You’ve come a long way in your college search, from building your college list, sending in your applications, and waiting anxiously to receive acceptance letters.
Next to come are your financial aid offers from all the colleges you were accepted to. At this point you are probably thinking one of two things:
“I know exactly what school I want to attend. I hope I get a good offer from them, but I’m probably going to go there even if the offer is not as good as I wanted.”
“I am still not sure what school I will pick, so I may just pick the option that offers the lowest price to me.”
You could follow either approaches to selecting your final school, but neither is recommended if you really want to make sure you are receiving the best education possible for the best price. Keep reading to find out what’s wrong with these two positions, and find a better way.
What’s Wrong with Option One: I Will Attend my Favorite School No Matter the Cost
Many students have a dream school they desire to attend against all obstacles. They will pay any amount to attend this school so they don't even care what it says on their financial aid offer.
There are a few things wrong with this approach.
1. Your “dream school” is often a choice based on emotions, not facts.
Think about it. Why is your dream school so dreamy? Is it because you had a magical feeling when you set foot on campus? Is it because your best friend’s super-cool older brother went there? Is it because your favorite movie was filmed on campus?
This is not always true, but often a student’s first choice university is based mainly on emotions and expectations of a school’s prestige based on their brand name, and not necessarily based on what is actually a good fit for you.
There are hundreds of thousands of students every year who apply to colleges, and thousands of colleges across the nation to fulfill their needs. Yet many students feel that they cannot succeed unless they attend one of the top 100 schools in the nation. This is simply not true.
If you find that you have been priced out of an education from your top choice school, you should not despair. You can get a great education at many different schools, and one of your other choices may actually be a better fit for you when you consider your personal needs.
2. Your financial aid offer does not have to be accepted as is.
Even if you do decide that there is really only one college option for you, it does matter what your financial aid offer includes. Review the offer carefully to see if it makes sense and fits into the budget your family has set. You absolutely should negotiate your offer to see if you can get a better deal.
In order to do this effectively, you should have in mind the budget you're family has set, and have all necessary information on hand. This should include your financial aid offer from the college, your EFC, and offers from other schools if your plan is to get the school to match a competing offer.
You do not have to accept any financial aid offer as is. Even if you have your heart set on a particular school, there may still be a way you can make it more affordable for you. If the school really is the best choice for you it should be easy for you to make your case to the admissions officer as to why you're such a great catch for this school.
What’s Wrong with Option Two: I’ll Just Choose the Cheapest Option
If money really is a huge concern for your family, you may be tempted to just choose the school that meets the most of your financial need. However, there are a few things to think about before you choose that option:
1. Your financial aid offers does not include hidden costs.
Consider this scenario, College B has sent you a financial aid offer that has met all of your financial need! But then you take a closer look and you see that your financial "aid" package has included a $7,000 loan! These are loans you'll have to take out on top of already contributing whatever is your family's EFC.
In addition, you double check the school's stats and see that only 30% of students graduate in four years. You may have to consider adding an extra year or two of tuition to your bill.
The school is also located in a major city far from home. Living expenses are high (consider that many schools underestimate living expenses), and you will have to spend money on plane tickets to travel back and forth.
Suddenly that inexpensive little school is not looking so inexpensive any more.
2. You’ll likely receive a much better education for the money by choosing a college that’s a great fit.
Well suppose you run all the numbers, consider hidden costs, and choose the school that actually is the most affordable to your family. This is a much better option, but even then, if it's a school you aren't interested in attending you run the risk of eventually dropping out or transferring to a school that is a much better fit.
To ensure this isn't the case, make sure the school offers the major or majors you are interested in studying, and make sure it's a place you feel you'll have a good experience.
The Third Option: The Best Education for the Best Price
Choosing the best-fit school for you should really begin before you even send out applications. However, there is still a lot you can do now to ensure that this is the case.
First of all, consider your major or subject of study you are most interested in. Make sure it is offered at the schools you are considering and that ideally the program is well-funded and has a good reputation. There's no point at starting at a school only to discover they do not offer a quality education in the subjects you are actually interested in studying.
Secondly, check the stats of the schools you are considering to make sure the school offers good outcomes to students. Graduation rates, freshman retention, and student loan default rates are important factors to consider.
Lastly, consider social aspects of the campus. Are you planning on living on campus? Does the school offer clubs or programs you are interested in getting involved in?
I suspect that as you consider your options a few of the schools on your list will jump out to you as the obvious choices. These are the schools you should focus on when it comes to negotiating your offers and finally picking a winner.
If you're interested in a tool that can help you analyze and compare offers, as well as give you insight as to where you fit the best AND help with negotiating offers, check this out.