The 5 Pillars of College Planning: #2 - The College Search Process

Damian Winther, CFP® CSRIC®
May 9, 2024 7:58:12 AM

Welcome back to the 5 Pillars of College Planning. In this blog, we will focus on the college search process and some of the factors you may want to consider when trying to find the right fit for your child.

Read Pillar #1 - The College Savings Process

There are currently about 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States. Narrowing this list down to a select group of 5-10 schools can be overwhelming, even for the most diligent of planners.

If you’re like me, you may have spent the last 17 years saving for college, and now is the time to start evaluating different higher education institutions to determine what you and your family can afford, which schools offer the major or academic area your student may wish to pursue and which schools have the right social fit for your child.

Academic Fit & Reputation

Let’s start first with academic fit and reputation. It’s essential to ensure that the college or university offers the major your child is interested in pursuing. When researching this for my oldest daughter, we came across several schools with specialized or unique majors that others didn’t offer. Also, some schools provide what’s known as “direct entry” into some of the more specialized programs (e.g., Nursing, Engineering, Business, etc.), while others require entry into a “pre-level program.”

Generally, pre-level admissions require one to two years of general education before the student can apply for formal admission to the college or program of their choice. Understanding how the college or university determines its admission criteria is crucial to making an informed college decision.

Nearly one-third of all undergraduate students change majors within the first three years of college. For this reason, I strongly encouraged my daughter to focus on schools that offer solid backup options, so making a change in her course of study doesn’t have to mean changing schools, too.

The key to academic success is flexibility. Make sure there is more than one option because changing interests, majors and careers is almost a sure thing.

Public vs. Private

Have you considered the difference between public and private schools? Have you done any research to determine the true cost difference between these institutions? In general, private schools have a much higher price tag than public schools, but it’s important not to get too focused on the “sticker price.”

Families rarely pay the stated “sticker price” associated with private schools. Instead, most private colleges offer sizable merit-based scholarships and grants, which can significantly reduce the cost of attendance. In my experience, the merit-based scholarships provided by private schools were typically quite significant and, in several cases, resulted in out-of-pocket expenses that were lower than those published by public universities. In most cases, merit-based scholarships were automatically determined based on my daughter’s ACT score or Grade Point Average (or a combination of the two).

On the other hand, the costs for public schools are generally much closer to their published tuition rates; these rates can be found on all college and university websites. I found that while the published tuition rates were often significantly lower for public schools, public universities generally didn’t offer as many merit-based scholarships as private schools. 

Knowing the difference between a school’s sticker price and your family’s actual out-of-pocket financial responsibility is incredibly important when narrowing down the list of schools that meet your search criteria.

Location & Size

While this may seem fairly straightforward, it can make the difference between a great college experience and a disappointing one. Many high school students are only aware of the schools they see on television or in major athletic conferences – think “sweatshirt schools” for lack of a better description.

The reality is that there are thousands of schools out there, and they all offer unique experiences, majors, faculty and opportunities. Plan on touring several different campuses to get a better sense of the following:

  1. Size: How does your student feel about big, small, or midsize schools?
  2. Location: Is it important for your student to be within driving distance of home? Does the student want to be in a neighboring state? Is the prospect of being halfway across the country appealing? Compare and contrast urban vs. rural locations.
  3. Public vs. Private: While a private college may offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention for your student, a large public college may offer a wider choice of classes and majors. As you compare schools, make a pros and cons list to see what variables weigh more heavily than others in terms of importance.

Social Considerations

Spend time getting to know the campus culture and explore different activities, athletics or groups your student may want to join. College isn’t just about studying and preparing for a career. It’s about growing up and learning to be independent.

Social factors play a key role in a successful college experience. Will your student feel comfortable in the campus environment? Do the values of the school align with your own? Are there a variety of opportunities to make friends and get involved in campus life?  Are you looking for a college or university that has a highly competitive program in a particular area of study? Is it important that your child be able to attend a Saturday afternoon football game with 100,000 fans? 

Your student is about to embark on a solo journey to adulthood. Yes, you’ll still be there to help them along the way, but having a solid support system will help alleviate some of the pressure and stress that often comes with a new experience.

Stay Tuned for Pillar #3 – The College Application Process

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