Choosing a college
Two of the biggest decisions when it comes to college are what institution you will be attending and what major you will be studying while at that institution. Higher education is a business like any other and each university will try to convince you that what they offer justifies the price they are charging you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not that is true and what institution will give you the best return for your investment. In this article, I’m going to be addressing those who go directly to a 4-year institution after high school. I don’t have personal experience with community college so an article on that will be tabled for a later date.
Home or away?
The first question you have to ask yourself when thinking about college is, “Am I staying at home or moving out?”
Culturally, it’s almost expected that a high school graduate is going to go away for college. We tend to want to move out and gain our independence when we make the transition out of high school. That’s perfectly natural but there are some things to consider.
Living in another city is not a small expense. Every year you spend away from home, you are now not only having to pay for college, but also for rent, groceries, and transportation to and from your hometown (you are planning on visiting your family, right?). That can easily cost you upwards of $10,000 a year. If there’s a good college you can commute to while living at home, you should have an extremely compelling reason to move away for another college.
Another aspect of choosing a college is the Islamic atmosphere. I lived at home during college and it’s only now after graduating that I am beginning to realize how good of a decision that was from a character development standpoint. I’ve heard far too many stories of men and women going away for college and then gradually (but still terrifyingly speedily) losing the values inculcated in them over 18 years. Even though you’ve been an adult since you hit puberty, you are far more malleable at 18 than you will be even three years later. Living at home, under your parents’ roof means that you are still under their watchful eye. More than a few people I know who’ve been in college would have benefitted tremendously from that. If there’s already a good Muslim community and a good college where you live, double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple ask yourself if moving away is really a good option. If you do decide that this is the best decision for you, make sure that there’s a masjid near the university, that there is an active group of Muslim men, and exert yourself to the utmost in finding a Muslim roommate who will help keep you in check. Don’t rely on the presence of an MSA as an indicator that the Islamic atmosphere on campus is good. Not all MSA’s are equal and some can be as detrimental to a person’s iman as others are beneficial. If you end up choosing a college that sets you up for an amazing job and career but in the process, you lose your iman, you have lost infinitely more than you’ve gained.
One important aspect to remember when choosing college is that unlike non-Muslim students, you have a very different approach to loans. You want to absolutely minimize the amount of loans you take and ideally have zero interest (which realistically will occur if you have close to zero loans). There are fatawa about taking interest loans for a college education but I am not a scholar who can tell you about the validity of such a position. However, I can tell you that even if such fatawa are valid, they are often abused by people who study at expensive colleges when reasonable colleges offer a similar education at a substantially smaller cost. If you analyze all the data and run the numbers and ultimately conclude that going to college at a prestigious institution will be better for you financially in the long run, still choose the option that will allow you to not take an interest loan. What separates you as a Muslim is that all your investments are viewed through the lens of ultimately being an investment for the akhira. Riba is not an investment, it is a loss. Even when you gain, you are losing.
What is prestige worth?
The next question you have to ask yourself is, “How much extra money am I willing to pay to go to a more prestigious college?” A lot of high school counselors either explicitly or implicitly try to push the mindset that the more prestigious the institution, the better you will fare after graduation.
The reality is that the answer to this question depends heavily on what career you’re going into. Talk to people who are at various levels in the field you plan on getting into to get a feel for how important your college’s ranking is in getting a good job in the field. As a rule of thumb though, if it’s a job which requires a graduate/professional degree, the undergrad college plays little to no importance.
At the same time, realize that excelling in undergrad at a non-prestigious university can put you on track to pursue graduate education at prestigious programs without racking up large undergraduate fees. People from my non-prestigious undergraduate college have gone on to graduate school, medical school, and law school at places like Mayo, Johns Hopkins, Washington University, University of Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford. They ended up saving in the order of six figures and will graduate with the same MD, PhD, or JD as someone who went to an expensive private school for undergrad before joining them in graduate school.
Finally, realize that a lot of private colleges automatically reject all AP and CLEP credits, forcing the students to sign up for their own classes and pay full course tuition. This can be a pretty big drawback, especially if you’ve amassed a large number of credits through AP and CLEP.
Choosing a college to go to is a very charged issue. In some circles, it’s a matter of social standing that a person went to a certain institution or that a parents’s children go to a certain institution. Remember to keep that investor’s mindset when making your decision. Be calm, cool, and detached so that your decision is completely objective and not swayed by emotions. Choose a college first and foremost where you feel your iman will be safe. After that, choose the one which will allow you to avoid riba. Finally, if those two things are equal, choose the one which will be best for your career.
In our next article, we’ll insha’Allah talk about choosing your major In the meantime, if you haven’t read the previous articles in this series, check it out here: