How to Choose a College: Making Sense of Price

how to choose a college

How to Choose a College: Making Sense of Price

Published March 23, 2021 | Last Updated March 27th, 2024 at 04:24 pm

how to choose a college

The question of how to choose a college is one without simple answers. While some schools may be more well-regarded or glamorous than others, which one is best has far more to do with the student than the institution.

It is generally wise to set aside college rankings and begin by encouraging your student to consider what exactly they want, in college and beyond. 

What Do I Want in a College?

A college is far more than a learning environment; it is also a social environment, a place to forge personal and professional connections, and a backdrop of sights and sounds your student will encounter on a near-daily basis.

As such, it is oftentimes best to look beyond a school’s carefully curated brand. Encourage your student to avoid expending too much energy on a single dream school and to think more holistically about their needs and interests.

What do they want their life to look and feel like in five years? In ten? How much debt are they comfortable taking on and how much are you willing to help them pay off?

Beginning with a plan and  then asking “does this college fit?” will likely guide your student to a better choice than allowing glossy promotional materials to take the lead.

How to Choose a College After Being Accepted

Choosing a college is rarely easy, but it is significantly less difficult for those who begin with a strong sense of their priorities. Working with your student to rank the qualities they find important in a college is a great place to start.

Financial aid is likely to land near the top of the list for many families, but there are plenty of other factors to consider.

Carefully examine the individual departments your student might attend courses in; how large are they and what resources do they have at their disposal?

A small department will likely provide a more intimate experience, but may also struggle to offer every course on a regular basis. 

In a larger department, though, your student may have to compete for enrollment in required courses with their peers. Your student should also consider the diversity of majors offered at a given college.

Many students graduate from a different department than the one they began in, so it pays to have plenty of backup options. Other good points of comparison include campus career centers, internship and study-abroad opportunities, and credit transfer policies.

Encourage your student not to dwell on the schools that rejected or waitlisted them; this process will proceed most smoothly for those who can keep an open mind and consider the options they do have to the fullest extent. 

Why Do Some Colleges Cost More Than Others?

As your student explores the colleges on hand, you are likely to come across at least one with a price tag that makes you balk. How can one institution cost so much more than another?

The truest answer is demand, which itself derives from a college’s perceived quality and prestige. A private college located in a major city, with eye-catching architecture and numerous esteemed graduates is likely to command a higher price than a public or state school located in an isolated farming community. In many cases, location, networking opportunities, and lifestyle factors play a greater role in college pricing than education itself.

Be careful not to let a steep cost of attendance—sometimes referred to as “sticker price”—put you off, though. 

Depending upon your family’s financial need, a private college may actually have a lower out-of-pocket cost than a public one.

Financial aid will not cover every single expense, though, and some of the ingredients that make for an expensive school—high living costs in an urban area, for instance—will remain in the mix.

Make sure you’re budgeting factors in transportation, off-campus rent, and other variables that neither your family nor the university is liable to have much influence over.

Is It Worth Going to a More Expensive College?

As discussed, an “expensive” college may ultimately turn out to be quite affordable if your family’s financial need or your child’s merit scholarships are significant enough—but when is a school that remains expensive after these considerations worth it?

Examining how a given college’s cost of attendance (and/or net price) compares to the projected income of its graduates can provide some guidance, but in many cases, financial attainment has more to do with the student than the institution

For some majors, though, brand recognition is of considerable value; if your student plans to major in business, education, or social science they may benefit from factoring in an institution’s relative prestige.

In any case, your student should be careful not to let a school’s brand do their thinking for them; choosing a school by name alone is unlikely to result in a choice that suits either their preferences or their finances. 

Should I Choose the Cheaper College?

A college’s sticker price does not always match the price that students and their families pay. Make a habit of checking the four-year graduation rate of the schools you visit.

A “cheap” school whose students regularly take longer than four years to graduate (oftentimes due to volatile course catalogs or other institutional shortcomings) may turn out to be far more expensive than its initial price tag would suggest.

Low demand and brand recognition should not, however, be used to eliminate an option that would serve your student well. If your student’s field of study is associated with more modest incomes or unstable employment, they should strongly consider colleges that will leave them with a low debt burden.

How Do You Choose a College That’s Right for You?

There are no shortcuts to choosing the right college. In addition to planning ahead and staying organized, your student should try to learn as much about their options as they can.

Encourage them to visit their favorite schools more than once and prepare for their interactions with admissions specialists.

They will get the most out of these interviews if they go in with a list of questions tailored to their own concerns, avoiding queries with easy answers found on a website or in an orientation pamphlet. 

In addition to making full use of the standard avenues (tours, discussion panels, meet and greets with attending students, etc.) your student should consider seeking out recent graduates and older alumni on social media, or even Q&A sites like Quora; these forums provide an excellent resource for those seeking honest answers without a PR or marketing filter.

Finally, encourage your student to listen to their feelings.

After weeks or months of carefully balancing internship opportunities and financial aid packages, when options begin to blur, it is sometimes a gut reaction that provides the most valuable input.


Use R2C 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.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

7 Costly Mistakes About Paying for College

Avoid Loans with These College Cost-Cutting Tips

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back




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