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Students and families review everything from financial aid offers to on-campus activities before choosing a college—but there are still surprises. Here’s what they wish they’d known in advance.

According to How America Values College 2018, after enrolling and spending time at school, about half of undergraduates are satisfied with their experience and feel they got what they expected. The other half, though, encountered surprises.

Here are the top 10 things students wish they’d known before enrolling in college:

  1. The school’s physical environment and campus
    Factors that surprised students were related to school location and environment. For those living away from home, activities in the surrounding town were important. Some students loved their new city, but others, particularly in more rural areas, hadn’t realized how little there was to do off campus.
    Some of these students were also surprised by feeling homesick and lamented the distance from home. Commuting students frequently complained about lack of parking on campus. A number of students and parents were alarmed by crime and unsafe areas around the school.
  2. The social scene
    More students grumbled about the lack of a meaningful social life on campus than those who complained about a distracting social atmosphere that emphasized parties and drinking.
  3. The variety (or lack) of majors available
    Students say they wish they had known more about the variety of majors and program options available—or not—at their college. Some students weren’t sure of their major when they entered college and hadn’t explored all the possibilities at the school they selected. Others focused very narrowly on their major when they chose their school and had limited exposure to other academic opportunities available there.
  4. Campus culture
    While some students are delighted with their new community, most of those who are surprised by cultural issues feel they don’t fit in. Dominant cultural issues run the gamut from being too liberal to being too conservative. Concerns that contribute to students feeling uncomfortable include lack of diversity, social cliques, and discrimination.
  5. Quality of the college’s faculty
    A number of students and parents commented on the terrific professors, both their teaching and their attitude toward helping students succeed. Others, however, were disappointed in the teachers, particularly those in their major department. Some students wished they knew more about a professor's style or reputation before they registered for classes. Quite a few students and parents are frustrated with the student/teacher ratio—too many students find it challenging to access the professor.
  6. Difficulty registering for required classes
    Not getting into required classes can delay graduation. In some cases, classes are in high demand and students get shut out. The reverse is also true: not enough students register for a class, so it gets canceled. If a required class isn't offered every term, a student's ability to graduate on time can be delayed. Some students spend extra time and money because they aren’t sure which credits can be applied to their degree, and some experience a shift in required courses for their major after they think they’re on schedule to meet the requirements.
    Additionally, students who attend large universities with multiple campuses discovered that some of their required classes are only offered at a different campus from the one they attend.
  7. Variety of housing options
    Some students were unaware of both the housing quality and the number of choices available to them. Students and parents say they should have spent more time touring the dorms, learning about how housing is assigned, and exploring the neighborhood for off-campus options. They also wish they had paid more attention to the expense of living on- or off-campus, including meal plans, before deciding not to live at home.
  8. Financial aid
    Many simply didn’t understand the process and the eligibility requirements for different types of financial aid. Some didn’t know about the variety of college scholarships available and thus didn’t apply. Others didn’t realize that the aid they were awarded their first year could—and did—change over time.
  9. Quality and selection of course offerings and academic programs
    Some students were pleasantly surprised by how challenging and competitive the classes are; others felt unprepared for the amount of time and effort demanded.
    Still others were disappointed by the poor quality of their program. A number of those focused on coursework specifically commented on the availability—or lack thereof—of online classes, and said they wished they’d had more guidance on what types of classes are best to take online vs in the classroom.
  10. All of which leads us to the biggest surprise…

  11. How much college really costs
    By far, the true cost of college was the #1 factor students and families wish they’d known more about before enrolling. Unexpected expenses came from a variety of areas, like extra fees, lifestyle expenses, higher costs of living in new areas, and transportation costs to travel home. Many families were unprepared for tuition increases over time, while others felt the pinch of contributing more out of pocket as financial aid declined in subsequent years of school.

To get the most out of college, families may need to dig deeper for information about more subtle factors than those they had originally explored. Everything from cost to crime rate can significantly affect the student’s college experience, and potentially affect his or her success.

Find out more about How America Values College 2018.

How families are making college more affordable
Sticker price? Work-study? Free tuition? How well do you understand paying-for-college terminology?
The advantages of planning how to pay for college
Appreciating the value and benefits of a college education
Choosing a college that’s the right fit
College majors and salary expectations


About this study
How America Values College 2018, a national study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, explores how families of undergraduates regard the value of higher education, the factors that influence their choice of schools, and the steps they’re taking to make college affordable.

Source: How America Values College 2018, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.