It’s not too early to think about college (sophomores and juniors included). High grades in solid subjects, good SAT scores, a well-developed talent will all count when it comes to getting in and getting funded (scholarships, loans, work study, etc.).

It’s easy to get in somewhere. But somewhere may not be the right choice. Universities, four year colleges and community colleges offer some quite different things. Guides and college websites describe resources like libraries and labs, the qualifications of faculty, and attractions like exciting locations, good food, state-of-the-art fitness centers, clubs and teams, etc.

The community college is inexpensive, the best price you’re likely to get; you can live at home. There are courses that lead directly and pretty certainly to jobs. You can transfer after a year or two (but make sure your community college credits will be recognized where you want to go next). Further advantages: non-selective; local and familiar, including the students.

Disadvantages: non-selective; local and familiar, including the students. The community college won’t have big labs and libraries and professors, lots of extra-curricular sport, art, theatre, music, etc. College is the time and place for new experiences, new challenges. They’re harder to find at community colleges.

Four year colleges tend to be bigger. And further away. Often a lot further away. (There’s a lot to be learned by being in another state, city, or country. Try not to miss it.) College can be a world away from home. More students with different backgrounds. Professors, ditto. More subjects, and students and faculty taking them further.

Universities, bigger still, offer additional things. Research. People working at the cutting edge in their fields. A look at graduate study (the BA or BS may not take you far these days). Lots of different, interesting people.

How much you’ll find at colleges and universities depends: there are literally thousands of such places. Quality varies. One measure is selectivity. College guides like Peterson’s and Barron’s tell you how hard it is to get into a school, and the average high school rank and test scores of those who do. Going to college with the best possible fellow students can be a big plus. (Community colleges are usually described as non-selective, but that may not apply to their best offerings: really good health care or cooking or welding programs can pick their students.)

Go to the best place (for you) that you can. Do well. The student debt trap catches those who don’t finish, or wind up with a degree no one respects. One last, timely tip: don’t try to buy your way in this year.

David R. Jones has been writing about education for 50 years.

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