If you've spent even a little time looking at colleges, I'm sure you've asked yourself one important question: Can I afford this school? This is a great question that everyone should ask early on in the application process
One thing I will never tell students is to cross a school off their list solely because it's too expensive. Not only are there plenty of ways to get creative when paying for college, but you can also find readily available data that can be an indicator of the overall value of your investment at a certain college, taking you beyond just upfront cost and instead letting you focus on how that specific investment will pay off in the future. To help, here are a few financial tips to determine which schools might be a good fit.
How do you determine a good “financial fit," exactly? Well, that only comes with taking a hard look at your current finances in order to craft a realistic budget covering the tuition you can afford. Sit down with your parents and break a range of college tuitions into three categories:
- Totally doable
- Perhaps possible
- Might not be an option
By the way, don't rule out the schools that fall into that last set just yet. After all, The College Board reports that a total of $184 billion in aid was available to students between 2017 and 2018. That's a huge amount of money going to students looking to afford college just like you! With that money out there waiting, no school should be considered off limits this early.
Other ways you can make roaming your dream school campus more likely can include living at home or with relatives while attending school (even temporarily) to save the cost of room and board, or attending a community college for a year or two and then transferring to your dream university for a four-year degree. (If the former is an idea you choose to pursue, check with your school first to make sure new students aren't required to live on campus during your first semester or year.) The latter is a very affordable path to a college degree, but bear in mind that there are a few extra requirements for transfer students, including the need to maintain stellar grades in order to be accepted as a transfer student at a competitive institution.
While I always tell students it's great to aim high with applications, I also recommend putting a “financial safety school" on your list as well. That doesn't mean that you can't still think about that pricey private school; it just means that you should also look for an affordable school that fits you academically and culturally. (A safety school can often be a public university where tuition is cheaper for state residents.) You can never be absolutely certain what kind of assistance will come your way until your financial aid package arrives, so it's good to keep a safe option around.
Before sending you off on the next steps in your search, I'll leave you with one last thing: Always research any claims a school makes in terms of financial assistance. Some selective institutions advertise that their policy allows them to meet demonstrated student need entirely without loans. If that is the primary reason you are interested in an institution, contact their financial aid office for details early in your application process. Even with such policies, not every student will graduate debt free. That is why I always suggest seeking a second source to verify. It's better to know costs and potential debt upfront rather than being surprised later on. If you want more information on finding a great financial fit, check out our book The Best Value Colleges, where you can find schools that offer exceptional return on investment.
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