Picking a college for your university-bound high schooler is an exciting—and intimidating—process. There are so many choices! You and your child want to choose a school that helps meet his or her needs and goals.
And then there’s the significant cost of a college education. It is essential that you select a school that fits your family’s finances and helps you save money on college.
So what can you do to feel confident along the journey? The first step is creating a college list.
What is a college list (and why is it important)?
A college list is the set of schools a student plans to apply to. This list of candidate schools represents colleges and universities that provide quality education. But it also prioritizes other characteristics important to the individual student. And it includes only those schools that make financial sense for the student’s family.
The end goal of the college list? To send your student to the right college, for the right reasons, and at the right price.
You will want to finalize your list, ideally, by the end of your student’s junior year of high school.
Making a strong college list does take time, but the process is worth the investment. Bypassing this essential step of the college selection process can come at a steep price. Without a thoughtfully created college list, many students’ families face one or more of the following:
Wasted time & money during the application process:
There is a cost to visiting and applying to schools that are not a good fit for your family and finances.
Overpaying for college:
If a school’s true cost is a stretch for your family, you may struggle to compensate. As a result, you might forgo other financial goals to save enough money, pull funds from home equity or retirement accounts, or take on significant debt.
Choosing the wrong school:
More than one-third of college students transfer to another college. When a school is a bad fit for a student, you may+ incur the time and financial costs of transferring, lose some credits that do not transfer over, pay for additional college credits, and face financial ramifications if graduation is delayed.
Step 1: Talk it out.
Set up a meeting to put it all on the table.
Have your student sit down with you and any other decision-makers in the college selection process. To facilitate the discussion and guide you along the journey, consider including a trusted financial advisor.
The goal here is to identify assumptions, spell out expectations, and detail available resources. Parents should state how much financial assistance they will provide for each year of schooling, And students should examine their own assets.
Now is a great time to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as a jumping-off point for later steps in building the list.
Step 2: Take stock of your personal currency.
What valuable abilities and achievements does your student have? You want to pinpoint specific characteristics that could be considered for merit-based scholarships and grants.
Make a thorough inventory of student attributes that might be enticing to a college:
Look at GPA, standardized test scores, and high school transcripts. Students don’t need a perfect record to qualify for most scholastic awards.
A demonstrated achievement in the arts or athletics, for instance, can make a student an attractive college candidate.
Colleges want to produce future influencers and changemakers. So they look favorably on students who hold leadership roles and have proven results.
Volunteerism, community involvement, and participation in social justice causes—all of these can work in a student’s favor when applying for financial awards.
Step 3: Define your priorities.
There are plenty of “official” college lists out there—best schools in the Northeast, best private universities, best value schools, best overall schools, and so on. But there is no list that is one-size-fits-all. More importantly, there is no list that spells out the best schools for your student.
Fortunately, you are making that list right now. And, to do that effectively, you need to clarify what aspects of college matter most.
Start with academics, since your primary objective is to receive a quality education. After that, decide what additional features matter and whether they are must-haves or nice-to-haves:
- Availability and quality of specific programs and majors
- Opportunities to participate in relevant research projects
- Access to select professors
- Internship, study abroad, or co-op programs
- Availability of minors and focused areas of study within majors
- Number and types of required courses
- School’s stated mission or philosophy around education
- Number of undergraduate and graduate students
- Preferred class size & student-to-teacher ratio
- Principal class instructors (tenured professors, adjuncts, teaching assistants, etc.)
- Desirable extra-curricular activities
- Available housing options
- Quality of campus life
- Availability of weekend activities on campus or commuter school
- Proximity to home
- Proximity to desirable locations (a specific city, teaching hospital, wildlife refuge, etc.)
- Diversity of student body or teaching staff
- Specific cultural or religious tradition
- Athletic programs
- Volunteer & service opportunities
- Whatever you want — non-party schools, new lab facilities, dorm room air conditioning, campus bus service, etc.
Jot down as many nice-to-haves as you wish. But be sure to nail down each and every must-have. Customize your list so it’s perfectly tailored to your student’s individual strengths, needs, learning style, and personality.
Step 4: Focus on the finances.
Once you know what you want in a college, the next step is finding it—at a great price.
Top-tier schools can present a challenge here. These colleges are inundated with stellar applicants willing to pay full price for the privilege of attending. So the schools in the highest demand may offer few, if any, merit-based awards.
Likewise, research universities that prioritize Ph.D. programs tend to offer fewer merit scholarships to undergraduates than liberal arts colleges and schools geared toward master’s candidates and undergrads.
Search for schools that offer generous aid packages that include free-to-you scholarships and grant money. (Use a scholarship search tool) Colleges hungry for incoming freshmen and transfer students routinely discount their prices to attract applicants. Many state schools offer tuition breaks either through the school itself or through the state.
And other colleges pride themselves on meeting most or all of the students’ financial needs. Track down these schools with CollegeBoard’s College Search tool, which allows you to filter colleges based on the percentage of financial need a school meets.
You may also search at the top of the page for a particular school. On the school’s directory page, click the “Paying” tab, then “Financial Aid by the Numbers.” Look at the percent of needs met, the percent of freshmen who receive aid, the average amount of an aid package, and the breakdown of aid by scholarships/grants and loans/jobs.
So how much will a given school cost you? You’ll find out for sure when you receive an aid letter after applying. Before you reach that point, however, you will want to know if it is worth your while to add that college to your list. Use a college net price calculator to estimate the cost of having your student matriculate.
Step 5: Do your research.
Finding the best college for your student, your family, and your finances is absolutely achievable. But there is definite legwork required to get there.
Start drinking in information on schools that appeal to you and your child:
- Pore over school websites.
- Sign up for literature geared toward prospective students.
- Download course catalogs.
- Take a tour of the school. (Ask plenty of questions.)
- Shadow a current student or sit in on some classes you plan to take.
With dozens of colleges to consider, it’s easy to start mixing up schools in your head before long. Eliminate some of the process’ inherent complexity by setting up a simple organizational system.
Paper or digital file folders can corral important information from each school. Use a spreadsheet or grid to track features that matter to you at each college—class size, distance from home, quality of food, etc. Choose a method that works for you and lets you locate the info you need quickly.
Step 6: Finalize your list.
With your research done and your list of needs and wants completed, it is time to make decisions. Which schools will make it onto your student’s college list?
In the end, aim for 6 to 10 colleges at the very most. And diversify the schools you choose:
1 to 2 safety schools
Your student’s standardized test scores will be in the top 25th percentile for accepted students at these schools.
3 to 5 target or match schools
Your student’s standardized test scores will be between the 25th and 75th percentile for accepted students at these schools.
1 to 3 reach schools
Your student’s standardized test scores will be around the 75th percentile for accepted students at these schools.
Remember: Choose colleges that not only fit your family’s financial goals but are places your student would be happy to attend.
Once you’ve completed your college list, congratulate yourself! You took one of the most important steps in choosing the right college for your student at the right price. And, when your aspiring college student applies, you can rest easy knowing that your student has a plan for funding and enjoying those college years.
As the college list is often considered the single most important factor in paying the least amount of money possible and still getting a great education for your student, professional guidance is also available in helping you to create the most effective college list.