What’s The #1 Thing To Do Before Searching For Colleges?

No Text Financial Aid & College SearchWhen my now college freshman daughter began her college search three years ago, compiling her list felt like hunting for a needle in a haystack. She knew she wanted a liberal arts college and she knew she wanted to go out of state. I had no idea how to help her, and frankly, I was too lazy to research all her criteria with her. It seemed to me it should be her project.


At the same time, I worried how we would afford it, so while she researched pricey colleges, I started reading books on college finance. The information is out there if you hunt it down and read it, but many families don’t have time and don’t know what they don’t know until it’s too late. Suddenly they’re staring at a freakishly high college tuition bill because their child applied where he wanted to go, and nobody had a clue about cost. Thankfully, my research paid off, and my daughter is attending her college of choice and it’s not miring us in debt. But I spent a lot of time reading about college finance. Most people don’t want to spend as much time as I did.


That’s why Road Map to Cutting College Costs is so valuable.

The brutal reality is if the college isn’t a financial fit, it’s no fit at all.

It’s important to have an idea of what a college will cost before your student applies. Created by Debbie Schwartz (road2college.com), the class includes 3 weekly lessons of detailed videos and PowerPoint slideshows to educate you about college cost. With one live webinar plus class materials every week, they teach participants about financial aid terminology, tools you can use to ballpark the cost of a college, as well as how to look for institutional aid, a key secret to affordability. Institutional aid is the need-based aid or merit scholarships offered by the colleges themselves, not the federal financial aid we commonly think of (and which many families don’t qualify for). You’ll learn what kinds of colleges offer this financial aid, and how to use data to find it. It’s the meat of the course.


To get things started, Michelle offers a detailed video presentation of your “expected family contribution” and why it’s so important to know before you start the college search, as well as what “net price calculators” are and how to use them. These two ideas are the bedrock of understanding how to find an affordable college (each family’s finances dictate different kinds of colleges for affordability).


In subsequent lessons, you learn about the complex financial aid landscape of funding (federal, state, institutional, outside scholarships). I particularly appreciated the nuanced explanations of net price and the factors affecting it. If you don’t know what net price means, this class is for you.  


Using Data For Your College Search

Even if you understand college costs well – and I do – the college search itself is still daunting. So I particularly love that Debbies offer a spreadsheet of 1500 4-year institutions (with at least 500 full-time undergraduates) as part of the class resources. You can manipulate the data for all kinds of searches to find lists of colleges that fit your criteria. It’s a fantastic way to start an informed search.


In the webinars, you’ll learn how to use the spreadsheet. If you don’t take the class, you can still purchase the list for $42, but taking the class gives you context for understanding the spreadsheet and how to maximize the data.


Other college elements the class covers:

  • Common FAFSA mistakes.
  • What “gapping” and “frontloading” mean.
  • The importance of graduation rate and how it affects your overall cost.
  • Statistics on taking the community college route.
  • Why hunting private scholarships is time consuming and mostly useless.
  • The different kinds of federal loans as well as the perils of private loans.
  • You’ll also receive a variety of resource lists, including

If you’re not familiar at all with the college search process, you may feel overwhelmed by terminology in the class. Once you start getting comfortable with the material, it will feel easier.


So the most important piece of advice I can give is before searching for colleges, make sure you understand the financial aid process, terminology, and how colleges give out need and merit based aid. And take it from me, you need to understand the concepts so you’re not blindsided at the end of your child’s senior year. I was still in shock when my daughter’s financial aid letters arrived because even though we had done our homework, college is just plain expensive and there’s no getting around it. 


Find out more about our RoadMap To Cutting College Costs online class.



Frequently Asked Financial Aid Questions



Join our Facebook group: Paying For College 101. This group is a forum for families to ask questions related to how they can pay for college. Topics can range from best ways to save for college, the financial aid process, filling out FAFSA, finding affordable schools, EFC, strategies to minimize income, CSS Profile, merit vs. need based aid, student loans, and on and on.

No Question Is Too Silly!!! Ask other members for help and in return share your knowledge and experience.



Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer with a special interest in college finance and the mother of a college freshman and high school sophomore. She plans to use Roadmap’s spreadsheet to help her son in his college search when he gets started. Learn more about her at www.joannanesbit.com and follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.



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