What families should think about when choosing a college

  • It's spring, and students will soon be deciding on a college to attend
  • Rankings and reputation, experts say, may be overrated
  • Families should be sure to consider cost and fit for each school

LEIPZIG, GERMANY – AUGUST 30: Graduates in gown and caps celebrate their graduation at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management on August 30, 2014 in Leipzig, Germany. A total of 167 students in various Masters programs of business management graduated today, including the regular MBA program, whose students are 80% from foreign countries, while the more advanced graduate programs have a higher percentage of German-born students. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Spring brings with it college admissions season. May 1 is the date commonly used by colleges for students to inform them of their college decisions.

That means in April schools are making their final pushes to attract potential students, a task that’s becoming something of an uphill battle as the pandemic and rising tuition costs have resulted in fewer Americans believing a college degree is worth the cost.

For families that are considering enrollment, there are a number of factors to consider, such as cost, quality of life, and the opportunities an institution may be able to provide.

NewsNation asked four experts what they believe is most important for students and families to consider as they’re making this decision.

Make affordability a top concern

Tens of millions of Americans carry student loan debt, with the average debt per borrower just over $37,000.

Robert Farrington — founder of TheCollegeInvestor.com — advises families to make the cost of college a top consideration when starting the application process.

“I like to advise people to pick about seven, eight schools that have both academic and financial fit,” he said. “I think a lot of families focus so much on the academic and cultural fit and they don’t necessarily think so much on the financial bit of the situation.”

Farrington said some students may consider attending community college for two years as a cheaper alternative, and then transfer to a four-year college or university for the final two years of school.

He added students should use tools like Glassdoor or public job listings to look at the expected salary for the careers they hope to get after studying a particular subject.

“Never borrow more in student loans than you expect to earn in your first year after graduation,” he said.

Denise Pope, a Stanford education professor who has done work on student well-being, also pointed out that it’s worth trying to negotiate over financial aid offers.

“What I think a lot of people don’t know is you are allowed to call up and talk to them about that offer. Sometimes they’re gonna say this is the best we can do and we can’t do anything else. Other times they might be able to work with you, depending on the school,” she said.

How to evaluate the campus

April is a critical month in the enrollment process as schools try to attract students who’ve been offered admission but haven’t yet made a final decision, according to professional college admissions adviser Jillian Nataupsky.

In the face of this charm offensive, Nataupsky advises families against visiting schools only on official visitation days.

“I usually try to steer my students away from those. And the reason is that it’s not a typical day on campus. You could have upwards of a couple thousand extra people on campus. So the size might feel different. They might serve you different food. They might be having hand-selected panels of specific professors and students they want you to hear from,” she said.

Sara Harberson, a professional college admissions consultant who previously worked as an associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, explained how the colleges typically treat these days.

“My biggest budget was for these admitted student days. … You have to just realize that they are rolling out the red carpet for the student and the family,” she said.

Nataupsky suggested visiting on a weekday without the admissions fanfare to get a more realistic feel for life on campus.

“I always recommend that families try to go on a normal Tuesday and get a sense for what campus is like on a typical day. Sit outside on a bench in front of the library and watch the students as they go in and out of the building,” she said.

Consider opportunities at each school

Nautapsky urges students not to think just about the brand name of a school or what she called “arbitrary” published rankings.” Instead, she advises her students to look into specific opportunities at each school for their fields of study.

“Think about what opportunities they will have to do research, for example, if it’s a student who’s interested in research,” she said. “Or what opportunities they will have to take classes outside of their chosen major if they are interested in a variety of subjects. Can they still study abroad with their chosen major at that school?”

Harberson suggested narrowing the list of schools that accept you to two or three to make the decision a little bit easier.

“A lot of students feel bad to say no to these colleges: ‘Oh they gave me a merit scholarship.’ … But if they know that it’s not the right fit, they’ve got to cross it off the list,” she said. “Because when a student has honestly more than three schools that they’re seriously considering — between April 1st and May 1st, that’s a four-week period — it’s too much.”


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