Senior year is such an exciting time. You’re applying to colleges, which means a larger world is opening up in front of your eyes. Soon you’ll be taking real steps to plan for your future, and constructing the next phase of your life.
But choosing exactly where to go to school can be hard—and narrowing down your list of where to apply can feel overwhelming. College brochures boast stunning campuses, state-of-the-art dorms and amenities, and beautiful sports facilities. While those things can certainly enhance your college experience, they shouldn’t be the only factors that influence your decision.
It’s common for graduates today to leave school with student loan debt, so considering financial aspects before even applying to a college is important in order to minimize your debt later on. You don’t want to be in a position come April or May when you’ve been accepted only to schools you may not be able to afford.
Is your dream school expensive? That doesn’t mean you can’t go—you may receive aid that will make it possible. But planning out your college list with finances in mind will give you more options when you ultimately decide where to go.
When comparing schools, there are five factors to keep in mind.
1. The best program for your selected major
When looking at schools, make sure you look at the individual program for your major, rather than the overall school rankings. The strength and reputation of the individual department can go a long way in preparing you for a career after graduation.
You can use tools like Niche to see where your intended school measures up for your selected major.
If possible, also meet with the department head and individual faculty within your major to go over what is typically covered in the program and what the requirements are.
2. Total cost of attendance
By now, you probably know that college is expensive. According to The College Board, the average tuition for a public, four-year university is over $9,000. For private schools, the number is over $32,000.
However, what you might not realize is that number only covers the tuition. The actual cost of attendance—which includes essentials like room, board, and textbooks—can be much higher.
To find that information, check out the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
3. Overall college experience
You’re going to be spending several years in college. The school you choose should offer an environment that inspires, excites, and motivates you.
When possible, take a campus tour or even spend the night at the schools on your short-list. You’ll get a better idea of what campus life is like and what activities are available to you.
For example, you might realize that going to a school with a competitive football team is important to you because you love sporting events and the camaraderie they bring. Or, you might prefer a smaller school where you can get to know everyone.
4. Starting salary and job placement
When selecting a college, you want to make sure your degree can help you land a job in your chosen field. To do so, look at the school’s job placement rate to see what percentage of students are able to find employment after graduation. You can use the College Scorecard to find out how many students found jobs and what their average salary was.
Ask the school admissions office about other ways they help students with their job search. Some schools have career centers that will help you create a resume and prepare for interviews, as well as offer job boards and networking opportunities with alumni.
Don’t be afraid to ask to be connected to alumni. Most will be happy to answer a few specific questions about how their experience prepared them (or didn’t!) for post-college life.
5. Financial aid
Financial aid can dramatically reduce how much you’ll owe after graduation. Some schools charge high tuition and room and board fees, but offer generous financial aid packages that offset their costs.
For example, Harvard University typically costs over $70,000 a year. But the school stresses that 100 percent of students can graduate debt-free thanks to a combination of scholarships, grants, and work-study programs.
You won’t know your actual cost until you receive a financial aid award letter, which is sent to accepted students. But you can do research and give yourself a leg up long before that arrives in the mail.
Make sure you fill out the FAFSA, which your school will use to determine how much financial aid you are eligible to receive. Call the school’s financial aid office and ask what resources they offer—some schools even have a calculator that will help you determine what your family’s cost will be. You owe it to yourself to understand how much aid your school typically grants, and to be realistic about what you can expect.
Choosing a college
Although it’s easy to get overwhelmed during your college search, it’s important to keep finances in mind when making a decision in order to prepare you for life after graduation. By keeping these five factors in mind, you can make an informed decision that balances your aspirations and what you’ll need to do to make them happen.