Is Your College List Balanced with Financial Safety, Match, and Reach Schools?

Financial Balance

Is Your College List Balanced with Financial Safety, Match, and Reach Schools?

Published October 15, 2018 | Last Updated September 7th, 2023 at 10:38 am

Financial Balance

Is creating a college list driving you crazy?

You’ve done the college visits. You’ve seen the rankings. You’ve even looked into degree programs and talked to your child’s high school guidance counselor.

You may even have it categorized into schools that are easy for your student to get admitted to, those that are a “good fit,” and those that are unlikely – but still possible.

However, our question for you is – is your college list financially balanced? Do you have a mix of financial safety, match, and reach schools?

Kellie, a parent from our Paying For College 101Facebook group is going through the college admissions process for the second time. The first time was with her daughter, a National Merit Finalist.

Having the recognition of being a National Merit Finalist, Kellie’s daughter was able to find schools the family could more easily afford, mainly because she was able to qualify for full-ride scholarships at certain schools.

As an ACT test prep tutor, Kellie says she’s very passionate about the topic of making sure students have financial safety schools on their college list.

“I work with many students whose parents do not consider or discuss the financials until very late in the process and students can be very disappointed.”

Kellie is also realistic and knew the process would be different with her son, a current high school senior. 

” I explained our financial position (not sharing all numbers but we had a job loss and major changes in financials) and so he was understanding. It is hard because many in our area (wealthier suburbs of MN) are willing to pay for whatever school their students choose (or at least it feels that way to him). He was willing to look at it practically, especially since both his parents are still paying back our own student loans.

We allowed 2 reach financials. Required 2 known financial safeties. And anything in the middle it had to look likely scholarships would make it affordable. If scholarships do not come through, he cannot attend.

We made a total budget allowed. We considered parent contribution, student federal loan, and student work/scholarship total. If a school’s sticker price with scholarships factored in is higher than that budget they are not applying.”

The Traditional College List Focus

Most families focus on finding schools that are based on academic fit and match. If affordability comes into the equation at all, it’s usually after acceptances come in.

Unfortunately, this can lead to very bad outcomes. We’ve actually seen students who were admitted to several of the schools they applied to – but they couldn’t afford ANY of them.

You don’t want your family in that situation! Instead, shift your perspective and think about making sure your college list includes a mix of affordable schools before your student even applies.

If you don’t think about financial balance in the beginning, you won’t have financial options in the end. Your student will be disappointed or your family will be in significant debt.

Part of the research you do needs to involve how much the school will actually cost and whether that’s an attainable number for your family.

Redefining Safety, Match, and Reach Schools

It can be quite a paradigm change to think about finances right away. Most people have safety, match, and reach schools based on how likely their student is to be admitted.

That’s an important consideration, but you can’t afford to leave money out of the equation. Instead of only thinking of admissions, list your student’s possible schools in terms of safety, match, and reach from a financial standpoint.

You can use the net price calculator of each school to find a closer approximation of the real cost of attendance. The more questions the calculator asks, the better – it will be more accurate than those with only a few questions.

Safety schools are colleges that your family can afford with only federal student loans – or even without them – and your student has a high chance of being accepted.

Match schools are those where the net price calculator indicates your student is likely to get merit or other free aid. With that aid, along with only federal student loans, your family can afford to send your student there.

Reach schools are colleges that you know you can’t afford to send your student to, but you’re willing to see if they offer a large amount of merit or need-based aid to make it affordable. Even if your student is awarded merit scholarships or need-based aid, your family may still need a private student loan from a lender like College Ave Student Loans as well. It may be your student’s dream school or a “brand name” school – but they need to understand that if the aid isn’t there, they can’t go!

One of the most important things you can do is not worry about whether the school is “name-brand” or not. If you can treat all schools equally, it widens your financial opportunities

Does a Name-Brand School Matter?

If you don’t pursue name-brand schools, are you hurting your student’s education?

The Power of Brands

A lot of people think that which college or university you attend is a make-or-break moment for a young person. However, there’s an increasing amount of research that shows which school you attend is a lot less important than what opportunities you take advantage of in college.

Yes, there are rankings released every year, but these are aimed at parents – not employers or those who will impact your child’s future. Rankings have become more marketing than a true representation of the quality of a school.

What Really Matters

You want a school that’s the right fit for your student. What really makes a difference is the major your child chooses, the experiences and internships they take advantage of, and how well they prepare themselves for their choice of career.

A study from Stanford found that “Students who, for example, study hard, form strong relationships with professors, and participate in the college community tend to thrive during and after school whether they attended a ‘top-ranked’ institution or not.”

The research that you should focus on isn’t rankings, it’s accreditation, graduation rate, job placement (which may vary by degree program), culture, class size, and percentage of full-time faculty.

Thriving Where You Go

Frank Bruni, the well-known New York Times columnist, and author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,  points out that highly motivated students will thrive no matter where they are planted.

He goes on to list people who went to non-brand-name schools and turned out more than fine, becoming  Fortune 500 executives, Pulitzer Prize winners, and MacArthur Foundation fellows.

At less-elite schools, classes are more likely to be directly taught by full-time faculty. And of course, lower-tier schools are less expensive and often more likely to offer aid.

Talking to Your Student About Finances

A lot of kids get stars in their eyes about their “dream” school, whether it’s the reputation or the fact that their friends are going. They assume that if they work hard they can go to any college they want.

Unfortunately, they need to understand the financial reality too. From federal aid to private student loans from providers like College Ave Student Loans, it’s important to be responsible.

We hear from parents every day who are going through exactly what you’re facing. These parents, in our Facebook Group Paying For College 101, recently shared how they deal with the financial side of making a college list.

One parent makes it simple:

“If we don’t think we can or want to afford it, it doesn’t go on the list. Much like large schools or schools in big cities don’t go on the list. Must meet minimum criteria and cost is one of them.”

 Here’s what one family’s strategy was:

“We have a bottom line… if after merit awards the bottom line is more than XX, then it’s a no go. We are not against loans, but will not take loans in our name and will only cosign up to a predetermined amount. He does not want a lot of debt and we don’t want the relationship issues that often go along with cosigning.”

Find the Right School – For Fit and Finances

As you make your college list, think about not just academics but cost as well. A safety school isn’t a safety if it’s out of reach financially!

Don’t worry about the rankings. Instead, focus on finding the right fit and looking for generous schools. Do careful research – about schools as well as about private student loans or other financial options.

It pays to balance your student’s college list financially.

This post is sponsored by College Ave Student Loans.


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:

College Spreadsheet: The Ultimate Guide to Making, Using, and Organizing Your College List

Merit Scholarships Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tool

Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use It to Find the Right College







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