The College Search: What You Need to Know

Bill Tussey

  • Ohio Columnist

As our kids go through high school, we parents are faced with the daunting task of helping them choose a college and career path. This task is made more difficult when your child wants an education or career in fine or performing arts.

Given the number of colleges and universities, it should be no surprise that we are spoiled for choice.

There are as many ways to sort and classify schools as there are starts in the sky. The method you use should be easy to execute and understand.

Once the schools are chosen, you get to start thinking about visits and auditions.

This is where you start getting into the college savings fund. Visiting schools can be expensive, and you should try to narrow things down to cut costs as much as you can.

Auditioning is another animal all together. Not only do you have the expense of revisiting the school (most times), but also the added pressure of the audition itself. And each audition is different, and requires a different plan for preparation.

Either before or after that, comes the application process.  This can become VERY expensive, very quickly.

Many schools will offer an application fee waiver, if you ask. Always ask. It takes less than 15 seconds, and can save you $20-$60 per application. Also, depending on your financial status, you may be entitled to a waiver. Some schools already have arrangements in place with colleges, allowing certain high schools to apply for free.

And this whole process may be repeated several times, until the right school is found.

Just as the schools are selective in whom they recruit and admit, you and your student should be selective in which school you apply to and attend.

This series of articles, hopefully, will clarify the process, and give you some insight for your own journey.

The most common question I have gotten is “Where/How do I start”? The best way is to start with which academic program they are interested in. Regardless of what we parents think, it is our child that will be spending the rest of their life in this career field. The easiest way is to start with where you went to college, or a local college or university. Whether the local college has the program of study or isn’t the choice school, doesn’t really matter. They can serve as a resource for general information.

Another starting point is to list the schools you or your child know something about. Whether it is from academics, sports, music competition or just watching their commercials or events on TV, it is a starting point.

Be certain to look at a variety of schools. Large, small, urban, rural, modern or classic focus, acting techniques, music/dance/acting emphasis, sports, Greek life, dorm life, meal plans, and facilities all have influence in your decision.

College fairs are another good way to gather information. If it happens to be targeted at their particular major, even better. Generic fairs can be found at most high schools several times during the school year. These schools are most often only a few hours away, and most are in state, or near the border.

Yet another way to find colleges is to simply google “XXXX colleges and universities”, and look at the wiki page. It will usually provide a fairly comprehensive list of public and private colleges in that state. Give the wiki page more than a passing glance. Many times there is information that help you determine whether or not that school is worth spending the time to further investigate. Then you can search the websites of those schools to see if they meet the needs of your student.

On the wiki page, there will usually be a list of notable alumni. If one of them happens to be in the field of intended study, you may consider reaching out to them in an email to get their opinion of the school.

Regardless of how you choose the beginning list of schools, view their website to check if they have the degree program of choice. Request an information packet from the school. At this point, don’t worry about contacting the advisor for that major. Just start collecting information. Although it is easy to drown in information packets and view books, the more information you view will help you make a more informed decision.

Now the fun begins. Deciding how to narrow the field of choices.

Again, there are several ways to do this. 

Money is the one that most often jump to the front. While cost is a huge concern, remember many private schools are close to the same price as public schools. Also, just because a school is out of state, doesn’t make it financially inaccessible. For instance, a full time student living on campus in Athens at Ohio University will have a total cost of about $24-$25K/yr. Many out of state schools are in the $24-$40K range. These numbers are just a reference, and are from the college website. Actual cost may be higher.

Yes there is a little sticker shock when you are looking at college. We were told at one meeting “right now, it’s about $53,000/yr, and that will go up 2-4% each year”. 

Having a top number, money wise, is not a bad idea, but it should not be your only criteria.

Another limiting factor is geography. How far away can your child attend college is largely based on two things; how well they can handle being away from home, and how far you are comfortable in driving in one day. These, however, are not the only criteria.

Why one day? Well, just in case something catastrophic happens, I want to be able to get there in no more than one day. For us, the geographic limit is 12 hour drive time. For you it may be 2, or 36. Like cost, it will be different for everyone, and should be part of the conversation.

Once you have a manageable list of 20-25 schools, look at them more closely. Utilize the free resources like Princeton Review,, and Although these will give you a partial picture of what the campus is like, at least you won’t be flying blind. Also, using all of these resources will enable you to assemble a more full picture of the campus and classroom experience.

Find out about the community where those colleges are. How do you feel about your child’s safety in a city that size? What about hurricanes (coastal schools) or tornadoes (prairie states), winter storms (hills/mountains)? What about the economy of the area?

Colleges are required to report their campus safety records and plans to the public. This information can be found on their website, and is sometimes buried. The information they report usually includes (but is not limited to) violent and non violent crimes on campus including rape, theft, burglary and drugs.

Yes, it is a big scary world out there. However, if we, as parents have done our best, our kids will be able to not only survive, but thrive. We just need to get out of their way, and let them make decisions.

The safety record of a school can be indicative of not only campus but community safety. There are many free resources available that give you crime statistics. Utilize as many as you can. Remember; just because a city was incredibly dangerous or safe ten years ago is no guarantee of the safety or danger today. Look for trends, and projected statistics as well.

You will notice that I have not suggested contacting current students of the college or university. There are two major reasons. 

One, your student will have a fair amount of one-on-one time with student reps during their visit and college fairs. Believe it or not, our kids have pretty good smoke detectors, and usually, they will be able to tell when someone is blowing smoke up their butt.

Two, student reps that usually conduct the tours are, of course, heavily biased toward that school. In fact, the recruiters at the college fairs are as well. Again, this is where a built in smoke detector is a very good thing.

In my experience, the better schools will tell you very similar things; visit the campus, see a show, talk to students away from their profs, look at the dorms, and watch how people on campus treat one another. If a school is willing to spend their time giving you this information rather than complaining about or bashing other schools, they are worth a closer look.

I have been known to put a recruiter on the spot, and ask them about another school’s program. Not only does that tell me how knowledgeable they are about their program, but also the program of a competing school. One school, when I ask about it, got the same response from 3 or 4 others, and not in a good way.

Information is a powerful tool, and you cannot have too much. At times, it may feel as if you are drowning in letters, emails and view books, but compare every scrap of information you can. If possible, have the answer before you ask the question. Not only does this put you in a more powerful position, it also can be an integrity check for the school rep.

Once you have the short list of potential schools, the fun really begins.