How To Search for a College – Advice For Your College Search

It’s been a busy summer and nearly time for a new school year.  This year, I have a senior who is starting the college search process, so I will be devoting the next few blog posts to what I have learned about searching for a college.  I expect to update these periodically as I learn more first hand about how to search for a college.  I would love to hear your advice in the comments section.

The college search maze

There are more than 4000 colleges in the United States and there are many things to consider when choosing your short list.  Navigating the college admissions maze can seem daunting, but help is available.  You can hire professional financial aid consultants for big bucks, but beware of consultants and scholarship service companies that guarantee results, offer unethical advice, overcharge, or want big, upfront fees.  Check their references on the web, with the Better Business Bureau, and with your school system.  Better college search advice is to consult with your student’s high school guidance counselor, college financial aid officer, library, and of course the internet.  But first, read on as this series of blog posts is intended to make you successful in researching a school, paying for college, getting financial aid, comparing competing aid packages, and saving money while attending college.

Estimate what you will have to pay

We all know that college is hugely expensive, but what we really want to know is how much of that we will have to pay and borrow.  That depends upon the cost of the school, family income and assets, and amount of financial aid you get.  In determining the amount of financial aid you will get, all schools use the same federal formula to first determine your family’s “expected family contribution” (EFC) amount.  The EFC is based upon the parents’ and student’s income, assets, and expenses along with other factors such as parent’s age (and time to retirement) and number of children attending college.  Families are expected to pay this amount from savings, income, or loans.  Schools subtract the EFC from the cost of the college to determine the family’s “need” and use this to determine how much financial aid to offer.  Schools can offer anywhere from nothing to the full amount needed, and financial aid can be any combination of grants, scholarships, work study, and loans.

Thankfully, there are internet calculators to help in your college search.  Start with the general calculators that estimate how much your family is expected to pay and how much financial aid you might qualify for based upon your family income, assets, and size:

Then get more specific estimates about specific colleges, by using the “net price calculator” on most college websites that will estimate what a typical family in your situation may receive, pay, and borrow at that particular school.  These are only rough estimates and the accuracy can vary widely.  The more detailed questions the calculator asks, the better the results are likely to be.  If you choose to provide your contact information, many schools will send you more detailed information aimed at your specific situation.

Search for colleges

Picking a college is unlike any other purchase you’ll make.  Despite the humongous price, you are not looking for a bargain.  You are looking for a school where the student can do well, has good four-year graduation rates, is affordable, and offers a good aid package.  Be realistic about which schools you apply to.  Match your student’s academic achievements and interests, likelihood of getting financial aid, and your finances to the appropriate schools.  Local community colleges, in-state public universities, and private colleges each present a new level of magnitude in costs and, potentially, academic levels.  Within each of these categories, you may have many choices.  The internet has many college search tools to begin your research.  Here are a few to help you pick a college:

Many organizations offer rankings of the best colleges – search “best college rankings”.  Here are a few website that help you search for the best college for you:

These college search tools provide a lot of useful information to help select colleges that are right for your student.  Admittance rates and average test scores can show your student’s chances of getting in and potential academic fit.  Graduations rates can show the school’s success rate.   Average financial aid levels, percentage of students receiving aid, and graduates’ average debt can show how likely you may receive aid and afford the college.  Search to see what percentage of students receive aid at a collage and the average amount they get to narrow down your choices.  Then use the school’s “net price calculator” on their website to get more detailed information for your likely situation at a particular school.  Your student stands a better chance of getting significant financial aid from a college if their grades, SAT/ACT scores, extra-curricular activities, community service, or intended major is attractive to that college.  Consider choosing a school in which your student is likely to rank among the top 25-50% of students.  This not only helps to ensure a student will fit in and do well, but likely will result in the highest merit aid which schools offer to attract the best students.  Use this college navigator to find the range of SAT/ACT scores at a potential college to see where your student would rank.

The good news is that most students do get some type of financial aid, especially lower income families and top-tier students.  Schools may offer four types of aid:  scholarships and grants that do not have to be repaid, “work-study” that provides on-campus jobs to students, and loans.  Obviously, scholarships and grants are the best, but work-study jobs are nice too.  They are usually more convenient, guaranteed, and sometimes interesting than other private industry jobs such as fast food or waitressing.

While the sticker price of private colleges on average cost double an in-state public college, don’t dismiss them without researching.  Remember it’s the net cost after financial aid that we are interested in and more than half of private college students get significant financial aid.  On the other hand, think carefully whether a more prestigious school is really worthwhile if it costs you more than a few thousand above a less expensive school – after financial aid offers are deducted.  Consider that for most majors, a prestigious college doesn’t necessarily lead to any more job offers or higher starting pay, even if it means much higher loan repayments for ten years after graduation.   (Okay, that might not be true for the most prestigious universities.)

When choosing colleges to apply to, remember that most financial aid is based upon need.  The more expensive the college, the more the need to pay for it, and the more financial aid you would be eligible for.  So it’s worthwhile to apply to a few expensive schools to see what amount and kind of financial aid you are offered.  But always apply to a “safety” school as well that is less expensive and more affordable if you don’t receive the aid you are hoping for.  Some parents don’t bother to apply for financial aid fearing that they earn too little to afford college or earn too much to qualify for aid, but it’s always good to apply initially to see what happens.  While all schools use the same federal financial aid formula, each school may also have their own aid amounts, qualifications, or eagerness to attract your outstanding student.  The easiest to get financial assistance is a small “legacy” tuition discount for attending a school where a parent or grandparent is an alum – if your school offers it.

Remember that there are alternatives to traditional four year colleges including two year associate degrees at community colleges and certification exams from for-profit schools.  These are much less expensive and popular for nursing, business, information technology, and law enforcement.

Yes, there are many things to do, so keep one of the many college search checklists handy such as these:


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