It's no secret that college is expensive — sometimes really expensive. In fact, college debt has been the top concern among respondents to our annual College Hopes and Worries survey since 2013. It's likely, then, that the cost of college will play a huge role in determining which school you ultimately attend. But that alone should not influence which colleges you consider early on. Here's more on both when and how to consider cost during the college search.
Crafting Your College List
First, let's talk about when you should think about the cost of college. Now, I totally understand the argument that, since cost can be one of the biggest concerns about college as a whole, it should be at the front of your mind from the start. However, I urge you not to take it into consideration too early on. Why? Putting too much weight on a school's price tag can force you to rule out schools that might seem too expensive at first glance even though they may be a better value in the long run. (More on that later.)
You should absolutely apply to a few financial safety schools just for good measure, but don't otherwise rule a school out just based on cost alone. Instead, I strongly recommend that you apply to programs that excite you or to a school that offers a campus culture that really matches your interests. These are what will help you make the most of your college experience as a whole, and therefore they should take priority during your initial research.
It's only once you've started getting accepted that you'll have to make a decision on each college's cost. That's because this is the point at which you're given the true cost of the school. Sticker prices, which is all you were given when first creating your list of target schools, are almost never what a student actually pays to attend. How much a school will cost for you will be the direct result of what that school is able to offer you in your financial aid package. This is the only cost that you need to consider, and you should carefully research all the pros and cons associated with that number.
Return on Investment
A crucial part of the additional research you'll complete to decide between acceptances will come in the form of a school's Return on Investment (ROI). This is essentially a measure of what a more expensive school has to offer you compared to one that has a lower cost. For example, do graduates from the higher-cost school on your list show a higher employment rate in positions you'd like to obtain than a lower-cost school? If so, the more expensive school has the higher ROI and therefore might be the better choice for you.
Once you've settled on a school to attend, you'll still want to get a head start on figuring out how to pay for it. Check out Paying for College and 8 Steps to Paying Less for College for tips, tricks and advice to help you along the way.
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