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Choosing the Best School

Choosing a college can be stressful for both students and their families. Going through the bevy of options to find a good fit can seem like a daunting task, especially for LGBT students of color. As a first-generation college student myself, while I had the support of my family, the process for me was completely overwhelming.

There are over 5,000 institutions of higher education in The United States. So, where do you start? What is the difference between a college and a university? Does that even matter?

While in this article I will use the term college to mean both colleges and universities, yes there are some differences between colleges and universities. The biggest difference between the two is that universities, unlike colleges, typically award advanced degrees such as doctoral degrees. Also, universities tend to be larger, and have several colleges under their umbrella. Take, for example, Howard University. Howard University has over 10 colleges ranging from Dentistry to Fine Arts and awards bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level degrees.

Sidenote: In all of my years of helping students apply to college, I have never had a student pick a college based on whether it was a university or a college.

When I work with students, the first step in working through the college selection process is understanding college types. There are two overarching college types, public and private.

Public Institutions

Think about your high school, did they charge tuition? If not, more than likely your high school was free because it was a public high school, and the tax dollars paid by you and your family are a primary funding source which in turn, subsidizes the cost of attending. Tax dollars pay operation costs ranging from the cost of lights being on to educators’ salaries.

Public colleges in New York are either a part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system or the City University of New York (CUNY) system. As the name suggests, CUNY schools are public colleges and universities within the five boroughs of New York City (you can find a map of CUNY campuses by clicking here). You can find the list of majors offered at CUNY schools by clicking here. SUNY schools however are public colleges and universities in New York State outside of New York City (the exception to that rule is Fashion Institute of Technology) ranging as far north as Plattsburg and as far downstate as Suffolk County Community College (you can find a map of SUNY campuses by clicking here). You can find the list of majors offered at SUNY schools by clicking here. Residents of New York State attend both SUNY and CUNY schools at the in-state tuition rate which is typically a fraction of the cost of out-of-state tuition.

Question: If you attend a public college in a different state (University of Central Florida, Old Dominion University, etc.) do you think you would qualify for in-state tuition?

Answer: No. In most states, you would have to be considered a resident of that state (usually 12 months of residency and other requirements) to be eligible for in-state tuition. So, although The University of Connecticut (UCONN) is a public school, tuition is only subsidized for residents of Connecticut. Non-residents of Connecticut would pay the out-of-state tuition rate. This same concept applies to other state systems such as Florida, California, Pennsylvania, etc.

Private Institutions

While public schools rely on tax dollars, private colleges rely primarily on tuition and endowments (gifts from donors) to operate, that is why typically, their cost of attendance is higher than public institutions. That should not steer you away from private schools as they are also typically more generous with scholarships (we will discuss this later). Some private institutions may have a religious affiliation, but that does not mean that you must identify with that religion to attend. For example, you do not have to be Catholic to attend St. Joseph’s College, but you can expect to take general education courses related to Theology. Other popular private institutions include Ivy league schools and many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s).

Social Fit

At the risk of showing my age, I grew up watching TV shows like A Different World and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and movies like School Daze and Drum Line which showcased how fun going to college could be. Much LGBT youth of color use the college experience as a time for creating community and establishing independence as a young adult.  No doubt, belongingness has been shown to influence students’ mental health and academic performance. As you work through your list of schools, in your conversations with admissions representatives from the school, you should ask about clubs and organizations, particularly those that support LGBT students of color.  Be on the lookout for institutional policies that are affirming, such as allowing students to share their preferred names and pronouns. While the social fit is important, you must remember the reason that you are going to college, which in most cases is to find a career within your major.

Academic Fit

First things first, it is totally okay to not be sure of what you want to study. (My original major was Business, solely because I assumed that in order to have a nice car and a home you would have to study Business). After my first year in college, I realized that while I thought I liked Business, it certainly did not like me (and it showed in my grades). I switched to Criminal Justice, and it was “Up and Stuck” ever since!

 Second, you do NOT need to be a biology major to pursue medical school. Being Pre-Med is just a sequence of classes (mostly Math and Sciences) that you take in addition to your major. You may be surprised that some Dentists majored in art and took their Pre-Dental classes (wouldn’t you want a Dentist with a steady hand who can draw a straight line?).

Before applying (we will talk about this in detail in another article) I recommend making sure that the college either has your major or has a wide enough selection of majors for you to choose from once you are ready or want to change your major.

Again, it is okay to be undecided about a major (I actually view students who are undecided as open-minded), but if you are interested in taking a career assessment, this career assessment by O*Net is a resource I use with students to see what careers they should consider based upon their interests.

Financial Fit

Obtaining a college degree is an investment. With any investment, the goal is to receive as high of a return on investment (ROI) as possible. You want as much of the money you earn after graduation to go into your own pocket, and not towards paying back a substantial student loan. With the national student loan debt well over a Trillion dollars, it is important to consider the strength of the financial fit of the colleges you are considering. The key here is to make sure you are prepared to financially sustain your cost of attendance all four years (some students take longer). If you are struggling to pay the first semester of a college (no shade) you should consider if this college is affordable for you to complete your degree. Many people I went to high school with were unable to graduate college because they chose schools that were not a good financial fit.

Don’t get caught out there! Some colleges will promote their cost of attendance, but it may be just the cost of tuition, which does not include room & board, or miscellaneous fees. Some colleges will promote their cost of attendance but will not share with you that figure will be the cost of one semester. Keep in mind, that in most cases, a school year is comprised of two semesters.

So, when meeting with college representatives the correct question to ask is “what is the annual cost of attendance, per year, before financial aid?”

As mentioned before, do not let a high price tag deter you from applying to a school. As part of your research on the school, be sure to research institutional scholarships offered by the school. I was able to find a merit-based Grant offered by my college that paid for my undergraduate degree. Meaning my bachelor’s degree at a private college was completely free just because I researched their financial aid website and asked questions from the admissions representatives I spoke to. Being debt-free for my bachelor’s degree allowed me to be able buy a car and home after graduation and to go on to earn my master’s degree and now, work on my Ph.D.

Institutional-based scholarships are not the only scholarship opportunities. I was also able to get external scholarships through my church and local fire department to cover some of the cost of books. Be on the look at on the SOULE Foundation website about scholarships for LGBT students of color. Believe me as a college student, and financial support is helpful.

I say this to say, while the social and academic pieces are important, for me, as a first-generation college student from a lower socioeconomic community, cost of earning my degree was a major factor in me choosing my college.

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