Updated September 25, 2023

Selecting the Right College for Your Family’s Finances and Future

Selecting the right college to attend is a big deal for your child and your family. There’s excitement and celebration ahead for this new milestone. And, also lots of financial worry and stress in figuring out how to pay for it all!

School selection is the driving factor in your college costs. With thousands of schools to choose from, comparing colleges and costs can feel like a daunting and complicated task, but it’s a vital one.

Finding the right fit school for your student and your finances can help you avoid the overspending that leads to excessive debt and to seriously jeopardizing your financial health and security long after the college years are over.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to drive down your costs and help make paying for college easier on your bank account.

Here are our top tips on what to look for in comparing colleges and selecting the better fit for your finances.

Zero-in on a Major

Lead off your college search with an academic focus. The choice of major and timing of selecting a major, can impact what you end-up paying for college.

Deciding on a major can be challenging for teenagers who may be confused or overwhelmed by so many choices. In turn, many students delay picking a major or end up changing majors in college. 

However, if your child already has a strong set of interests and aptitudes, you might be able to help them in picking a major or general field of study before applying to colleges. 

If you can get clearer on a choice of major, you can narrow down your college search to schools that offer the major and then further vet those schools by specific academic department.

Instead of only considering schools based on names you already know or based on popularity for other reasons, find and compare schools with quality academic departments for the chosen major.

Schools are not uniformly great across all academic departments, so researching schools by specific department can help you avoid overpaying for a school that is not a good academic fit for your student. This is also an opportunity to get more academic bang for your buck, by not paying more for college than you need to, when there may be less expensive schools out there for the chosen major.

Additionally, costs, as well as financial aid, can vary between departments within a school. 

If you can find a school with a standout department in the right major, that also offers attractive merit aid for that department, you may end up saving thousands of dollars.

For in-depth tips on what to look for in your academic department research, check out this list from The College Solution.

Uncover Merit Aid Opportunities

A top tip for maximizing your college budget is to search for schools that are more generous with merit based financial aid.

Merit aid is offered by schools directly and may be awarded for academics, artistic talent, sports, leadership, community service and more.

While net prices are a good starting point to understanding average financial aid award amounts for a school, if you dig a little deeper, you can find out how generous schools really are.

Research the percentage of students receiving merit-based aid and also the percentage of students without need that are receiving merit awards. Possibly the more students receiving merit aid, the better chance you may have of receiving aid there too. And if a good percentage of students without demonstrated need are receiving merit aid, then a higher family income is not a deterrent to earning aid for that school.

From there, research the average size of merit awards and compare that to the cost of attendance, so you’ll have a better sense of what your costs could be.

For example, if the cost of attendance for a school is $40,000 per year, then when comparing average merit aid awards of $5,000 vs. $21,000, it’s clear that one of these schools is definitely more generous than the other, and can be a real cost saver to your budget in the long run.

Check out resources like College Transitions to find these details. From the main page click the college search link, then add a school name. View the right side of the page for admissions, cost and other important stats.

From there you can view individual schools and build a list of schools to compare.

While no amount of merit aid is guaranteed to you, shaping your school search to include more generous schools is a great way to find a more affordable option for your family.

Don’t Rule Out Private Colleges

If you’re trying to select the right college while sticking to your budget, you might think you need to limit your search to public colleges only, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Sticker prices for public institutions can be considerably lower than for private schools. However, if you select a private school with generous financial aid you could end up with net prices closer to those of a public school. And many private institutions offer financial aid in the form of merit-based aid, which is not tied to your family income.

While some well-known schools garner headlines every year for their high number of student applications and low number of actual acceptances, the majority of schools have to compete to attract more students. Merit aid is a tool for many of those schools to increase their student enrollment by offering to discount a family’s college costs.

Evaluate Retention Rate and 4-Year Graduation Rate

Your college costs could end up being significantly more than you planned for, if your student transfers schools or takes longer to graduate.

So much of the college journey is focused on admissions – getting into college. But, the actual effort to stay with a school and power through to graduation also requires a high level of student commitment and work.

The Retention Rate identifies the percentage of students who return to a school after completing freshman year, they come back for sophomore year. The rate can be a general indication of whether students feel there are enough reasons to return to a school versus not returning and needing to transfer elsewhere. The national average retention rate is 78%.

Transferring schools may interfere with a student graduating on time, if their class credits do not transfer or they need to retake classes, for example. Additionally, you’ll need to update FAFSA in order to receive an updated financial aid award (awards are determined, in part, based on the cost of the school.)

The Graduation Rate identifies the percentage of students that graduate from a school, within a specific number of years, for example in 4,5,6 or 8 years.

Importantly, most students attending 4-year institutions (in 4-year programs) do not graduate in four years.

The average 4-year graduation rate is currently 41%.  (The average 6-year graduation rate is approximately 62%.)

Your student taking longer to graduate will definitely increase your costs, not only due to the extra time in school, but also because there may not be financial aid provided to cover those additional years.

One resource for researching retention and graduation rates is College Results.

Here you can search for specific schools and also compare schools on your list. Once you enter in the name of a school, you will need to go past the first page of results by clicking the ‘Quick Compare’ tab at the top of the page. The next page contains several tabs of valuable information including the 4-year graduation rate and retention rate.

Source: College Results

Of course, students are ultimately responsible for their college success; being better prepared for college, spending more time studying while in college, are key success factors.

However, schools can help or potentially hinder those chances of success as well. Some schools do a better job of retaining students and helping students move ahead to graduate on time.

Research retention rates and 4-year graduation rates to gauge how well the schools on your list are doing. If these metrics are on the lower end, it may be an indication of more systemic issues that impact the broader student population. Before considering such schools, you’ll want to learn more about what’s really going on and get a feel for how, or if, a school is working to overcome any structural obstacles impeding student progress.

Factor in Out-Of-State Fees

If you want to keep costs down, it’s also important to be aware of out-of-state fees. 

Public state schools can be more of a bargain for in-state students. Studying out of state can get expensive fast, with annual, average out-of-state tuition of $26,382 versus $9,212 in state, for the same degree. Besides this, you’ll also need to factor in travel and moving costs. 

One way to combat in-state vs. out-of- state costs, is to explore Regional Exchange Programs, where participating states may offer similar tuition rates regardless of residency.

Compare 2-Year and 4-Year Degree Options

If you want to cut down significantly on costs, you can also look into combining 2-year and 4-year degree options. 

On average, 2-year degrees are more than 60% less expensive than 4-year degrees.

With the “2+2” strategy, after attending a community college for two years, a student then transfers to a 4-year institution to complete their studies and graduate with their bachelor’s degree.

As the first one to two years of studies at 4-year schools includes more general or elective courses as well as completing prerequisites for the major, transferring credits for those general courses can be relatively easy to do, but you’ll want to think ahead and understand credit transfer eligibility for any schools on your list.

Even if students choose not to pursue the 2+2 strategy, the opportunity still exists for earning college credits for less, by earning some while in high school or taking summer classes at community college.

Right Fit, Right Price, Right Choice

Want a better return on your family’s college investment? You’ll need to be more intentional about selecting the right fit school for your student and your finances. Otherwise, runaway college prices may lead you to overspending and massive debt that burdens your future as well as your child’s.

Consider ways to curb your costs before your student ever completes a college application. Choosing the right major, finding more generous schools and focusing on student success factors, are prime ways to make it happen.

Feeling unsure about how to implement these tips to select the right college? Schedule a call with us and make the college journey more affordable and less stressful for your family. 

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