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High School

Students Share Why Location Matters When Choosing a College

Laura Tobar

As college admission decisions roll in, your high school senior will no doubt feel some combination of nerves and excitement. And as things get down to the wire to make a final choice, they’ll also be feeling a lot of pressure if they haven’t decided on a school yet.

It could be that they love two colleges equally, or maybe they’re torn between a school that feels comfortable and familiar and one that offers a totally new experience.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the factors you need to consider when making the decision. A great way to manage this is to focus on one key aspect of university life at a time. Your student will come away with a clearer idea of what really matters to them and what might be a deal breaker.

Enter the focus of this article: LOCATION.

Knowing that there is a lot more to a college campus than the state or city in which it’s situated, I reached out to current students and recent grads to get the scoop about how location influenced their choice of school and their eventual experience.

Here are the five location-related factors students (including me) found most important when choosing their schools, as well as some factors that, in hindsight, we wished we’d considered before making our ultimate decisions.

1. Walkability and Transportation

When thinking about the lay of the land, typically students will consider the campus itself: How big is it? Can I get around on foot or will I have to drive, bike, or take a bus or train?

These are great questions but they only tell half the story. Once students are actually on campus, chances are they’ll be looking for things to do in the surrounding area, too. Especially at small schools where they’ll want some occasional breathing room away from roommates and academic buildings, getting around outside of campus will be a priority.

Anne, a student at University of San Diego, says, “One of the biggest things I wish I had considered more when I chose my school was the walkability around my campus.” Growing up near a university, Anne was familiar with a college-town atmosphere that was accessible to students, with amenities and restaurants right alongside undergraduate housing. When she went out of state for college, she discovered that the city surrounding her own campus was less student-friendly. “It's pretty difficult to walk places nearby, and students live in various spread-out areas throughout the city.”

If the city near your dream school isn’t highly walkable, or you realize too late that you’d rather do your homework in a coffee shop than a university library, the good news is that there should be workarounds if you look for them. When I needed a change of scenery, I could use my school’s free shuttle system to go into the city nearby.

Cities generally also have their own public transportation that students can make the most of (often at a discounted fare). Cambria, a recent graduate of Whitworth University, says, “I lived on campus for three years and didn't have a car, so I got to explore [Spokane] a lot by taking the bus. Sometimes I would take the bus off campus just to clear my head…. I found that as I ventured out more, I felt more like a member of Spokane, not just of my school.”

The bottom line: Your student can make a more informed decision about where they will thrive by thinking about how they’ll get around both on and off campus.

2. What’s (Really) Nearby

It’s easy to idealize a school’s location — especially since most schools don’t hesitate to play up the most eye-catching attractions and landmarks.

The danger of focusing too much on the major draws is that you can come away with an unrealistic impression. I started college knowing that there were spectacular ocean views near my university. If I’d taken the time to verify, I would’ve quickly realized that the closest beach is about 45 minutes away…by car. Being near the coast is still a great feature of the area, but looking at it practically, it’s not a trip I’ve ended up making often.

And even if it was in walking distance, I’m not sure I’d visit the beach daily, because one of the things I neglected to level with myself about when choosing a school is that my number one activity is still education.

For seniors in high school, choosing amongst college campuses can feel like planning an extraordinary, prolonged vacation. Cassie, a student at Willamette University, points out the reality. “College students are busy and will spend the majority of their time on campus and within walking distance of campus — these are the locations that should be taken into consideration when choosing a school.”

Cassie’s journey to this realization also came by way of some initial unrealistic expectations. “When I was looking at my school, I was focused on the exciting hikes, the coast, and Portland — all of which are located about an hour away from my campus. In my time at my university, I have ventured to these far away locations only a handful of times. I have found local places nearby, however, that have become very important to me. From my favorite coffee shops to non-profits in the area, the small community that my school is located in has offered me so much.”

Cassie concludes, “I’d advise prospective students and their parents to spend time researching the local communities that a university is located in.” After all, these (and not the museums, landmarks or amusement parks that can be so enticing) are what will ultimately turn a college into a home away from home.

3. Distance from Home (and What that Actually Means)

Speaking of home, one of the biggest factors when choosing a college is how far away you're willing to go.

These statistics from The Princeton Review’s 2021 College Hopes & Worries Survey Report may or may not surprise you. When asked about the ideal distance from home a college should be, about half (49%) of parents preferred students stay within 250 miles of home…but a majority (68%) of students thought more than 250 miles would be ideal.

On the surface, this seems like a pretty simple conversation: either you want to go somewhere new, or you’d prefer to stay close to home. However, there are nuances to this distance that come into play when you’re actually living it. Distance is a spectrum, and a couple hundred miles can make a huge difference between two otherwise similar universities.

My twin brother and I both chose out-of-state schools but the realities of our “far away” campuses were quite distinct. My parents could drive him and all of his stuff from Pennsylvania to Tennessee for move-in day, whereas I had to ship things ahead to California and take a six-hour flight. He could fly home for fall break at a reasonable price, but the dollar signs attached to an extra 2,000 miles made that kind of trip impractical for me.

I don’t regret my choice of college at all, but I do regret not considering what the extra mileage would mean for my experience.

It often boils down to a tradeoff — adventure versus comfort, new city versus familiar terrain. But it’s worth noting that, for students used to living at home, there’s also a tradeoff of elements of family life we’ve taken for granted.

I was excited to explore a new part of the country, but I didn’t anticipate how much I’d miss my mom’s cooking, or that I might have enjoyed being within driving distance of my pets. Cambria felt this give-and-take, too. She recalls, “I was eager to move out of Colorado for school. I'm glad I got to experience a new town, but especially in my freshman year, I felt lonely and super far from my family. Other students would drive home on the weekends…but I only got to see my family during video calls and breaks.”

Distance can influence other parts of college life, like maintaining old friendships. Brandon, a sophomore at the University of Denver, considered how the location of his college might affect his relationships from home, and this helped him determine how far away he was willing to go.

So, if a change in scenery is number one on your student’s wish list, they should just be aware that they may have to compromise on how often they see people who used to be fixtures in their life.

4. Climate and Environment

Particularly for students who’ve lived in the same place most of their lives, climate is an important thing to consider. Sometimes the weather at a potential school will be pretty similar to what you're used to; for Brandon, a move to Colorado from Minnesota was natural, with the added bonus of a longer summer. But if you’re moving from Arizona to Illinois (for example), you’ll need to invest in some heavier clothing and prepare yourself mentally for the long, cold winter.

The perils of idealization can come into play with this aspect of location, too. I was eager to escape from chilly Pennsylvania to the sunny West Coast, and although I’d read about Northern California’s rainy winters, I was sure anything would beat the ice and snow I was familiar with. That was, until I actually lived through a Bay Area winter, walking to class in torrential downpours and then sitting through two-hour lectures in wet socks and sneakers!

The moral of the story: It won't hurt to walk through the climate of a potential school season-by-season in order to get a well-rounded understanding of what living there will truly be like.

Air quality is something else you might want to consider — this resource from HouseFresh looks at how clean and smog-free the air is on campuses in different parts of the country.

5. Price Point

One final location-related consideration is how much things cost, which can affect a student's college experience in more ways than they might think. If a university doesn’t guarantee on-campus housing, or your student has their heart set on apartment living, cost will be at the forefront of your research. But even if they plan to spend all four years on campus, it’s worth looking into how expensive the surrounding area is.

Some students are confident they’ll be content on campus, thinking of the larger neighborhood as somewhere to go for occasional weekend fun. But it might throw a wrench in this plan to learn that nearby movie theaters, bars, restaurants and other escapes are actually very costly. Will they still be content if they’re only able to splurge and get off campus once every couple of months instead of every weekend?

Then there's shopping. If a school doesn’t have meal plans, or your student will want to supplement dining hall food with the occasional meal out or their own cooking, can they do this on a reasonable budget? Some schools have pharmacies or convenience stores on campus, but they can be more expensive because of their prime location. Students with cars should also consider the price of gas and parking.

In general: Prompt your student to think about where their money may be going once they are on their own.

We hope this advice from students who’ve already experienced the transition to college will help your student think about what they truly want from their new college home. In the end, college is what you make of it, but if you start off with an enthusiastic, informed choice and plan for contingencies, the happier you will be!

Laura is a member of the Class of 2022 at Stanford University, where she studies Communication. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can find her experimenting with new vegan recipes, watching football, or expressing herself through art and poetry.
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