Creating a College List

Guest Post by Sarah Pascarella of Edmit

If you’re creating your college list, you’re no doubt familiar with the three standard categories: safety schools, good fit schools, and stretch schools. While these categories are important, they often only take academics into account. And with the ongoing crisis of student loan debt for new graduates, there may be another focus for your college list that’s just as important as academics: affordability and value.

Instead of saving financial considerations for the end of the college search (once your acceptance letters are in hand), be proactive and include college affordability at the beginning. Use affordability to augment your college research, as a way to really narrow down the schools that will be both a good academic and financial fit for you. The goal is to find your high-value schools: colleges that offer excellent academic programs and outcomes at a cost that will be affordable for your personal circumstances.

So in the spirit of the three academic benchmarks for your college list, we’ve added three value benchmarks: price, selectivity, and earnings. Add these factors into your research right from the get-go, and they’ll serve you well in finding your high-value schools.

The Value of Price

As you’re considering colleges for your college list, add price into your areas of research—and know the difference between net price and sticker price. Do a deep dive into both public and private colleges: You may find that while public colleges have a more affordable sticker price at first glance, private schools may be more generous with scholarships, grants, and additional “free money”. Additionally, look at the entire cost to get a degree, not just whether the first year will be affordable. If you’ll be getting scholarships and grants, can the financial aid office guarantee ongoing support until you graduate? How much will costs increase year over year—and will your family be able to comfortably meet these increases?

In terms of price, your high-value colleges will be the schools that have a net price that fits within what you’ve budgeted for all four (or five!) years, and minimizes how much you’ll have to take out in student loans.

The Value of Competitiveness

In high school, many students are focused on how they stand out in their own graduating classes. But to determine the value of competitiveness, shift your mindset: How do you look compared to the student body at the schools you’re considering for your college list? In this case, a high-value college is a school that’s looking for students just like you to round out their class —and is willing to give you grants and scholarships to persuade you to enroll.

As you’re researching, remember to tackle the details: Your safety schools, for example, may have plenty of scholarships, but your good fit or stretch schools may be more generous with need-based aid. So some apples-to-oranges comparisons will serve you well in determining which schools will ultimately be the most affordable for you.

In terms of competitiveness, your high-value colleges will have the most free money for you, based on both your academic and financial profiles.

The Value of Earnings

A high-value school won’t just offer you a high-quality education at an affordable price: It will also have strong outcomes after graduation. In sum, you want to know if a particular school will provide a good return on investment (ROI) for your time and money.

How can you determine outcomes and ROI? Look at a college’s graduation rate and the average first-year earnings for alumni. (If you can get this data not just for the whole school, but also for your intended major, that’s even better!) See if the college has active alumni networks, ongoing relationships with employers, and career services (both while you’re in school and after graduation).

In terms of earnings, your high-value colleges will have the data to show that alumni go on to robust careers, supported by the college’s academic advising and career services.

So to build your high-value college list, expand your focus to cover price, competitiveness, and earnings. This additional early leg work will pay dividends as your college list will reflect both your academic achievements and what you can afford.


Overwhelmed with college research? Edmit can help, with data on pricing and value for over 2,000 colleges in the US.

Written by College Coach
College Coach® is the nation’s leading provider of educational advising, offering expert guidance from the best college admissions consultants on the college admissions and finance process. Our goal is to help each student maximize his or her chances of success through services focused on their personal desires, goals, individual strengths, and accomplishments.