paying for college

Making the Final College Decision

Congratulations on your child’s college acceptances! Their hard work has paid off and now the decision as to which college is best for them needs to be made. I always encourage parents and their child to step back for a moment. Don’t worry about choosing that one perfect college, as there are likely many colleges that fit your child’s needs and would ultimately provide a rich college experience. College is what a student makes of it, and what they accomplish while they’re on campus matters much more than the name of the college. Choosing the student’s preferred college, while also balancing financial considerations however, can present some challenges to a family. It is those very challenges that prompt me to share some important considerations that may assist you in making the final college decision.

First off, you don’t have to make your decision overnight! Take your time, enjoy the process, have ongoing honest conversations, and do your due diligence along the way before coming to your final decision. In my previous blog post, I shared some best practices for comparing financial aid offers from colleges, as invariably the financing piece of the college decision is paramount for many families. It’s important to carefully review financial aid offers and have a plan for covering the balance before committing to any college. Deduct any gift aid such as grants and scholarships from the total cost of attendance figure to determine your net price, an important piece of data when comparing college costs. Also be sure to confirm whether scholarship awards are renewable and what the renewal criteria are. College is, after all, a multi-year expense, so make sure you confirm that you aren’t at risk of a significantly more expensive sophomore, junior, and senior year due to diminished scholarship funds.

Also note that financial aid awards and scholarship offers are not necessarily written in stone. If you feel like you need more aid to make a college within reach, you can always try to appeal your financial aid award by writing a letter to the Financial Aid Office or contacting the Admissions Office to inquire about additional merit scholarships. Most schools have a formal process that involves reviewing the award package along with any insights from you as to why the original offer is insufficient. Appeals do not always yield additional funding, but you have nothing to lose in asking the college for more support. If you have additional information to share with the college, and documentation to support your request, colleges typically are willing to take a second look and advise you accordingly.

After crunching the numbers and determining the bottom line costs of each college, develop a realistic plan as to how you’ll cover those costs. If your plan to cover college costs includes borrowing loans, please be sure to understand the total cost of borrowing and what that cost means from a repayment perspective. Use a loan calculator to determine the monthly payment amount of any loans borrowed, and keep in mind your future salary (and that of your child) to determine if the estimated repayment amounts are reasonable. Be sure to also project out borrowing needs for all four years, the estimated payments, and factor this reality into the college decision process.

Once you have a handle on which colleges are realistic from a financing point of view, delve on into the colleges themselves and become as knowledgeable as possible about those still being considered. Gather any additional information that you need, whether it is about curriculum, housing, extracurriculars, or campus life. You most likely already have a lot of information about each college, but digging a little deeper can help you make an informed choice. Some additional questions to consider may include: (1) Does the college offer many majors in case I change my mind? (2) What is the retention rate of the college (i.e. how many students return to campus after freshman year)? (3) What is the graduation rate at the college? (4) What fun things are there to do in the area surrounding the college? (5) Does the college offer a diverse set of clubs and activities that peak the student’s interest? You get the picture—dig deep and find out about hidden wonders at each of the colleges! On a personal note, I know that for my son, the recreational activities that were available to him, such as hiking, rafting, and being able to join the ski club as a freshman, helped him to make a decision. Certainly his intended program of study was central to his decision, but so were the additional activities and campus perks that make for a well-rounded and rich college experience.

The best way to learn more about the college is by speaking with people who are intimately familiar with the college—those who work there, and, more importantly, those who study there. The college’s website and its social media platforms can certainly offer valuable insights, but nothing compares to conversations with students or alumni of the college. Visit, or revisit, the colleges that you are considering. Sometimes you pick up new information or a different feeling when you return to a campus after being accepted. Take time to think things over after you’ve done research, asked all your questions, and considered everything that is important to you. Check in on your own thoughts and feelings, and reflect on how you felt when you visited each campus. Have the student ask him- or herself if they can imagine being there for the next four years, and, of course, if it’s affordable.

Most colleges don’t expect your final decision until May 1, so take the time to reflect, gather information, and have ongoing and open conversations with your child. Be sure to remember that your child’s college experience will be what they make of it, and the financial decisions that you make today will have a lasting effect well into the future.

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Written by Jan Combs
Jan Combs is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, Jan was Director of Financial Aid at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at Boston University.