Applying to college can be incredibly confusing. Few understand this quite as well as Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com. Ridner was born in Argentina and later moved to Venezuela and Brazil. When he moved to the United States for his senior year of high school, applying to college was chaotic.
"I was learning English at the same time as I was trying to figure out all of the applications and prerequisites that I needed," he tells CNBC Make It. "My parents were also immigrants, so they were not really able to help me a ton, and my high school counselor just had limited information, so I was really left to fend for myself."
Today, Ridner works to provide students with the educational resources that he didn't have in high school. "That's one of the big reasons I ended up starting Study.com. It wasn't just the fact that education became really inaccessible," he said. "I want to help students get the information that they need."
With thousands of colleges and universities to choose from, figuring out where to apply was one of the most overwhelming decisions Ridner faced. Here are the five types of colleges that he says every student should apply to.
"The first is the dream school," says Ridner. "This one is obvious, but some of us have had it in our minds since we were very very little."
Many students dream of attending the same exclusive Ivy League schools. This approach is narrow-minded and unrealistic, argues Ridner. "Sometimes the bar is being set by members of the family or by society as a whole, and it's not a bar that is always realistic," he says. "The reality is you might have to reach out academically and financially outside what you're capable of to achieve it," he says.
Even though the chances of getting into your dream school may be low, Ridner says there is no harm in applying to one of these schools. "I think you can put it on your list and realize that its something that you've always dreamed about, but be realistic," he says. "Most students focus too much on the schools in this category."
Ridner says the safety school is one of the most underappreciated types of colleges. "Actually, a lot of students ignore it," he says. "But this is the school that you're almost certainly going to get into based on your academic record and your test scores."
"By applying to the safety school, you're not saying that's where you want to go," he explains. "But you want to have choices at the end of the college application process, and you want to make sure that you are able to go somewhere."
Going to a college is more important than going to the best college, says Ridner. "Ultimately, what the research shows is that the difference between having a bachelor's degree and not having a bachelor's degree is huge," he says. "It's not as clear that the exact school makes that big of a difference at the end of the career."
"A lot of times students don't take cost into account until it's too late," says Ridner. This, he argues, is a big mistake.
"We have $1.3 trillion of student loan debt in the United States, and it can cripple you as a graduate," he says. "If you have too much debt, you can't move on with your life, buy your first car, your first home. So it's really important to have a school that you can afford."
A low-cost school looks different for every student. "I think a misconception about the financial aid process is thinking that the sticker price of the college is what you pay," says Ben Kaplan, author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free."
For instance, if a private college indicates that it "meets full demonstrated need" it means that the school guarantees students that they will only pay as much as they are able. These schools can be great options for students looking to apply to a low-cost school. Furthermore, many community colleges offer programs where students can attend for one year and then transfer to a traditional four-year institution. This approach can help students save a significant amount on their first year of college.
"Having a low-cost option is really important as something to have in your back pocket," says Ridner.
Ridner says that every student should apply to a school that has flexible scheduling options. "Maybe they have online or hybrid educational opportunities and cater to students who have to work or have family obligations," he says.
"Forty percent of students today are over 24 years of age," he explains. "A lot of working adults that are looking to enter college have different personal situations, and flexibility is a major factor for them when picking a school."
Indeed, students over the age of 24, described as "nontraditional students," are one of the largest groups of students in higher education. For students like these, opportunities to take classes at night or online can help them continue their education while balancing their other commitments.
Finding the perfect school may sound too good to be true, but Ridner says every student is capable of finding their perfect place. "There's not really one true perfect fit for everyone, sometimes it just takes a change in attitude to see your perfect fit school as a dream school," he says.
"It's really a university that is going to be attainable financially and academically. That combination of both your scores and your financial means," he says. "It could be a hidden gem that you may not think of, but is a good overall fit for you, your life and your desired major."
In the end, Ridner says students can find happiness no matter where they choose to apply. "Choosing where to go to college seems like a huge decision, and it is, but the really huge decision is taking the first step and going to college and earning that bachelor's degree," he says. "That's the piece that's going to change your life."
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