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How to Choose A College So You Don’t Waste Money On Tuition

You may have noticed recently the federal government stepped in to help 18-year-olds with one of the biggest decisions of their lives – how to choose the right college. Although you don’t necessarily need a college education to have a successful career, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that a college graduate will earn one million dollars more on average over their lifetime when compared to someone with only a high school diploma. That figure alone makes attending college a worthwhile consideration.

college fund jarBut what college should you attend when there are thousands to choose from? Enter President’s Obama’s Consumer Reports-styled College Scorecard. It’s an initiative headed by the Dept. of Education where, “You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans,” the President noted in a recent radio address.

The scorecard tool offers much more information than that however. Prospective students can input a college name into the site and receive all kinds of useful information about the school’s program. Among other things, potential schools can be sorted by location, size, degrees offered. The site is receiving rave reviews as the latest advancement in helping students choose the right college.

You will have to take some steps to make your college decision an easier one. There is simply too much money at stake for you to make the wrong choice. Here are the three most important things you can do.

Understand Yourself First

A critical first step before doing any research on colleges is to do a basic self-assessment. Everyone has his or her own unique personality and likes and dislikes that will drive the decision. The last thing you want is to enroll at a school that doesn’t fit you as a person.

So analyze your personal preferences and get feedback from those closest to you. Questions you will want to ask might include some in these categories:

  • Location – Where would I like to attend? (big city or rural, overseas, online, close or far away from home)
  • Size – Do I want to attend a small, medium-sized or large school?
  • Affiliations – Would I prefer a public or private university? Religious or secular? Single-sex or co-ed?
  • Social Life – Is building relationships at college important to me?
  • Housing – Do I want to live on campus or commute? In dorms or an apartment?
  • Activities – Are the programs offered outside the classroom important to me?
  • Culture – What type of environment in regards to student behavior, rules, and security will make me comfortable?

All these categories point to issues you value. Understanding what’s important to you first will make choosing the right college easier.

Use An Online Search Tool

With your personal preferences diagnosed, you can then dig into the differences between colleges and eliminate ones that don’t fit your criteria. A great method is to use a search tool like the aforementioned College Scorecard. Another similar tool can be found at the College Navigator provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. The advantage of the College Navigator tool is that it allows you to compare schools, save your sessions and even export your results into a spreadsheet.

This step is very important because it will help you learn specific details about each school such as:

  • General school information
  • The total cost including tuition, fees and other expenses
  • What financial aid is available
  • The admission requirements
  • School accreditation status
  • Graduation rates
  • Majors offered
  • Teacher to student ratio
  • Career services and potential for future employment
  • Options to transfer credits to or from school
  • Resources and facilities available to students

Check Out the Contenders

Hopefully by this point your list has been narrowed to a handful of possibilities. Now it’s time to check out each college and compare them to the others on your short list by doing two things.

The first step is to browse each school’s website. You’ll find more information here than what was available from the search tool. In addition, many schools have posted virtual tours that allow you to see the school and learn about campus life.

The website will have a lot of valuable information but nothing gives you a feel for the college like an in person visit. Preferably this should be done while classes are in session so you can attend one within your intended major. While there, talk to current students and gauge their impressions of the school. Also bring your list of questions to ask your tour guide as they are trained to assist prospective students during their visit.

Skipping the visitation phase is common. It takes time, money and energy to make these trips, all things that could be in short supply for some families. However, if at all possible find a way to get on campus. Of the four schools I was considering for college, I eliminated two of them from my campus visit alone. I simply didn’t get a good vibe while I was there. That was a good sign those schools weren’t for me.

The key for all this will be to start early. With all these steps you need time to make your decision. You cannot afford to ignore this process considering the amount of money you will end up paying for tuition.

Questions: How did you choose a college? What variables stood out the most to you? Were there considerations other than the ones listed here that influenced you? Did you have any trouble deciding between two really good schools?

Image courtesy of TaxCredits.net

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  1. My sister is planning to go to an engineering university and she’s still undecided. Good thing I stumble upon your article. Thank you for sharing this. For sure this would help shed some light to her.

  2. The college scorecard doesn’t seem to be available.

  3. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says

    I chose the college I went to because its reputation has been set and it is one of the premiere university. It’s like after graduation, carrying the name of the school is really a plus. It helped me get a better job, Brian.

  4. The main variable that I considered is accessibility because my parents didn’t allow me to study in other towns. Accessibility is what made our decision. I am glad that I did because studying college was really easy and I had handful time to look for side hustles back then.

  5. Great resources Brian. With two high school juniors we are all about college discussions these days. We want to help our children find the right mix of cost, great program, location, etc so all about research for us now.

  6. I know this is on the horizon for your oldest and my girls are inching closer to the day where they will choose a college. It is a big deal and I agree that if you can swing visiting the campus, you should. Anything can look good on paper or on a website. I also tell parents that absolutely must do a ROI when choosing a college too. Yes, it can be hard because freshmen don’t always have a major chosen and certainly could change their major but I see far too many kids take on huge student debt when compared to their earning potential. It may not seem fair but the teacher earning $30k with $100k in student loans is likely regretting not going to a more affordable school.

  7. You can compare colleges forever, but I think the main thing is going to college in the first place. I ended up going to a different college than the one I selected due to Hurricane Katrina and I think my life was positively impacted because of it. I might not have met my husband if I hadn’t had to change schools.

    • There is no doubt someone with a college education has a better chance of making it in their career field. Not to say you can’t make it without a degree but the odds are more significantly stacked against you.

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