Decisions, Decisions… Where to go?

choosing the right collegeCongratulations! The acceptance letters have come in! All of your hard work has paid off.  Now what do you do?  “Choosing the Right College” by John Zmirak, might help you decide, or follow the below check list to help you make a fool-proof decision.

Attend  “Accepted Students Day”. This is the college’s opportunity to shine. The agenda often includes a welcome by the College President, presentations and testimonials by professors and current students. There may be giveaways, free continental breakfast & lunch, the marching band, campus tours and afternoon sessions with department deans. Not all colleges host these events so take advantage of those who do. Both parents and students should attend. They are fun and will help you evaluate your decisioncollege_bound

Stay overnight with a current student. Do you have an acquaintance at the college you are considering? Reach out to them, find out more about the college and ask if you can visit overnight. It will give you a very good sense of the social life. Where do kids go on a Saturday night? Are frat or dorm parties  what you think they are?  Do kids travel off campus, go to the city, or is everything in walking distance?

What’s the “hidden” expense of this school? What is the spending culture at this college? Students’ recreational and spending money  varies greatly from college to college.  Go to a college in a semi rural area, expenses are usually modest since many social events are planned by the college to keep campus lively, i.e., hosting comedians, campus sporting events, concerts; $20 could last the whole weekend. Go to a city college and life is more expensive: the cab fare $25, lunch at a deli – $15 and dinner out could be $30.

It is uncomfortable to be the freshman that says no to social activities because they are too expensive. Yes, some students are above this social pressure, especially if they are in a rigorous academic program or an athlete, then study groups and practice become their social scene. Ask questions about what students do for fun.

What are the ramifications of Greek Life on campus? Does it feel like almost everyone is in Greek Life and you do not want to join? If you plan to join Greek life, are you guaranteed “a bid” or are many disappointed and not invited to join? Can you tolerate the disappointment if you do not get into your first choice?  Alternatively, Greek life maybe only a minor presence on campus. Is the pledge season in the fall or spring semester? Fall pledge seasons are challenging to most freshmen. Some schools do not allow pledging until sophomore year, this allows plenty of non-Greek friendships to form during freshman year which lessens the significance of joining.

Distance and Travel – The distance of a school from home is one of the most significant components in choosing a school. Many students do not return to a college because the distance created too much hardship or homesickness. If you live near a major airport and the school of choice is near a major airport than 1,200 miles from New York to Miami, FL may not be an issue.  A parent whose child was attending school across the country said, “I see him almost every six weeks so it’s not a big deal.” Apparently purchasing airfare was not an issue either. If your child is attending college that requires plane travel, budget in a few extra trips, for either you to go visit or to bring the student home. College life is intense and the normalcy of visiting home cannot be underestimated.

Also note that for school vacations, many colleges in the Northeast charter buses for affordable transportation. The buses leave campus and have planned drop offs at major malls off interstate highways, additionally they typically run chartered buses to the airports for vacation breaks.  Check if your college offers any of these services.

Fiske Guide  & Niche.com – You have visited the colleges, spent time on their website and are connected to their Facebook page. Now read and study the profiles in the Fiske Guide (available at most libraries, photocopy the specific pages) and Niche.com. The Fiske Guide gives a good overview of the college’s culture and Niche gives you the “real scoop” of the students’ impressions of their college. Both guides try to give a balanced viewpoint. If they present a consistent specific tone, i.e., “We work hard and party harder”  then there probably is truth in it.

Your Major – Many students will change their major several times during their college career. An important consideration is is to determine how flexible the college’s policy is for changing majors. Often in a small liberal arts college it is not an issue. However, if you are attending a university that has separate colleges it may be nearly impossible to transfer between colleges. For example, if you start as an Engineer at Cornell and are doing poorly, you may not be able to transfer into the College of Arts and Science because your GPA is too low.

Tuition & Expense  – This is probably the #1  factor in determining which college you will attend. While ability to pay is critical, be sure to take into account the other contributing factors in making your final decision.  If the cost is the only driver in this decision, but you make an ill-advised decision, you may end up spending more. Many public Universities have low 4 year graduate rates. If it typically takes 5 years to graduate due to overcrowding, then going to a smaller, private may be the better investment.

One student we know went to an out-of-state, public college that offered a merit scholarship which made the school very affordable. Thus, he turned down other acceptances and their merit awards. Unfortunately,  he was extremely unhappy at the chosen school because it was too big, too far from home and “a suitcase school”. (A suitcase school implies that many kids go home on weekends.) He ended up transferring to a small, private school without scholarship. Yet, if he had gone straight from his senior year in high school there would have been a four year merit award.

When analyzing scholarship offers, be sure to read the requirements. Usually there is a minimum GPA requirement for each year.

Taking out loans to pay for college is common practice but be sure to not over do it! A reasonable amount of debt is exactly what is offered though the Federal Direct Loan program; approximately $5,500 per year, which allows you to borrowing the maximum amount of $27,000 over four years. To make it easy to understand, if you borrow in total $30,000 at 6% and with a 10-year repayment schedule your payments will be:  $30,000 = $333 per month.  Six months after graduation you must start to repay the Direct Loan.  Be careful not to have your student mortgage their future! If it is too expensive, attend community college for two years at a fraction of the cost.

School Expense Spreadsheet – Create a spreadsheet of all your schools. Include:

  • Tuition
  • Room and Board (Meal Plan)
  • Hidden Fees (i.e. Student Union, Lab expense, joining Greek Life)
  • Travel Expense
  • Computer (some schools include this in their tuition)
  • Books

Deduct any Scholarships or Financial aid packages to determine Net Cost.

Hang your chart up for the entire family to see and determine what is best! Can you afford to pay “X” amount for the next four years? How much per year do you want in loans? What about grad school? One student cried and begged her parents to send her to a college that would cost about $40,000 per year. Instead she attended the school that cost $20,000 and absolutely loves it and will graduate with no debt. It was very hard for the parents to make that decision, but they knew that did not want those loans to follow their child into adulthood.

Part II  Make a Contract! 

This is especially a great idea if you are the parent footing the tuition bill. It is also helpful to the student since it helps them create a plan. Many students think they have a pretty good idea of how they will live, study and make their way in college. However, their priorities are probably different from their parents. All students should write their own contract because it gets them thinking!

Elements of a New Student Contract or “Business Plan” 

  • How much time do they plan to study on a daily basis
  • What are their academic goals
  • What are their social goals
  • What is the spending money budget
  • When they should call home
  • Parental access to student’s log in info i.e. for transcripts, schedules, university notices
  • Purchasing of Books  (who is paying, when & where  you expect them to buy them, (1st day of class, amazon, rent through chegg.com, etc.)

The student should make a 7 Day spreadsheet of their anticipated schedule*:

  • integrate class time
  • studying in the library
  • meals
  • Professor or TA hours
  • on campus errands
  • room cleaning
  • laundry
  • socializing and
  • sleep

* Yes, a spreadsheet with time blocks may seem over the top but it can be a “fun” exercise and it is especially helpful if you are concerned about maturity. This will truly help the student envision how their day should look and prevent them from becoming overwhelmed. If something goes awry at school such as illness, roommate conflicts, or a week without clean underwear, a new student can quickly go down a slippery slope and lose sight of their goals.

A  self-written Student Business Plan or Contract is empowering.  Students should write it and then discuss it with the parents. It may need to be sent for a rewrite if expectations are overzealous or too low.

You are assisting your child obtain the privilege of a college education. Maybe you will take out loans to do so. If you were borrowing money to launch a business the bank would require you to submit a business plan. Why not help your child understand the significance of the expense of a college education?

A Final Word- Attending Harvard  Happiness

A college education resulting in earning your degree, is a privilege and a worthy goal. You want a great experience of learning and growing while be able to pay for it. This does not mean going to the most prestigious or expensive college. There are many ways to accomplish earning a college degree. There are over 3,000 colleges in the United States and much to be said about being the “Big Fish in a Small Pond”. Many students who attend Harvard, Princeton and Yale are not happy, so think outside the box and find the right fit for you!