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Choosing A College: Don't Ignore The Cost

A hundred dollar bill rolled up with a grad cap on top
A hundred dollar bill rolled up with a grad cap on top

Would you shop for and buy a house without first knowing the asking price?  How about a car?  Of course not!  You’d know what your budget is, look for a house or car that falls within your budget, and then decide whether the price tag is worth it to you.
A college education will probably be the first or second most expensive purchase that an individual will ever make over the course of his or her entire lifetime.  Yet, most people will select an institution and either completely ignore the cost, or not be aware of what the true cost of that school will be.  Then, once they get accepted and have their heart set on one school or another, they find that the cost of the education is far more than they expected.

While it is true that a college education has gotten incredibly expensive for almost anyone, a huge contributing factor to skyrocketing student debt is that students are choosing to attend schools that they simply cannot afford. Students are compelled to take on significant loans to pay for these high cost educational choices. And then find themselves in very challenging financial situations upon graduation.

Instead of taking the “fire, ready, aim” approach to choosing a college, families should be much more measured with their tactics, if they want to avoid being overwhelmed by college costs.

Here’s how to do it:

Step 1:  Know your budget.

Before you even consider applying to college, take stock of your family’s financial situation.  Ask yourself, how much do I have available to spend for a college education, and how much am I willing to spend and sacrifice?  Consider the future.  What if something happens and you have a lot less money coming in once the student has started college (e.g., you lose your job, an expensive health issue crops up, etc.)?  Will you still be able to fund college?  Are there other family members who will also need to tap into the family’s finances in the future?

Step 2Cast a broad net, initially. 

Identify a number of schools that fit the student’s interests and academics.  Don’t just choose one or two; find several.  Even if the student thinks he or she knows the exact college where he or she wants to go, expand the search.  First, there’s no guarantee that the student will get admitted to that school, and second, there’s no guarantee that the school will fit your budget.  By finding many schools that could be a good match for the student, you will increase your chances of putting together a list of schools that you can afford.

Step 3Explore the fully loaded cost of each school. 

You cannot assume that the price of college will be “about the same” irrespective of where you attend.  From one college to the next costs will vary tremendously.  Where do you find information on school costs?  What is meant by “fully loaded” costs?  Schools will generally provide tuition information on their websites, and many schools will include what is called an estimated Cost Of Attendance (COA), too. The COA represents an approximation of your fully loaded cost, and will usually include:

  • Tuition
  • Room and Board
  • School Fees
  • Books and School Supplies
  • Travel
  • Personal Expenses

Visit each school’s website that your child is interested in, and if the school provides an estimated COA, use it as a starting point to calculate your costs.  You need to figure out what your actual outlay is likely to be based on your own individual circumstances. Schools use an average number to figure costs like travel and personal expenses, but you should try to be more exact.  For example, if the student will be bringing a car to campus, the school will not put car-related expenses into their COA calculation, but you should put it into yours. In short, project how the student will be living while attending college and tally up all the costs associated with that lifestyle.

Step 4Investigate the financial aid generosity of each school.

Not all schools are created equal when it comes to their financial aid generosity.  Some will meet full financial need while others won’t.  Some schools will be very generous with merit aid for those who don’t meet the criteria for need-based aid, and others will only provide merit aid to a select few.

To figure out just how generous a school is with their aid, a good source is the College Data website:  You can search by school name, and in the Money Matters section, the site reveals what percentage of financial need was met as well as how much the college provided in need-based and merit aid and to how many students for the previous year.

By looking at this information for each of the schools of interest, you can get a good sense of how open-handed with money that school is and whether or not you might have a shot at getting some aid.

Step 5Assess your likelihood of receiving financial aid. 

You know your budget.  Also you know what your finances look like.  You know what the cost of a college is.  You know whether the schools on your list are generous.  But, you still don’t know what each college on your list is actually going to cost you.  Will you qualify for financial aid and bring down the COA?

While you can’t get a definitive answer about your costs before you apply and actually get admitted to a school, you can get a reasonable approximation of how much a college education will cost you at a given school.

Colleges are now required to make online Net Price Calculators (NPC) available to the public.  NPCs allow prospective students to input some basic financial information about themselves and then the NPC calculates approximately how much financial aid they are eligible for and how much it will consequently cost them to attend that school – the “net price”.

Net Price Calculators can generally be found at a college’s website, and The College Board also provides a NPC for a multitude of schools at

Beware that the NPCs provide only an estimate of your likely cost, and sometimes a very loose one at that.  Because the information captured isn’t as thorough as on an actual financial aid application, and because the NPCs don’t take into account either special circumstances or your potential eligibility for merit aid (which is based on student performance rather than financial strength), the output of the NPC should not be what you expect to receive.  Still, by going through the Net Price Calculator process for each school on your list, you’ll get a directional sense of what the school will cost you.
The bottom line is that, if finances are an issue, when you are first considering where to apply consider budget, school cost, and financial aid in the calculation.  By doing so, you just may save yourself a little heartache and a whole lot of money.
Andrea Aronson
College Admissions Consultant, Westfield, NJ


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