How to Choose a College

Angela Colley — It’s Complicated

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Dear It’s Complicated:

My daughter worked hard through her primary school career and has been accepted to several colleges, including a local state school, two out-of-state state schools, and a private university. While we encouraged her to apply everywhere she liked and we’re thrilled she’s received so many acceptance letters, now that we’re here, this is all a bit overwhelming. As her parents, we want to help her choose a college that she’ll love—but also one that will set her up well for a future career.

There’s also the money factor. We have some money set aside, but we’ll likely be relying on a combination of grants and student loans to flesh that out. So, we also want to make sure she doesn’t end up overburdened financially as soon as she graduates.

How can I help her choose the right college?


First, congrats on getting so many acceptance letters—that’s a huge hurdle to cross and you should all feel very proud!

Choosing a college isn’t easy, especially when you have more than one good option on the table, but there are steps you can take to help narrow things down.

Weigh the pros and cons

Odds are good that when she was applying, some schools felt like dreams and others felt like backups. But now that the offer letters are here, all those acceptances just look like sweet, sweet freedom to your daughter and discarding any might seem impossible. The easiest way to start paring the options down is with a good, old-fashioned pro and con list. Sit down with your daughter and make a wish list of everything she wants in an ideal college, then compare each school’s offerings. Everything the school has is a “pro,” everything they don’t is a “con.”

When you’re at the end of your lists, you’ll likely find one or two that don’t match up at all. Knock those out of the running.

Compare costs and financial aid

With college tuition on the rise, having a good idea of what a degree will cost (including living expenses, fees, and the potential cost of further higher education, depending on what your daughter wants to do) is an important step in choosing a college. But it’s not just about the tuition fees.

Compare the cost of tuition, books, dorm or rent costs, and the cost of living in the area, against any financial aid being offered by each school, to get a sense of what you’ll pay overall. “Remember to think about all four years. Tuition will increase, your contributions could change, and your financial aid package might change also,” says Sabrina Manville, former university administrator and co-founder of Edmit, a company that helps families choose the best colleges.

And don’t forget to account for life changes. While most colleges require freshman to live on campus, upperclassmen usually want to graduate to an off-campus apartment, which means more rent and maybe a car. “The first year is just the beginning,” Manville says.

It’s also worth looking into how long the average student takes to graduate and weigh how likely your daughter is to complete her education in only four years. Some schools have students attending well into their sixth year, which can significantly increase the cost.

Don’t discard out-of-state schools

The belief has always been out-of-state schools cost more simply because you pay more to attend a school outside of your area, but that’s not always the case.

“Increasingly state schools will have scholarships for out-of-state students, or reciprocity agreements with neighboring states where you can get in-state tuition,” says Manville.

If those offers aren’t included with your acceptance package, contact the college’s financial aid office to see if they’ll bump it up, according to Manville. They often will.

Consider ROI

It’s also important to consider not just what a school offers and costs, but what it can offer its students—it’s what Manville dubs the ROI (return on investment).

To judge a college’s ROI, you’ll need to compare the cost of attending (plus any interest costs on student loans you’ll be taking out), against what could be potentially earned with the degree they plan on pursuing at that school. Keep in mind, these are mostly estimations. Where your daughter chooses to live after college, how long it might take to reach a higher-paying tier in her career field, and even the economy can all factor into eventual ROI. The idea is to compare estimates to help you narrow down those college options.

And if you daughter isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life (who is!)—try to get a sense of a few different majors or jobs and compare those. She doesn’t need an exact plan to pick a great college.

Visit the school (if you can)

Most colleges offer some sort of potential student tour. These tours are usually led by current students who can answer both your and your daughter’s questions about life on campus, academics, and location—things that you might not be able to find on Google.

Encourage your daughter to explore a bit on her own outside of the tour. It’ll give her a chance to meet students and see what life will be like when she’s roaming the campus, free of a scheduled tour. After all, she’s the one who will be attending, not you.

Factor in the college (and post-college) life

College is so much more than cost and degree programs, so don’t overlook the rest of the experience.

Once your daughter has narrowed her choices down to the colleges that offer the kind (or kinds) of degrees she’s is interested in, are affordable, and have a good ROI, look at the details. How is the college experience? Does the university offer smaller class sizes or large lectures? Does it have a thriving student culture and fun programs your daughter will actually want to engage in? Are the dorms terrible? Is the food similar to what you’d find in a hospital? Having a good college experience can help your daughter gain life experience and make lifelong friends that will set her up long after she graduates.

And don’t forget life after college. What universities offer in terms of career services and alumni participation varies widely. If you really want to get a sense of what life might be like in college and beyond, Manville recommends reaching out to the alumni. Many people are happy to chat about their former alma mater.

Choosing a college might seem like the most important decision you’ve ever helped your daughter make, but don’t fret too much about making the wrong choice. With a little planning, you’ll find the perfect school.