Picking a college is one of the biggest choices you can make—and for prospective students and their families, the deadline to do so is fast approaching. May 1 is “Decision Day,” the date many schools set for you to accept or decline their offer of admission.
“It’s hard, because families are now getting to the end of a long process, and the decision is so high-stakes,” says Sabrina Manville, cofounder of the site Edmit, which crunches data to help students make this very choice.
“I urge people to take a deep breath, appreciate the options you have been given, and have faith that you are going to find a good outcome,” she says.
One way to narrow the field: Create a Decision Day Checklist. It could look like an old-fashioned list of pros and cons, or a spreadsheet-like “matrix” with colleges in the columns and characteristics in the rows, suggests college financing expert Mark Kantrowitz.
However you structure it, the aim is to compare a few key indicators that will help you make your decision:
Dig into the numbers and decode your financial aid letters from each university. Such letters can be extremely confusing, but essentially you are looking for the amount of “free” money you are offered in the form of scholarships and grants. Deduct that total from total costs of attendance to get what’s called your net price.
Taking a hard look at these aid packages is essential. You might assume from published tuition figures that a top-ranked college is going to be way more expensive for you, but many have very generous scholarship and grant programs—especially for lower-income applicants. On the other hand, what seems like a generous aid offer could turn out to be, on closer inspection, mostly loans.
Student debt is a national crisis, having already hit $1.5 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Almost 70% of the Class of 2018 graduated with debt, saddled with an average of $29,800 in loans.
With that in mind, it’s smart to calculate whether the debt you would need to shoulder to attend a particular university is worth it, or if it’s setting you up to struggle as a new graduate. A useful rule of thumb from Manville: Try not to borrow more than you will earn in your first year’s projected salary.
For instance, if you plan to be a software engineer who might expect to start out earning $80,000 a year, don’t take on more than $80,000 in student debt. If you are a teacher who might have an initial salary of $40,000, keep your debt below $40,000.
How might that influence your college choice? You could stick to in-state public institutions, which usually offer huge discounts compared to out-of-state students. Or start your education at a lower-cost community college, and then transfer after a couple of years.
Beyond just costs, a college should offer the right programs for your interests and career goals. If you are aiming for an engineering degree, for example, your choice should not only be known for the quality of its engineering program, but also have a good track record of career placement for its graduates.
Well-known rankings, like U.S. News, can give you a general idea of an institution’s quality and health. But don’t make your decisions based on minor distinctions. The difference between a #35 and a #40 university, for instance, might be negligible and unrelated to what you need from your college years. It’s also worth checking out the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, which digs into data like graduation rates and median salary of graduates.
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Social factors might seem less weighty than costs or academic rigor, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. If you hate cold climates, then a school in upstate New York might not be the best fit. If you thrive in a big-city environment, don’t sign up for a tiny college town. And if you’re an East Coaster who wants to visit your folks often, don’t choose a college in California—those five-hour flights won’t do any favors for your time or budget.