In the process of how to choose a college, you’ve taken care to find schools in the right location, with the right major, proper extracurriculars, and other factors that signify a good fit.
But what about affording it all? Too often the financial piece of the puzzle blindsides those who don’t anticipate the enormous costs. You can be shocked both by cost differences between schools, and the difference between the price and what you thought you’d pay.
As you consider the whittled-down list of two or three colleges, there can be a dramatic range in the cost of attendance.
While this is a time of heightened emotion for all involved, there are concrete ways to look at how to choose a college in an effort to answer the burning question: is the more expensive college is worth it?
Does Your College Affect Your Earnings?
One way to compare schools is to look at projected income. How does the cost of attendance compare to estimated salary? College is an investment, and there are ways to research the return on that investment.
This tool created by U.S. News and World Report helps you compare projected income between schools. Parchment also provides a lot of data for comparing colleges. You can even place them head-to-head and see which one students prefer!
The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop can help you compare the standards of living associated with the earning potential of your chosen field. This can be vital in determining how to choose a college.
How to Choose a College: 4-Year Graduation Rate
One data point to pay particular attention to is the 4-year graduation rate for each school. A less-expensive college can become the more expensive choice if a student can’t graduate in 4 years.
This can happen if a student changes major, needs courses the school only offers in one semester or every other year or otherwise can’t take required courses in a 4-year span.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Pay attention to retention and transfer rates, too. Many students who transfer colleges find themselves behind at a new school if credits don’t transfer with them.
Job Placement and Internships
Another consideration for how to choose a college centers on career placement and internships.
What is the proximity of the school to these opportunities? How strong is the school’s career center?
Research the strength of the alumni/ae network on LinkedIn and social media. What are the accessible career paths of the graduates in your degree program?
You can glean great information from how connected the graduates are to each other. Your student’s classmates will become their lifelong network; take care in choosing people.
Two resources I like to consult are The Princeton Review’s “Colleges That Create Futures: 50 Schools That Launch Careers By Going Beyond the Classroom” and “Colleges That Pay You Back.” Are any of the schools you’re considering on these lists?
Look at the Full Cost of a College
The college award letter includes tuition, room and board, and some expenses. This is by no means an exhaustive list of expenses. Others may include:
- A major that may have additional expenses.
- Travel expenses, which can add up very quickly.
- An Apple MacBook Air costs $2,000. (I was pleasantly surprised when my son was provided a laptop freshmen year!)
- Uber: because you’re going to pay a heavy price for that peace of mind.
- Meals not covered by the meal plan. College in the city? This is going to add up.
- Significant Greek life expenses.
- Activity fees, which can vary significantly between colleges
These “unlisted costs” can be a major factor in how to choose a college. They are not usually outlined by the schools and can come up as a huge (and NOT good) surprise when your child is already in attendance. And by that time, it will be too late to change things.
Transfer Credits & AP Classes
If your student took Advanced Placement (APⓇ) or dual enrollment courses, know which credits each college will accept. This can have a significant impact on the cost of college because credits earned can mean an early graduation.
The opportunities to earn college credits in high school are increasing dramatically. Every year, I have at least a dozen students going to college with enough credits to be considered sophomores.
Colleges typically have a page on their websites regarding the transfer and acceptance of credits. If you can’t find the information, call the admissions office. When your senior graduates, they will need to have transcripts sent from the colleges at which they earned credit.
Reconsideration of Financial Aid
Are you disappointed with the amount of merit or financial aid received? You can ask for special consideration. Have you had a significant change in financial circumstances, or is there an extenuating circumstance that was unaddressed? Consider whether it’s a good time to write a financial aid appeal.
If you ask for a review, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples with your colleges; you can’t approach a public university asking for them to match a private college’s merit offer. Ivy league schools, incidentally, don’t offer any merit aid.
If you have had a significant improvement in grades or test scores, ask if you can send an updated report to colleges for consideration. Some colleges will consider a competing offer. Don’t be shy – if you don’t ask, the answer is always no.
If you are looking for colleges that will be more generous with their money, check out the College Insights tool. It will provide you with a list of schools based on your student’s stats and preferences.
Does a More Expensive College Equal Best Future Salary?
If you think that the seductively prestigious, expensive college will lead to an automatic salary bump, consider this from an Atlantic Monthly article entitled Who Needs Harvard?:
“The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question, and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life. Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale…studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, “moderately selective” school.
“It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income ‘varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.’ In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.”It was Krueger who famously wrote, “that you go to college is more important than where you go.
Make Your Investment Wisely
You’re about to make an investment the size of a mortgage. Is the cost of an expensive private college worth it? Only you can make that determination as you decide how to choose a college.
Financial fit is only one component in selecting a great college; it is, however, a significant concern to the vast majority of us.
In my experience, I can say with certainty that it is not worth it to get a second mortgage on your house, take money out of retirement, or saddle a young adult with crushing debt.
A general rule of thumb is that total debt should not exceed the projected salary for the first year out of school. The CollegeBoard report “How Much Debt Is Too Much” suggests that students should not devote more than 8 percent of their gross income to repayment of student loans.
Your child is going to be who they are wherever they go. They’re going to make their own luck, develop their character, and make a difference at whichever school is lucky enough to have them.
Before you make a decision to choose a college and celebrate it by purchasing the sweatshirt, do some homework on what the return may be on your significant college investment. Then, download the Uber app and breathe a sigh of relief
Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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