How to Pick A College: Things People Don’t Discuss

College! It’s amazing! The best time of your life! An investment in your future! A no brainer! Or is it…?

College has become a seemingly untouchable facet of American life.  Yet, while it seems “expected” for many, costs of attending (including tuition, supplies, room & board) have skyrocketed beyond what makes sense for many people.  Attending college, and deciding which one, can be one of the most daunting and influential decisions you make in your life… so which facts should you consider? Beyond the obvious criteria of: where you feel most comfortable, if there is a special major/program you intend to study, whether you want a “sports” school or not, school size, dorm life and quality of dorm food, here is some food for thought that most people don’t discuss 🤓 (Most importantly,  keep in mind, nothing is set in stone- you can always transfer or decide to do other things! People do it all the time, but it rarely gets discussed. Plus, very few people I know came into college knowing what they wanted to study and actually ended up doing it. This is the time to explore and make mistakes- just not financial ones if you can avoid it)

And what the heck do I know about any of this anyway? Well I’ve been tutoring students and helping them get into college for 15+ years.  There isn’t much I haven’t seen.  So based on where many of my friends & students were in high school vs. where they went to college vs. where they ended up post graduation, I can say that a lot of what people think matters, really doesn’t. Here are the questions I think all students should ask themselves before committing to a school:

1. What is your motivation for going? 🤔

If the answer is “I’m not sure,” then perhaps you should pump the brakes a little bit.  Around this time of year (and basically all of junior & senior years of high school) all anyone seems to talk about is “Where are you going to college?”  It’s easy to get wrapped up in this momentum and feel pressured to make a decision because everyone else “seems” to be doing it too.  Before committing to any school, really sit with the decision and ask yourself “Why?” If you have a concrete reason, like a subject you are interested enough in to dig deeper into, or you enjoy school then by all means, journey on! If you’re not sure, continuing reading…

2.  Who is paying for school? 💸

If you are one of the fortunate students whose parents have the means to pay for your college tuition, perhaps you can skate by attending college without really being sure why you are going or what you plan to study.  Similarly, if you were able to secure any scholarships or grants, and money is not much of a concern, attending college is a pretty low risk bet, with potentially high rewards.

If you are planning to pay for school yourself, then where you decide to go is incredibly important.  Will you work part or full time and attend school or will you get loans?  What many people don’t realize is that student loans are FOREVER.  Unlike normal debt from credit cards, home loans etc. (read my series on Credit here and the thangs to do/not do for good credit to learn more!) which can be forgiven in bankruptcy (not something you want to anyway  unless you’re in really bad shape), student loans never, ever, EVER go away!  (Unless you end up working in public service or some other rare circumstances, but don’t bank on those)

Some helpful definitions: 📗

»  FAFSA: Free Application For Federal Student Aid. Keywords FREE APPLICATION- do not pay to apply for this- if you are asked to, check your link again! Or just click here. FAFSA will help you access grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans, but FAFSA itself is not any of these things. Think of it as the gatekeeper.  Depending on your (and your parents’) income level, FAFSA may or may not be beneficial to you, but there’s no cost or harm in trying! Many FAFSA questions are answered directly on their site, but if you feel overwhelmed, try talking to a school counselor or adult that you trust to help walk you through the process. Or read this looooong instructional guide.  It’s loooonngggg but could be the difference maker for one of the most important financial decisions of your life. So read it!

»  Scholarship:  Typically a merit-based award of money.  Money that is given to you, which you do not ever have to pay back.  Might be awarded for academic achievement, athletic abilities, or a number of other reasons.  Here are some links to help you apply (College Board, Fastweb, & Scholarships.com). Some have deadlines, others don’t – it’s never too late and don’t be afraid to apply! But be wary, never pay money to apply for a scholarship or provide any of your personal banking information.

»  Grant: Very similar to a scholarship in that you receive money that never has to be repaid. These are typically provided by the government (Federal Pell Grant or your local state agency for starters)

»  Loan: Beware! Notice that this is in red?! It’s for good reason.  Loans can be government backed or private, and they provide funds to pay for your college tuition.  You typically begin repaying them + interest, a short time period after graduation. You must be extremely careful when signing up for a loan.  If you get in over your head, there is no turning back and unless there is some case of fraud, you can get stuck.  “Oops,” “I didn’t know what I was signing,” and “I didn’t mean to sign up for that,” are sadly not good excuses 🤷🏻‍♀️ This is not to say that all loans are bad.  Loans can be great if obtained with care, but if you’re not clear on exactly what you’re getting into… don’t do it.  Loans deserve their own post… HERE IT IS! HOW STUDENT LOANS WORK (A SIMPLE GUIDE)

Real life example: I have a friend who went to a private college and racked up $100k+ in student debt.  Nearly 10 years later she is still paying off this debt, and she probably will be for another 5 years.  So unless you are able to shake the money tree and avoid this situation, or you know for sure that you are going into a stable high paying industry like engineering, you want to be really careful here.  Assuming that you’ll just get a high paying non-engineering job is a gamble that can really affect the rest of your quality of life. Choose wisely

3.  How much is tuition (and who is paying for it part II)? 💰💰💰

($$$) Again, if you are one of the fortunate ones that does not have to worry about cost of tuition, congratulations!  But even for you fortunate ones out there, let me give you some food for thought.  If you were accepted into 2 very similar academic schools, but one is private and cost $45k+ per year vs a comparable public school (or one where you got scholarships) to the tune of about $25k per year, there is a tremendous difference here and I suggest talking to your parents (or other financier) about alternative uses of the money.  While some parents may be sticklers that the money only be used toward education, I think you would be hard pressed to find parents who could argue with your desire to attend a “cheaper” school while saving the remaining funds toward an investment.  Over 4 years this difference of $80k can be the downpayment on a home or go toward grad school- and this will give you a bigger leg up in life than any nominal difference in attending a “better” (i.e. “higher ranked” or more expensive) college. If they argue, send them this.

Unless there is some special program or a reason for attending this higher priced school, if you can, save the money for later. You will thank me. Out of my friends who attended private schools vs. public schools I don’t see a noticeable difference in who is more “successful” or has built more wealth.  If anything, my friends who went to state/public schools have tended to be more hungry and more likely to start their own businesses.  Need more to chew on this topic? You can read this good summary article on whether going to a “prestigious school” is worth it, the detailed study is here too.

($$) Public universities and state schools are a good way to go in terms of a middle ground. Especially if you are paying for college yourself- keeping costs low is critical, I can’t stress that enough! It’s easy to push off into the future and tell yourself, eh, whatever, I’ll figure it out later.  But as I mentioned above, later will come to bite you in the you-know-what.  If you have the choice between two equally ranked schools/with similar programs that you are looking for, try to select the less expensive school.

($) To keep costs the lowest, perhaps consider attending a community college first.  Community colleges are an amazing way to continue your education without a huge financial commitment.  This is a great option for those of you who aren’t sure a) why you’re going… b) what you want to study… c) when you want to do it.  You can go at your own pace and decide if college is right for you at all.  For those of you who are sure you do want to attend college, attending CC and transferring into a 4 year institution is a great way to save money and perhaps get into colleges that did not originally accept you .  Since numerous students often end up dropping out along the way (*cough cough they didn’t read item #1 above*) colleges always have spots open for transfer students.  And FYI- when you get your degree, no one IRL ever asks how many years you attended or if you started as a transfer.  You get the same degree as if you attended and paid for all 4 years 🙂

4.  What other options do I have?

We always have options! It’s your life and you get to decide what’s right for you.  Perhaps you want to take a gap year and spend it doing an internship/apprenticeship in an industry you’re interested in.  Perhaps you want to work a little to save money for college.  Perhaps you want to travel the world and volunteer, or maybe you want to work and live on a farm.

If school wasn’t your thing, you can always consider a technical training school or vocational program (i.e. specific job skills).  Programs tend to be shorter (think 6 months – year) and can help you join the workforce sooner.  As always, be careful!! There are a lot of unscrupulous providers out there, ready to take your hard earned money without providing much in return.  Check google for reviews on any institution you are looking at and make sure they are accredited.  Just like with loans, signing up for these schools can be binding contracts that can affect your financial stability for years.  Ignorance will not get you off the hook here! If you’re not sure, ask someone you trust.

5.  Is it worth it?

Ultimately, only you can decide if attending college is “worth it” to you.  If you’re still on the fence, check out this amazing data driven blog to feed your thoughts! There are some awesome charts and good info on lifetime earnings vs. going to college, best majors, etc.

If you know that you do want to go to college (and have carefully considered the financial effects) but aren’t sure if the specific school you have in mind is “worth it” check out this article on whether going to a “prestigious school” really pays off (more details here).

Bottom line: College can be an incredible time for expanding knowledge and personal growth.  It’s a decision that should not be taken lightly, so weigh all the pros & cons that you can before committing.  Regardless of what path you choose: networking, building a resume, focusing on being a good person and enjoying life are just as important (if not more important) than which school you ultimately attend- so keep that big picture in mind 💭

TL-DR: I picked the school with the best cookies and so far it’s worked out alright 😛

Let me know your thoughts! Should I do a post on picking college majors?

 

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