Evaluating College Acceptances

Evaluating College Acceptances

For most high school seniors, spring is crunch time. College acceptances have been arriving, and a deposit must be received by the college the student plans to attend by May 1. The period of time between acceptances and deposit can be intense as students and their parents weigh a number of factors. Here are two questions to ask as your family evaluates college acceptances.

How well does the college meet your child's needs?

Presumably, all the colleges your child applied to would do a good job of meeting your child's needs; otherwise he or she wouldn't have applied there in the first place. But now that your child has a definite list of options, it's time to look at things a little more closely.

Most colleges host an accepted students day geared exclusively to incoming students. Even if your child has already visited the college, visiting again might be helpful. Your child will meet other accepted students; hear in more detail about the offerings related to academics, extracurricular activities, and campus life; and possibly notice things on campus that might have been missed the first time around. Some colleges even offer overnight stays in the dorms. You and your child might also get a chance to explore the surrounding area and see what it would be like to travel back and forth from home. After visiting again, does the college still have the same appeal that it did when your child applied? If not, why?

If your child can't visit in person, there are other ways to do additional research. Your child might email a particular department, professor, or student ambassador with specific questions or browse the college's website to dive deeper into major requirements, campus events, or fitness classes. Your child might also browse online forums and read student reviews of the college. Keep in mind that no college is immune from an occasional negative review, but a similar, consistent complaint or perspective across multiple forums might mean there is a ring of truth to a particular issue. At the very least, a cluster of negative reviews might prompt your child to investigate further.

Finally, don't overlook academic flexibility. Many college students end up changing their majors down the road. If your child decides to change majors, would he or she be able to find another one relatively easily? Another consideration might be the ease of double majoring or minoring, and the ability to earn a master's degree at the same institution in one year versus two by taking graduate-level courses in senior year.

How much will it cost you and your child?

Even if a college meets your child's needs, you should consider its affordability. The news is filled with stories about skyrocketing student debt and the debilitating effects — on students and parents — of taking on too much debt.

A college acceptance packet should include a detailed breakdown of any financial aid the college is offering, including loans, grants, scholarships (need-based or merit-based), and a work-study job. Make sure to read the fine print carefully and understand exactly what the college is offering. For example, a college might say, "Congratulations! You've been awarded $30,000...," which you might think is a scholarship but actually includes $5,500 in loans and $2,000 in work-study. As you review the award, keep in mind that if a college says it is meeting "100% of your demonstrated need," the college is the one that defines your need, not you.

The goal is to compare your out-of-pocket cost at each college. To do this, look at the total cost of attendance for each school (this figure includes tuition and fees, room and board, plus a discretionary sum for books, personal expenses, and transportation). Next, list any grants or scholarships that the college is offering. If the grant or scholarship is merit-based, find out whether it's guaranteed for all four years and if there are any requirements that must be met to qualify each year (e.g., a 3.0 minimum GPA or participation in a certain activity). If the grant or scholarship is need-based, find out whether you can expect a similar amount each year as long as your income and assets stay roughly the same (and you'll have the same number of children in college), and ask whether it increases each year to match any annual increase in tuition.

The difference between a college's total cost of attendance and any grant or scholarship aid is your out-of-pocket cost or "net price." Compare your net price across all colleges. Next, with your net price in hand, determine how much, if anything, you and your child will need to borrow. Multiply this figure by four to get an idea of what your total borrowing costs might be over four years. Then use a loan repayment calculator to show your child what the monthly loan repayment would be over a standard 10-year term at a fixed interest rate for the amount he or she will need to borrow (and do the same for yourself). Armed with these numbers, you and your child can make an informed college decision.

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