Just ask any family that has struggled with making the final college choice how envious they are of the families where it was a slam-dunk decision.
Most high school seniors have already made their choice, but here are some tips for families who will be making this decision in the future:
• Eliminate the colleges where the all-in price (tuition, room/board, expenses) makes you gasp loudly, where you just feel uncomfortable.
• Compare the financial aid packages of the remaining colleges on an apples-to-apples basis by creating a spreadsheet with the following headings: tuition, room, board and expenses (include travel and entertainment) equals Total Cost, and then grants and work-study with separate line items for subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans.
Remember, loans are just deferred payment, and no one wants to saddle young graduates with a lot of debt. Make sure the grants are applicable for all four years, because some colleges attract students with generous merit aid that is only available for their freshman year.
• Network socially. Join Facebook groups for admitted students, read reviews and/or chat with current students on College Confidential, speak to friends and neighbors who have children or relatives attending the colleges you’re considering.
• Compare the soft stuff. The emphasis on sports matters, whether the dining hall food is palatable matters, the culture of the campus and the surrounding area matters. Remember, you’ll be living there for four years.
• Evaluate the academics. Which companies are recruiting on campus? What is the grad school acceptance rate for your anticipated area of study? What is the depth and breadth of your major?
• Think beyond the workforce or grad school. Your college years should teach you how to think critically. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and author of “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” says: “Your college education should prepare you to thrive by creating habits of mind and spirit that will continue to develop far beyond one’s university years. Thriving means realizing your capabilities, and a liberal education should enable you to discover capabilities you didn’t even know you had while deepening those that provide you with meaning and direction.”
He also share his thoughts on making the final decision: “Your college choice isn’t just about ‘fit’ and ‘comfort’; and it certainly shouldn’t be reduced to the prestige of the school or the amenities if offers.
“Your college choice should reflect your aspirations, where you can imagine yourself discovering more about the world and your capabilities to interact with it. The college you choose should be a place at which you can thrive, finding out so much more about yourself as you also discover how the world works, how to make meaning from it and how you might contribute to it.”
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at CollegeAdmissionsStrategies.com.