“Guidelines for Making the Final Choice of a College”

By Peter Van Buskirk

For families of students recently admitted to college, the coming weeks are critical to the final choice of a college. With a May 1 enrollment deadline looming, important decisions must be made. After months, if not years, of researching options and “shopping” for the best “fit,” it is time to determine which opportunity represents the best investment. It is also a time when the cost of attending comes more sharply into focus. Given what is at stake, you might consider the following guidelines as you engage in a cost/benefit analysis of your college options.

1. Ask important questions. “Why am I going to college?” The answer might seem like a forgone conclusion at this point, but articulating it again can add clarity at a time when other factors may be clouding your vision. “What do I expect to get out of my college experience?” Specifically, what are the three things you want to accomplish by the time you graduate from college four years from now? Use these priorities to guide you further in choosing among the colleges that accepted you. Which of them provides the best opportunity to achieve your goals?

2. Take a look at the cost/value proposition. Start by looking at the price tags. What is the comprehensive cost of attendance at each school? If you expect to be a full-time, residential student, this number will include room, board, and related fees—on top of tuition. Be sure to calculate the total for the year if that hasn’t already been done for you.

The total cost, less any scholarship or grant money you have been awarded, represents the adjusted cost that you will need to meet from your own resources (savings, loans, work study). Is the cost of attending a given institution justified by the value that is attached to achieving your educational goals? The question to ask is: “Will my experience as a student and the likely outcomes (earning potential) merit this level of financial exposure to my family?”

I recently heard from a family inquiring about the relative benefits of attending two colleges where the differential in the projected debt burden was $60,000 ($100,000 versus $40,000) over four years. My response: “Is the value of the projected educational experience that much different to warrant the added debt?”

N.B. Student debt is a choice you make—it’s not an obligation. That said, reasonable student borrowing ($25,000-$30,000 over four years) is a healthy way of promoting accountability and responsibility on the part of the young person.

3. Be discriminating in your evaluation of financial aid award letters. Some colleges might present seemingly generous “packages” that are much less robust when you subtract the amount of self-help (loans, work study) you will need to assume. It is important that you compare the actual EFC (Expected Family Contribution) for each institution.

Ideally, each college would arrive at the same EFC and respond to you with the same financial aid. That is not likely to be the case, though, because schools work with different formulas for need analysis and pricing scenarios.

For example, you might receive substantial assistance at a high-priced private college but not be eligible for much assistance at a lower priced state-supported university. Or two private institutions that appear similar might provide financial aid awards that are very different in terms of the amount your family is expected to contribute as well as the composition (scholarship, loan) of the awards themselves. Remember, each institution will direct its resources toward the students it values most.

4. Get clarity regarding the numbers! If you are confused by the contents of your financial aid letter or you see dramatic discrepancies between awards received from different schools, now is the time to seek clarification. While financial aid officers are not inclined to negotiate financial aid awards, they are usually willing to hear appeals based on new information. A few will even offer to match the offer of a competitor. There are no guarantees associated with the appeal process, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Note to Parents: Most successful appeals are driven by data, not emotions. If you initiate an appeal, remember that you are seeking clarity and fair treatment. You cannot, however, expect or even insist that your student is entitled to anything more or less.

5. Consider the cost/value proposition. Look at each college option within the context of what you are getting in exchange for your investment of time and money. Be careful not to confuse the prestige or ranking of an institution with the strength of the academic opportunity you are seeking. Your success in life beyond college will hinge much more on how you take advantage of your undergraduate experience than on the name of the institution you choose to attend.

Again, stick to your priorities. If you have been diligent about searching out a learning environment that fits you well—a program that meets your needs, style of instruction that is consistent with the way you like to learn and a degree of rigor that is commensurate with your ability and preparation—you will find the best educational investment values for you.

Additional tips for assessing value among your college options:

  • If you have been offered a merit scholarship, make sure you are clear about the criteria for renewing it after your first year.
  • Find out how each institution will apply the credit associated with any community-based scholarships you might receive to your cost of attendance. Some colleges will reduce the amount of scholarship they are offering; others will reduce the amount of self-help (loan, work-study) in your financial aid award.
  • Ask for a review of your potential college credits (AP, IB, courses taken on college campuses) as collectively they have the potential to reduce graduation requirements and, as a result, your out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Determine the likelihood that you will be able to complete your degree requirements in four years. Ask to see data on graduation rates and post-graduate placements.




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