The Guide


Three students in a library working on a computer look up at the viewer

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is an institutional accreditor of close to 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Our role is to provide quality assurance at colleges and universities within our membership. Through that experience, HLC and external experts have identified questions to help students be more informed, to think about what you should ask before, during and after college. The intent of this guide is to give students and others a roadmap to the choices available within higher education.  The guide provides questions to ask along your journey, as well as sources to help inform you.

Before you begin the exploration into colleges, it will be useful to ask yourself some critical questions. You can do this with high school counselors, college advisors, parents, friends, and insightful individuals at the places you work. It is very useful to have a reflective conversation with yourself. Spend some time thinking about these questions and write them down for further exploration.

  1. Why do you want to go to college?
    This question is about your intent. This might be your first time at college, or a return as an adult with a goal to advance at work. Narrowing down the reason to attend is critical in navigating the next steps.

  2. Who are the individuals that might influence your choices?
    Identify those who are encouraging your higher education journey at home, school, work and through social networks. Are those influences aligned with your own intent for attending college?

  3. Do you have an interest in a specific course of study (major or focus) you want to pursue?
    Be aware that students sometimes change majors based on interest, employability, promotions at work, etc. Be certain to examine how a particular major meets your needs on completion.

  4. Student at computer in her home considers questions

    Are there geographic locations where you might want to attend?
    Some people favor a proximity to certain regions of the country, weather factors, including perhaps those where family, friends or co-workers might be nearby, etc. Others want to try a different location or attend online.
  5. Do you have geographic limitations due to family, work, or other reasons?
    Beyond your own interest in locations, sometimes the choice of location is limited. In those cases, think about what distance would you be willing to travel and if quality online learning an option.

  6. Will you be attending full-time or part-time?
    While your answer might change over time, it is important to select a college that accommodates part-time students.

  7. Have you attended college before, and if so, what is the driving factor to return?
    In this situation, consider if you will return to the same college, enroll in another and the ability to transfer previous course credits.
  8. What extra-curricular activities and services that are available at a college will influence your final decision?
    Students of all ages have the opportunity to engage in a variety of activities, and learning what activities are of interest to you can be a factor in choosing where to attend.

  9. Are you interested in a residential campus where you can live or a commuter situation?
    These options will greatly influence your choice. For adult learners, the question is more about acceptable distance from home or work. For online learners, you will want ask about any in-person requirements.

  10.   What questions do you want to ask of the college staff and representatives when you are weighing your choices?
    This guide provides a wide variety of questions, but begin by thinking of those you know you want to ask before making decisions on where to attend.

Overhead view of student studying with textbook and computer

Once you have done some reflection on the above issues, you are in a better place to use this guide. In the various sections you will find several questions and points of information that will be very helpful to you in making choices. This Guide also provides HLC's Glossary of Terms as a resource for understanding higher education.

Having choices is exactly the purpose of this guide – informed choices. We encourage you to think of the college experience as a journey, before, during and after. What do you need to know in your selection of a college, what should you know when you are attending, and what career or lifelong learning do you need to pursue after college? Attending college is one of the biggest decisions of your life. We want you to go through that journey armed with the best information to guide you.

We call this “student agency,” the importance of being your own best advocate. You have a right to ask questions, a lot of them. All colleges have every obligation to respond through transparent and clear responses.

Attending a college is a life changer. Doing your research in advance is the greatest assurance that you will be making the best choice. While attending college and even after, there are many questions you will need to ask throughout your journey. “Student agency” means that you are the most important advocate for your educational future. Higher education is a lifelong learning experience. High schools and colleges can provide checklists of what you need to do before, during and after college. Places of employment for adults also weigh in the types of programs and colleges that are most suited for your career. You can find out a lot about colleges by asking questions of current students and alumni. Whether you are seeking a degree, certificate or other credential, the Higher Learning Commission encourages you to gather all the data points and information for decision-making. Congratulations on taking this path. You will reap the returns for a lifetime if you make the effort and the right choices.