Choosing a college is a big decision—one that encompasses your values and your future goals. College is where critical reasoning and life skills are developed, career paths are forged, and lifelong friendships are established. It’s also a big financial decision—one that could lead to a good return on investment or, in terms of student loan debt, potentially a long-term struggle. As such, students and families will want to approach the college decision in as level-headed a manner as possible, reducing emotion to focus on rational decision-making.
The truth is that many schools around the country can offer a quality education at an affordable price. What kind of education you will get and how much it costs will be different for every family. As you build the list of schools you will apply to, don’t try to find the perfect match. Instead, give yourself a few choices as a buffer.
The experts at Big Future recommend the following set up when applying to college: one to two safety schools, two to four “good matches”, and one to two “reaches”. (Notice the words “perfect” or “ideal” are nowhere to be seen!) If you give yourself a variety of suitable options for your college experience, you’ll remove a lot of self-imposed pressure.
At Edmit we believe you should have a balanced list from a financial perspective. Your list should include schools where you know the cost will be affordable as well as colleges which could be a financial stretch (for example, expensive schools were you think you could qualify for some scholarships but it’s not guaranteed). To make that affordability within reach, high school students (or parents of a soon-to-be-in-college dependent child) need to take the entire financial aid package into account, including how to determine a college’s net price, student loans, grants and scholarships, and tuition discounts. Make sure you can say “yes” at the end of the process!
That College “Fit”
Martha O’Connell, director of Colleges that Change Lives, an organization that helps high school students find good college matches, says the most important factor in choosing the right college is fit. Determining fit requires careful research of a school’s offerings and on-campus experience, alongside consideration of your own values and long-term goals.
When considering fit, do a deep dive into the academics and student life of the colleges and universities that interest you. Ask the admissions office to connect you with potential school ambassadors, and reach out via email or video chat. Take a tour of campus, and ask both staff and student guides as many questions as you can. Speak to current students and alumni about their experiences, especially those in the academic department you may major in. See if there are programs for prospective students to spend a night on campus, sit in on a class (or several), and have a meal at a dining hall, all in the service of getting a sense of campus life. Do these experiences appeal to you? Can you envision yourself at this school, as part of the student body?
Don’t focus on college rankings, where your friends may be going to college, or other distractions. Always remember: You have to attend the school, and you have to do the work.
What Does It Really Cost to Go to College?
Higher education can pay dividends in terms of building a good career, having increased earning potential, and fostering overall life satisfaction, but the cost of getting a college degree can also mean years of student loan payments. So when it comes to understanding what a given college costs, it’s important to understand exactly what makes up the bill—and how to keep that cost manageable to limit student debt.
Here’s what to tally up when determining the true cost of college.
Tuition is what colleges and universities charge for instruction, including classes, seminars, and workshops. At many colleges, tuition is broken down by credit—for example, a three-credit undergraduate course—with a specific fee per credit. If you know the cost of one credit, and you plan on taking 15 credits per semester, you’ll be able to calculate your tuition cost for a given semester or academic calendar year (e.g., cost of one credit x 15). Some colleges may charge a flat tuition rate per semester or academic year, covering a range of credits (e.g., 12 to 18). If this is the case, crunch the numbers to see what the tuition price would be for the low, median, and high range of credits—and if you have the stamina, calculate the maximum amount of credits you could take to get the most for your tuition money.
Public College—In-State Tuition
In-state tuition refers to the tuition cost for a student who is a resident of the same state as the public college they plan to attend. For example, a high school senior living in Milton, Pennsylvania, would pay in-state tuition at Penn State University. In-state tuition is typically cheaper than out-of-state tuition.
Public College—Out-of-State Tuition
Out-of-state tuition refers to the tuition cost for a student who does not live in the same state as the public college they attend. For example, a high school senior living in New York City would pay out-of-state tuition at Penn State University. Out-of-state tuition is typically more expensive than in-state tuition.
Private College Tuition
Private college tuition is the cost private colleges charge for teaching and instruction. Tuition at private colleges and universities can be charged by credit or by a flat rate.
Room and Board
If you’re planning to live on campus for some or all of your time at college, you’ll need to calculate fees for room and board.
Look at which dorm options are available to you—it may vary by year, area of study, and/or gender (e.g., a single-gender floor or building). Based on what you can request, are there price variations, or are dorms covered by a flat rate? If you decide to live off campus, make sure to calculate anticipated monthly living expenses, such as the cost of rent, utilities, parking, and the like.You may be able to save money by living in a group house, shared apartment, or room rental.
If you live on campus, you may be required to purchase a meal plan. Compare the meal plan options to see which fits best with your lifestyle, food budget, and living arrangement. If you have access to a kitchen and food storage facilities on your dormitory floor or in an on-campus suite, will you need the most robust meal plan available? If you’re living off campus and have your own kitchen, will you need a meal plan at all?
“The parade of fees on college campuses never seems to end,” says Rochelle Sharpe of the New York Times. Fees are sometimes rolled into tuition, they can be mandatory or supplementary, and they can include anything from orientation fees to fees to drop a class.
Each school will have its own fee structure, so be sure to delve into the fine print to understand the fees charged at the colleges that interest you, so you don’t have any surprises later. Reach out to your college admissions or enrollment office for a full picture of which fees will be added to your bill. Compare those ancillary fees across the colleges you’re considering to get the true cost of attendance.
Many colleges charge a fee to apply. As you are researching schools and building your list, check how much it costs to apply to each school and whether you can apply for a fee-waiver, and consider your application budget.
College Textbooks and Supplies
College textbooks and supplies (from pencils to laptops) are a necessary part of any college education, and they’re not cheap! According to the National Association of College Stores, the average textbook for the 2015-16 year cost $80 new and $51 used; for the 2016-17 year, students paid an average of $579 for school supplies. While these averages cover a wide variety of students and college majors, they’re still a good benchmark for your own textbook budget.
Once you arrive on campus, you’ll be encouraged to get involved and take advantage of the many campus life activities. Extracurriculars could include on-campus clubs, intramural sports, and pledging a fraternity or sorority. While it’s great to sign up and be active in the campus community, be sure to do your due diligence—does participating in those clubs and activities come with fees? If so, how much will they be for the semester and/or year?
If extracurricular fees do apply (and they most likely will), find out if there are ways to offset the costs: Get in touch with the leaders of the groups that interest you to first see what you’ll be expected to contribute, then find out if any financial aid options can apply.
Many high school students want to know the secret to a successful college application. Will you get a competitive edge from a well-written essay? A stellar interview with a college admissions counselor? A glowing recommendation letter? Or are those all secondary to a top-of-the-class GPA, impressive test scores, and a wide variety of extracurricular activities?
The answer is all of the above...and a few unknowns (to students, that is). Don’t get us wrong: A student’s GPA and test scores, extracurriculars, and college application essay are incredibly important in getting accepted. But beyond those parts of the college application process, many factors that influence whether a student gets accepted remain mysterious to students and parents. Given that the college application process can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful, the more you know in advance, the better you’ll be able to target colleges and universities that will be a good fit, from both an educational and financial perspective.
How Do College Admissions Officers Decide Who Gets Accepted?
State schools with huge athletic programs, small liberal arts colleges, internationally renowned conservatories—no two colleges will have identical admissions processes. In addition to a student’s academics, extracurriculars, application essay, recommendation letters, and thank-you letter, admissions counselors look at their own college itself, considering enrollment projections, student body diversity, faculty and course curriculum volume, and recruitment goals. Each factor will be unique to a given college or university—and each unique student application will be weighed in this context.
According to Peterson’s, when a student’s college application is submitted, it typically goes through a pre-screening process to eliminate applicants who have not met minimum institutional standards. Standards are usually based on test scores, GPA, enrollment quotas, and other predetermined criteria. Student applications that move forward then go to committee, where college admissions counselors read applications and determine who gets accepted or rejected. High-performing or “good fit” students may go straight to a director of admission for acceptance, whereas some applicants (if there are split verdicts) may go through several rounds of evaluation among the admissions team, according to CollegeData.
With each student application, college counselors evaluate: Is this a well-rounded student who will be a good fit for our college community? And will this student help the college reach its own admissions, retention, graduation, and alumni goals?
Money and College Admissions
We didn’t need the #varsityblues scandal to teach us that money plays a role in college admissions. Here are some considerations.
Need-Blind vs Need-Aware Colleges
“Need-blind” and “need-aware” are different financial aid admissions policies. The terms refer to whether the college considers a student’s ability to pay for college when making admissions decisions.
As the name indicates, need-blind admissions policies do not take into account a student’s socioeconomic status. On the other hand, need aware admissions policies do factor a student’s ability to pay for college into admissions decisions.
At first glance, it seems that need-blind admissions policies are better than need aware policies. Not taking into account a family’s need to pay is a good thing, right? Like all things higher ed, however, it’s not so simple. It depends whether the school “meets full demonstrated need.” While many need-blind schools will proudly advertise their admissions policies on their website, they may not guarantee to meet admitted students’ full demonstrated need.
There’s more to a financial aid package than a school’s admissions policy. Even if a school is not need blind or doesn’t pledge to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need, you could still receive a decent financial aid package.
How To Know if a School Has Generous Financial Aid programs
Do your research
Research historical information about the financial aid of the colleges on your list. The key questions to ask:
Use Net Price Calculators
At this point, you may be getting overwhelmed with all the factors contributing to the true cost of college. Thankfully, online tools can help simplify the research process. Each school has a net price calculator, factoring in average tuition, room and board, fees, and financial aid awards, so you can get an estimate of what you can expect to pay at a given school. Net price calculators have their pros and cons, but they can be an important first step to understanding a price benchmark for the colleges and universities that interest you.
Use Edmit :)
Our Edstimate(R) is an estimate of the price you’ll pay for a given college, taking all of the above data into account.
How a School’s Financial Situation Impacts Admissions
A student’s application and financial situation aren’t the only deciding factor in college admissions—admissions officers also consider a school’s enrollment and financial status.
All colleges have enrollment goals; when a school doesn’t have enough incoming students to meet its enrollment goal, that school is underenrolled. Lower birth rates, an improving economy, and the rising cost of higher education can all lead to underenrollment. As Edmit co-founders Nick Ducoff and Sabrina Manville said in a conversation with the Boston Globe, “many good colleges are scrambling to fill seats in their freshman classes.” Underenrollment can be a positive thing. It often leads to increased recruitment efforts—and more bargaining power for student applicants—especially at tuition-dependent colleges.
What are Tuition-Dependent Colleges?
A tuition-dependent college brings in most of its income through tuition, rather than through federal or state subsidies or private endowments. When a college is underenrolled, less tuition money is coming in. Keeping enrollment high becomes integral to keeping the college or university in business.
Underenrollment can impact a school’s cost. When a school receives less funding—whether it be from the state or federal government, or from private donations——tuition becomes more important to keeping the college running. As a result, the college might raise the price of tuition - but it also might be more interested in giving you a small scholarship if you .
So how do you identify if a tuition-dependent college is on shaky footing? While specific data may be slim, you can still get an overall idea of the financial health of the colleges that interest you: Start with the Institute of Higher Education, which compiles a list of “risky colleges” (e.g., institutions of higher education where the federal government has concerns over its financial standing). Forbes also calculates an annual financial grade report, based on aggregated US Department of Education and school reporting data. Check both reports to see if your potential college is in good financial standing.
If you’d like to receive free money for college, it all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Financial aid offices at colleges and universities—from community colleges to Ivy League schools—use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid, including student loans, grants, scholarships, and federal work-study programs. A completed FAFSA form sets the groundwork for a student’s financial aid package, and it is used to determine the expected family contribution and need-based aid at any given school.
Even if you think you make too much money for financial aid, you should still take the time to complete the FAFSA (and, if your potential school requires it, the CSS/PROFILE). According to a recent Discover Loans survey, only 45 percent of parents filled out the FAFSA—even though 74 percent of that same group were worried about having enough money to help their students pay for college.
Where Do I Get a FAFSA Form?
You can find the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov—this is the official site, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Remember, students: The FAFSA is always free to complete and submit. If you find yourself on a copycat site, or a site offering assistance to complete and file the FAFSA for a fee, step away! You should never have to pay to fill out the FAFSA.
What Documents Do I Need to File the FAFSA?
First things first—register for a FSA ID on the Federal Student Aid website. This ID enables you to apply for federal financial aid, and it can also serve as a legal signature. Parents and students should each apply for their own FSA ID.
You’ll also need the federal school codes for each school you’re planning to apply to; each code can be located on the Federal Student Aid—School Codes site.
Once your FSA IDs are established and you’ve located the federal school codes, gather the following information:
Students, if you live in a single-parent household and have for the duration of the previous year, only your custodial parent needs to complete the FAFSA.
Can I fill out the FAFSA without a tax return?
Technically, yes: You can estimate your current year totals based on the previous year’s tax return, and then update the FAFSA once you’ve filed your most recent tax return. If you didn’t file a federal tax return at all, you can complete the FAFSA using the parents’ W-2 and 1099 statements and/or their last pay stub of the given year.
When Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?
Get your calendar reminders ready! You’ll need to consider the following deadlines when filling out the FAFSA:
When it comes to filing the FAFSA, early applicants may get more money: A 2015 Edvisors.com survey showed that students who filed within the first three months FAFSA forms were accepted received double the financial aid package compared to those students who waited.
However, filing when your need is demonstrated to be greatest could also result in a good financial aid package for your student. This strategy requires a tailored approach, weighing factors such as location (e.g., does first-come, first-served apply in your state or not?), as well as how both current and projected debt and assets will impact expected family contribution. Use these factors to determine your optimal time to file the FAFSA. (If you do take this approach, just make sure your highest-need date also falls within the specific federal, state, and school FAFSA deadlines!)
What’s My Expected Family Contribution?
When it comes to determining your expected family contribution (EFC), each student will be different—and the amount will vary by school (given that each college will have a different net price and financial aid award).
The federal government uses the information in the FAFSA to calculate an EFC number, which designates the student’s eligibility for federal student aid. Colleges then subtract the EFC number from the college’s cost of attendance in order to calculate federal financial aid awards, including federal Pell Grants, subsidized Stafford Loans, federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, federal Perkins Loans, and federal work-study. If applicable, college financial aid administrators may also use the student’s EFC number to determine any tuition discounts and school-based financial aid awards (such as college-specific grants and departmental scholarships).
If you’d like to get a sense of what your expected family contribution will be, many online calculators can help you get an estimate (here is the government’s official calculator). While these are not final calculations, they may give you a good baseline when preparing your college budget.
How Long Does It Take to Get FAFSA Money?
The FAFSA is just a form; now it’s up to the colleges to use it to determine how much aid you’ll get. You’ve sent in the completed FAFSA form well before the deadlines and got your Student Aid Report stating everything was received, no updates needed. After filing the FAFSA, you’ve notified the colleges you’ve applied to that you want to be considered for financial aid, and completed any additional school-specific requirements and applications. Now, the waiting game begins: Most schools send financial aid award letters to students along with college acceptance letters or shortly after, so you may have a few months’ lag time between submitting the FAFSA and receiving your actual financial aid awards.
Once your financial aid packages have arrived, compare your offers to determine net prices and learn which college is your best financial fit. Look at the percentage of student loans compared to grants, scholarships, and federal work-study program money. Look at your expected family contribution at each school. Consider income, net price, and potential awards over the coming four years (or the total time you estimate to get your degree).
Don’t forget to keep good records and get a jump on next year. Once you’ve enrolled at college, you’ll be expected to submit a FAFSA for every year you’d like to receive financial aid. Luckily, returning students can file the FAFSA Renewal form, which builds off your previous FAFSA history.
>>MORE: All About the FAFSA
The CSS Profile, which was created by the College Board, is a much more robust application than the FAFSA, and it allows the colleges that accept it to take a more detailed look into your family’s finances. The FAFSA is based on a federal formula and always dictates how much government financial aid a student is eligible for. But when a school requires the CSS Profile, it uses the additional information to determine whether a student is eligible to receive private aid dollars from that university.
Although only about 200 colleges require that students complete the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA, the majority of those schools are among the most selective. An additional 200 or so accept it as an optional inclusion.
What Is the CSS Profile and How Does It Work?
Whereas the FAFSA formula is one-size-fits-all and results in an expected family contribution, or EFC, the CSS Profile is more like a survey. It gathers data from students and families, and then colleges use their own calculations to determine a student’s need for private aid from that institution. The amount can vary drastically from school to school. Every college or university emphasizes different categories on the CSS Profile, and the custom questions can greatly impact your financial aid package.
This is why colleges requiring the CSS Profile say they use the “Institutional Methodology,” whereas the FAFSA operates on the “Federal Methodology.” While your FAFSA application is viewed with a set formula in mind, without much room for flexibility or reconsideration, the CSS Profile is more comprehensive—and more factors mean more complexity and a wider range of results.
Why the CSS Profile?
The CSS Profile provides colleges with a much more thorough and accurate picture of a family’s true financial background than the FAFSA does. The CSS Profile uses some of the same tactics that the FAFSA does, but the ways in which they differ can make all the difference, amounting to thousands of dollars in additional financial aid. The CSS Profile requires not only the past two years of tax filings, but also the current year estimate, while the FAFSA only requires the last 2 years of returns. You will also be asked to estimate your future income.
The CSS Profile is also substantially longer the FAFSA application and can take over two hours to complete due to the volume of factors considered, so make sure you budget the time to complete it thoroughly. The CSS Profile has a $25 fee attached, as well as an additional $16 fee for every school it is sent to, although a limited number of fee waivers are available. In comparison, the FAFSA application is free to complete and submit.
In order to complete your CSS Profile application, you will need the following information and documents:
How Does the CSS Profile View Assets and Income?
The CSS Profile considers a longer list of assets than the FAFSA when evaluating your financial need. For example, the FAFSA does not ask for any assets owned by your grandparents, aunts, or siblings, but those assets may be requested when completing the CSS Profile.
Every institution considers the CSS Profile differently, and different aspects may be weighted according to the individual policies of that college. For example, while the CSS Profiles requires students to record any retirement assets, most financial services departments at schools don’t consider it in their final review. The CSS Profile will also adjust and customize certain questions based on responses you have given in your preliminary registration, giving you the ability to tailor your responses and provide additional information.
When it comes to income, the CSS Profile considers both the money you have and the expenses your family is responsible for. If you have a sickly parent who requires expensive medical care, for example, or siblings who attend private school, these expenses are taken into consideration.
According to the Pew Research Center, getting a college education “is a good deal for graduates on almost any measure—from higher earnings to lower unemployment rates.” However, it may take a while to see the return on investment for a college degree: Research from the College Board shows it typically takes 12 years for a college degree to pay off, meaning that by your early to mid-thirties, you’ll have earned enough to recoup what you paid for your college degree and the lost income for the years you were out of the workforce while studying.
While the return on investment data for four-year college graduates is favorable, the value of a college education also encompasses many subjective and unique factors, specific to you as a potential student and your unique education and career goals. These factors include academic quality, covering specific academic departments, curriculum, faculty, and research facilities; financial aid packages, including scholarships, grants, and discounts; campus culture and student body, considering diversity, extracurriculars, and town-gown relations; and internship and work-study programs, encompassing opportunities for hands-on experience, career training, and professional development.
Consider these factors as you narrow down your list of schools you will apply to, and also research the data for post-graduate success to determine the potential value of a given school. Consider on-time graduation rates, hiring rates, starting salaries after graduation, and active alumni networks, both for the college or university itself and its specific academic departments.
Your insights, coupling general higher education data with the specifics of what you’re looking for from your college experience, will enable you to personally answer: What is college worth?
What Should I Major In?
What major you choose depends on your values and goals, the specifics of your college or university, and your career plans after graduation. Which classes do you find most engaging? Which majors have a strong post-graduation hiring rate? What do you hope to earn? Where do you hope to live—and which industries/careers are strong in that given region?
The only certainty is that you don’t have to decide right away. Take your first year or two at college to research as many academic tracks and career paths as you can, and do some soul searching at the same time. Ideally, you’ll find a major that meets your academic, career, and personal goals.
Which College Degrees are Most In Demand?
If your top goal is getting hired after graduation, take some time to look at the majors and degrees that are most valuable to employers. You’ll want to research hiring projections not just for the current year, but also closer to your expected graduation year. Consider where you want to live and the dominant industries and employers in that region. For example, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle will have job opportunities for graduates with computer science, software engineering, and user experience/design degrees. Los Angeles and New York are ideal cities for graduates with degrees in video production, editing, and broadcast journalism.
See if the colleges you like have opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, career fairs, and/or relevant part-time jobs. The more relevant work experience you can acquire in college, the more value you’ll add to your degree.
What is a Good Salary After College?
As you’re considering colleges, majors, and potential career paths, you may factor starting salary into your decision-making process. When looking at entry-level salaries, consider region, sought-after degrees, and market demand, all of which will impact your earning potential. Payscale puts together an annual college salary report, ranking colleges, universities, and courses of study by future earning potential. The National Association of Colleges and Employers has also followed salary trends for new college graduates through historical survey data collected since 1960. Additionally, Salary.com provides data on average salaries, searchable by job title, region, and industry.
Finally, it’s always wise to manage expectations and keep the long view—remember, it may take more than a decade to see that return on investment of your college education.