Dear Carrie: My daughter is graduating from high school in two years and will hopefully be able to choose between several good colleges. A big question, though, is cost. One of her likely choices is twice as expensive as another top contender. How can we decide if a more expensive college is worth it? — A Reader
Dear Reader, With the cost of college — as well as student debt — continually on the rise, this is an essential question. It can get a little tricky to answer, though, depending on how you define “worth.” Does it equate to career opportunities and a future paycheck? Or does it more generally refer to the benefits your daughter will derive by having a quality college education and experience?
According to the College Board’s 2015 Trends in College Pricing survey, the 2015-16 average annual cost of attendance at a public in-state four-year school, including room, board, tuition and books is just over $24,000. Average cost of attendance at a four-year private school is just under $48,000. This realistically means that you could be looking at a price tag of well over $200,000 for an undergraduate degree, depending on the school your daughter chooses.
But before you despair, take a step back. Just because a college or university is prestigious or expensive doesn’t mean that it’s right for your child. There are other things to consider. In fact, the 2016 report, How America Pays for College, lists cost as the 3rd factor in choosing a college, after academic program and personal choice. To me, one of the most important factors is where your child will feel most comfortable.
Start by thinking about ‘fit’
Every school has its own environment — academic, social and physical. Your daughter is more likely to succeed if she feels she’s in the right place. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Failure rates are pretty concerning: nationwide, about 39 percent of students don’t graduate according to a February 2014 study by Higher Education Research/Policy, Inc. In some states that percentage is over 60 percent! You can give your daughter a head start by helping her choose a college that suits her goals and personality as well as your budget.
A big aspect of “fit” is your daughter’s academic interest and potential major. If she wants a marketable degree (nursing, medical, law, technology, engineering, etc.), then narrowing the search to pre-professional types of schools and looking at the graduates’ employment rates would be important. If her goal is a more general or well-rounded education, then looking at liberal arts schools that offer more academic freedom and flexibility might be more important.
Other important factors include:
–Is she interested in a nearby commuter school, or does she want to live on a campus?
–Is she more comfortable in an urban vs. suburban or rural environment?
–Is a large research institution her preference, or would she be happier in a smaller, more intimate setting?
–What types of social and extra-curricular activities does the school offer?
Also, the concept of fit is a two-way street. If your child fits the school’s profile, they are likely to offer more financial aid.
Spend the time to fully research financial aid
As your daughter narrows her choices, thoroughly research the type of financial aid each school offers. Often private schools with significant endowments have much more leeway than public schools in offering financial aid that isn’t strictly need-based.
The specific rules will vary and can be confusing, so dig into the details. And be sure to distinguish between loans and grants.
Ultimately, you want to know what the final bill will be for you. With that figure in mind, you can then look into other aid opportunities like scholarships. There are many available from specialized scholarships offered by various businesses and civic groups to scholarships geared to specific interests, talents and ethnic groups. Have your daughter start some basic research at sites such as studentaid.ed.gov and collegeboard.org.
This can be a long process so don’t put it off. Start now to get the financial facts so you can make a realistic choice that’s right for both your daughter and your wallet.
Assist your child in “marketing” herself
Once your daughter zeroes in on her college of choice, the next step is to get that college to choose her. As much as we might not like the idea, today a lot depends on how students market themselves. Yes, grades are important, as well as extracurricular activities, but in many ways, it goes back to the idea of “fit.”
Your daughter needs to effectively tell the story of why she wants a particular school–and why it should want her. How do her talents and interests match the school’s programs? What might she bring to the school that is unique to her? A good essay, a successful interview, strong recommendation letters–even a creative graphic presentation or video–can set a student apart.
You can work with your daughter to help stimulate ideas, but whatever she does has to come genuinely from her. You can’t do it for her. It’s worth the effort, however, because making a successful case for the right fit can translate into more financial aid.
Go on lots of campus tours
The best way to determine if a school is right for your daughter — and worth the cost–is to visit it personally. But look beyond the pitch of tour guides. They’re marketers, too! Go on several tours if you can. This will help you compare not only the facilities and programs, but also the personality of the place.
Of course, when it comes right down to it, you still have to pay the bill. But putting cost into a larger personal context may help you decide the ultimate worth of a particular college to your daughter’s success both in school and in life.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “It Pays to Talk.” You can e-mail Carrie at askcarrie@schwab. com.