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Making Your College Decision: the Numbers You Need to Know


Written by College Coach Guest Authoron April 16th, 2019

Bright Horizons College Coach occasionally features blog posts written by guest authors. You’ll find more information about each guest author in the About the Author section on the blog post.

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Guest Post by Sabrina Manville, Co-Founder of Edmit It’s decision season! After all the time you’ve spent figuring out where to apply, submitting applications, doing interviews, and… waiting, most families now know where they stand at the colleges they applied to. And that means you have to decide where you put down your deposit. While you’re scoping out the dorms and meal plans, and thinking about your choice of major, don’t forget to also make sure you have all of the financial information you need to make your decision.
  1. Make sure you actually understand your financial aid award letter. It can be surprisingly difficult to compare college costs. Financial aid letters can look very different and use different formats and language. One recent study found 136 different terms for one type of federal student loan, 24 of which did not even include the word “loan”! It’s important to look for the free money first. Almost always, the words “grant” and “scholarship” mean that you won’t have to pay them back. Subtract the free money from the total cost of the school to see what you’ll be responsible for. You can cover that amount with savings, loans, or money you earn. Loans are not free money; you’ll have to pay those back, with interest. Work-study can be a big help in paying for college, but it’s not free either—or guaranteed. You’ll have to find a job, and put in the hours, in order to get it. Consider those two types of aid secondarily.
  2. Start with Cost of Attendance… but don’t end there. Find your college’s cost of attendance and look at the breakdown. It should be in your financial aid letter, but if it’s not, go to the college’s website directly. Certain costs are non-negotiable—you’ll get a tuition bill every year, and a bill for room and board if you live on campus and have a meal plan. It’s important to know, though, that the cost of attendance is an estimate and an average that the school comes up with. Your actual costs may be higher or lower depending on things like books, travel, and living expenses. We recommend doing a quick college budget of your own before you send in any deposit. If the school is far away, you’ll need to budget more for travel. If you live in the tropics and are going to college in a cold place, you could need to spend significant cash on new clothes! Will you have a car? Think about the expenses that could vary from school to school to make sure you catch any big differences in cost.
  3. Think longer-term. That first year is the one we focus on. But are you remembering years 2, 3, 4, …? It’s advisable to look at the full costs for all four years for the schools you’re considering. Unless a school has a tuition guarantee such as Miami University’s Tuition Promise, tuition is likely to go up every year. Another thing: most of us think of college as something that takes four years—but it’s actually very common for students to spend five or six years before graduating. You can find a school’s graduation rate on the government’s College Scorecard to understand how it compares to others and what percent of students graduate in 4 or 6 years.
  4. Consider your “return on investment.” Going to college is about a lot of things—but presumably a big part of it is to help you take the first step in your upcoming career. Look at sources like the College Scorecard or Payscale to see salary data for the graduates of each of your college options. (Edmit has data as well, and you can even search salaries by major.) Some colleges will publish more detailed results on their own websites about the careers that students go into, and how many find jobs quickly after graduation. College Scorecard also has data on what percentage of students are able to repay their student loans, which can be a good indication of how secure and well-paying their jobs are. Beyond the numbers, you can also learn about the college’s career services by researching online and seeking out recent alumni who can speak to their experiences. Ask about co-ops, part-time jobs, or internships.
Think of this exercise as a key part of putting together your pros and cons list for different colleges you’re considering. It can be hard to know whether a number is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when you’re doing this research at the start of the process—the good news is that when you’re considering multiple schools you can look at how they compare to each other. In the end, you will be glad you’ve done the homework! Sabrina Manville and Nick Ducoff are the co-founders of Edmit, which helps families make great financial decisions about college. This post was excerpted from their upcoming book, Better Off After College: A Guide to Paying for College Without Too Much Debt. To learn more and sign up for early access, visit


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