Picking the right college can seem like an impossible challenge.
After all, there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. There are the big State Schools, the small Liberal Arts Colleges, the Ivy League Universities, and everything in between.
Then, there’s the social pressure of picking a “cool” college. You know the type. The ones with a campus Starbucks, dominant D-1 sports teams, and visiting celebrity professors.
When it comes to choosing a college, there’s a lot of noise students (and their families) need to ignore.
But what should you focus on instead? And how can you make sure you get the highest return on your four-year investment?
Read on for our quick, five-step guide to choosing the right college.
STEP 1: Build Your Shortlist
Give yourself permission to dream.
As you build your college “shortlist”, ignore all of the questions and doubts your rational brain may be raising.
Don’t worry about the “sticker price” of colleges, and if it’s a prestigious school, don’t let their scarily low admission rates ruin your reverie.
Just write down all of the schools that interest you, no matter the reason for their appeal.
If you like the location, write it down. If you love the campus, add it to the list. If you don’t even know why you like the school, but it still remains embedded in your mind, keep it in the conversation.
Your shortlist is your starting point. It’s the blank canvas from which your higher education journey will soon evolve.
As we’ll discuss below, your shortlist will quickly get considerably…shorter.
STEP 2: Cover Your Financial Bases
Now, it’s time to get a little more practical.
College isn’t any old investment. It’s one of the biggest investments in life.
Unfortunately, the “student loan crisis” besieging America has left over 44 million graduates with a total of $1.7 trillion in debt.
That figure is truly the stuff of financial nightmares.
Too many students (and parents) have borrowed more than they could easily repay, and as a result, they have been saddled with nagging loan debt for decades.
Worse yet, many incoming students are neglecting to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which helps make the college investment bearable.
But here’s the good news: being aware of the student loan crisis is half the battle. With such advanced awareness, you can strategize to avoid joining such discouraging statistics.
To that end, make a concerted effort to build a budget.
Know how much you’re comfortable paying out-of-pocket and decide how much you’re willing to borrow.
A tangible budget is an important defense against getting swept away by the emotion and excitement intertwined in the college process. Too often, eager students and eager-to-please parents commit to college investments well beyond their means.
Finally, you’ll need to know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the number each college uses to determine how much financial aid your family would receive if you attended their school.
You can quickly calculate your EFC here.
STEP 3: Prioritize Your Field of Study
“What’s so compelling or advantageous about this particular school?”
This is a question we encourage you to ask about every school on your shortlist.
If you find it difficult to answer the question, strike the school from the list.
Or, if you feel stuck in your assessment of certain colleges or universities, ask yourself this question: “What’s truly unique about the academics at this school?”
In other words, use your intended major — your “Field of Study” — to help winnow down your shortlist.
Despite the social life, the athletics, and yes, the freedom that college provides, it’s vitally important to remember that college is chiefly an opportunity to learn.
It’s the last chance at focused learning before joining the working world.
To that end, use your intended field of study to identify the best faculties and professors you can find.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in education pays the best dividends.”
College is expensive no matter how you slice it, so make sure you’re paying for something truly special.
STEP 4: Know the Outcomes
It’s one thing to look at a school’s marketing materials. Like a finely-edited TV commercial, they’re often slick.
But there’s an even better way to assess the long-term value of a college or university:
look at their outcomes.
Understand what students earn five or ten years after graduating. Look for success stories about graduates who share your interests, skills, or major.
Use the annual Forbes rankings to see how schools stack up, both in terms of average debt upon graduation and the median ten-year salary.
Understand the trends, and know about notable graduates. After all, whichever school you choose, you’ll eventually be part of their alumni.
Make sure you’ll be proud to join that group.
STEP 5: Narrow the Funding Gap
When you settle on your top-choice schools, you’ll have a much more accurate idea of your total financial investment.
You’ll also know that the sticker price of a college isn’t what most people pay. In 2021, for example, the average tuition discount for first-time undergraduates was nearly 54%.
While that’s great news for college-bound families, it highlights the importance of knowing the total net cost of attending each school on your shortlist.
Still, if you find that you have a “funding gap” — i.e. a financial shortfall that prevents you from making ends meet — there are a few strategies to consider.
For one thing, be sure to exhaust all available scholarships. Website aggregators like Unigo streamline over 3.6 million scholarships worth $23 billion, so you can start applying with ease.
Additionally, be sure to explore federal work-study options, which empower students to earn money while fully enrolled in school.
Recent studies found that work-study payouts averaged $1,847.
By working part-time — and on a schedule that doesn’t interfere with school — students can contribute $1,847 per year towards their tuition. Over the course of their four-year degree, that would help reduce their total student loan debt by nearly $7,500.
If work-study sounds appealing, be sure to ask college admissions departments about potential employment opportunities on campus.
While college can be a daunting investment, it’s the launchpad for your child’s financial future.
Start the planning process as early as you can, and if possible, be sure to partner with a financial advisor who can help you reduce the cost of your total investment.
At uLink, we’re dedicated to promoting your financial health — whether supporting your family at home or abroad.
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