors—are your teen’s primary factors, you can start by looking at colleges within a two- to three-hour drive from home. If you don’t find enough options or the right fit, you can easily expand your search radius until you find colleges that offer majors that interest your teen.

If college reputation is an important factor, realize that prestigious and selective colleges accept less than 25% of the students who apply. And another budget factor—because most colleges charge application fees of $25–$80, cost considerations may limit how many selective colleges your teen applies to.

As you and your teen build a list or spreadsheet of prospective colleges, you may find it helpful to categorize them into three groups based on admission requirements, such as: safe, possible, and stretch.

  • If your teen’s high school college prep course load and SAT or ACT scores exceed the minimum admission requirements of a school, then consider it safe because your teen has a good probability of being accepted. Your teen should apply to one or two safe colleges.
  • If your teen’s course load and test scores come much closer to the minimum application requirements, then that college is a possible choice. Teens should consider applying to several “possible” colleges.
  • If your teen’s course load and test scores exactly match a college’s minimum requirements, then that is a stretch college. Your teen may want to apply to one or two stretch colleges.

College visits

OK, now that you’ve winnowed down those 2,000 potential colleges to a more reasonable number of prospective colleges, it’s time to think about visiting campuses with your teen!

The best time to visit is during the academic year, when teens can interview current students. Some colleges offer overnight visits and access to classrooms during certain weeks. Your prospective colleges’ websites should tell you what they offer to prospective students, when these activities are available, and how to schedule visits.

Official campus tours are informative, but unofficial walks through the campus and informal interviews with students can be quite helpful, too. You and your teen can ask students about their favorite and least favorite aspects of attending their college. Your teen should visit the dean’s office for the major he or she is considering and should specifically talk with students in that program.

Next up on the horizon: College applications! So let’s look at gathering college application information in the next part of this series.