By Jennifer Britton | Editorial Assistant

It’s an exciting, frightening and life-changing time in a young person’s life – the moment when students begin to decide what college they will attend after high school.

Area Catholic high school guidance counselors, however, have some advice in helping families along the way. Counselors interviewed agreed that location, cost, academic program, campus size/setting and activities/athletics are the major components every higher-education shopper should be weighing when deciding upon a college or university.

Lisa A. Ford, director of student services in Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, feels location should be among the top considerations on the education checklist.

“In choosing a college, the student should first determine if he/she wants to live close to home, is willing to travel within a driving range or wants to venture out and study in a new territory,” she said.

Cost of travel can play a big role, too, Ford said, suggesting that students determine the cost of traveling to and from home, especially if celebrating holidays as home is important.

With college often being the first major debt a young adult will incur, tuition costs are also an important factor.

“This can set the precedence for not only the amount to be paid back, the period of time for the repayment, but also a strong determining factor of a student’s initial credit,” Ford said. 

“Selecting a college is like buying a car – there are choices to be made and factors to be considered to find the best bang for your buck. It is a good idea to create a spreadsheet or another comparative chart [see www.nj.gov for a shopping list spreadsheet] to evaluate the financial packages offered by each college, in comparison to loans, grants, interest rates, payment plans, etc.,” she said.

 William A. Vanore, director of guidance in Toms River’s Donovan Catholic High School, meanwhile, couldn’t emphasize enough the need to personally get a sense for a campus’ size and setting.

“Visit, visit and visit,” he said. “Many schools may look great on paper or on their website, but it is not until you visit that school do you get the feeling of fit. When you are physically on campus, you can gauge whether you can/will feel comfortable, safe and happy for the four or more years that you will spend there.”

Academics is a key component for director of guidance Philip Masterson and school counselor Kelly King in Mater Dei Prep High School, Middletown. They advised to begin applications in August and start preparing essay/supplements early.

Athletics and student activities should also be taken into account, counselors said. In addition to possible sports scholarships, finding a college that meets a student’s interest in activities, clubs and sports can make for a lasting and positive college experience – one that includes growth, friendships and diversity during the college years and in the future.

“It is important that a student adopts his or her chosen campus as a place of belonging or a place that feels like home,” Ford said. “The student should attend a college that offers activities and clubs that appeal to him or her with people who have like-minded interests.”

Vanore agreed, urging families to inquire what academic majors, activities or services are available. He said it’s important to consider the type of institution (public, private, Catholic, interdenominational, etc.) as well as programs such as performing arts, ROTC, study abroad and services for those with disabilities.

Although researching higher education opportunities can become a stressful experience, anxiety can be minimized by seeking help from guidance counselors and teachers as well as fellow parents and students with shared experiences, those in the field agreed.