With the new FAFSA arriving October 1, families are getting ready to make earlier decisions about college. This is positive, as it gives schools more lead time to manage incoming admissions and financial aid requests, providing more space for families to make a final choice.  But how are families deciding? College selection can be very emotional, but it’s rooted in logical factors that lead to a final decision.  Here are some criteria points.

Cost: We all know college costs are high but may be offset by merit based scholarships and/or need based financial aid.  But even with some “free” money, a college can remain financially out of reach for middle class families making just enough to pay their bills, but not enough to cover an entire semester balance.  Student lending has often filled this funding gap, but families are getting much more pragmatic about debt, using loan calculators early and often so they will know what they owe in advance.  College savings also plays a key factor to broaden school choice and affordability.

It’s a basket of several funding resources that help cover the bill, but this is where confusion can set in.  It’s easy to miss steps with so many variables, like starting early with college savings, applying for enough scholarships to qualify for at least one and maintaining strong credit to qualify for low rates on student loans (Parent Plus is an option for families with limited credit, but locks in at 6.31% with 4.276% origination fees)  To help manage all of these variables, Invite Education’s Family Financial Center accounts for financial aid estimations and savings goals on each potential college choice.  Using cost calculators and savings estimators simplifies the process, making it easier to compare choices.

Major / Career Goals: The economy is always changing, and while college degrees are valuable, some end up working in a different field than they may have figured just a few short years ago. But there are simple ways to forecast your career trajectory based on skills and aptitude that should reflect in choice of major.  Psychology, for example, is a very common major but also one of the lowest paying after graduation.  Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, are often cited as creating graduates with high salaries, but global competition keeps the market constantly shifting.  Majoring in pre-med but failing to carry on to medical school is a large investment without a big return.  It’s recognized that there is no perfect hand-off from college success to career success. Instead, look at the big picture. Consider how certain majors or classes can accentuate talents, and how the knowledge can be adapted to new opportunities.  Even Steve Jobs commented that during his brief time in college, he was able to learn the importance of calligraphy and directly applied it to the font-types in personal computers. He learned how to adapt his knowledge to create something new after learning some fundamentals in the classroom.  This maybe the greatest gift an education can give you, but it’s not so obvious when first getting started.

School reputation / Network: An important reason why students want to attend schools like Harvard and Stanford is the reputation for producing students from particular areas of study.  Additionally, alumni networks can open up further opportunities after graduation.  For many, this is enough justification for a high price tag associated with some institutions.  Take a look at the track record for alumni to get an idea of potential opportunities.

  • Biggest majors: Look at the production of specific majors at certain colleges to learn more about their programs.  Compare this to data from the Bureau of Labor statistics to see how certain majors mesh with career opportunities that are expanding today.
  • Industries where alumni are most common: Prospective schools may provide info on careers of graduates demonstrating concentrations in fields like education, finance, technology or any number of areas.

Location: Choice of environment plays a crucial role for potential internships and concentrations of industry.  There are many different school locations to consider ranging from urban to suburban to rural.  Each offers their own unique advantages that may (or may not) match up to your overall goals for an educational experience. For some, a bustling city is the perfect place.  For others, a campus nestled near nature and low population density is all they need.  This choice comes down to student personality, but college does provide an opportunity for some students to break from their comfort zones to experience an environment unlike their home or high school.  Just remember, a long distance from home means more time spent traveling to get back and forth when necessary.

About the Author Ken O'Connor

I'm an expert in higher education solutions for families searching for the right college fit.

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