Financial factors to consider before choosing a college

The May 1 National Decision Day will be here in just over a week.

If your child’s college choice wasn’t obvious, you’ve probably already done the pro/con lists and maybe even revisited a few campuses during Accepted Students’ Days. But where do the financial factors fit into the decision-making process?

“They expect us to pay what? They can’t be serious.” That’s a fairly typical reaction to a so-called award letter from a college’s financial aid office. Colleges base their awards on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and the CSS Profile,

Many parents are confused about the financial aid process and how to help their children make this very important decision.

Here are some of their questions:

“Is it worth it to take out loans if my child has no idea what they want to major in?”

“Should I force them to identify a practical major that has a strong likelihood of leading to a well-paying job?”

“Will there be enough of a significant payoff for that brand-name school?”

“Will they be better off possibly struggling academically at a more prestigious school or perhaps find themselves insufficiently challenged at a less selective school?”

“I want my child to have some ‘skin in the game’ so they take their college education seriously, but do I really want my 22-year-old saddled with $20,000 to $50,000 in debt at graduation?”

“What about grad school – who is paying for that?”

“If I take out loans with my oldest child, am I bound to commit the same investment to my younger children?”

With private school costs (tuition/room/board/fees) now hovering between $50,000 and $65,000 a year, many parents are focused on their ROI, return-on-investment.

George Cronson, a Charlotte parent of a college sophomore and a high school senior, said, “With many colleges costing upwards of $200,000 over four years, you’d be silly not to wonder what’s going to happen after they graduate.”

Cronson continued, “In today’s job market, you need to think about graduate school. Many times the high-paying jobs require an advanced degree. If you spend all your money on the undergraduate education, you may not have anything left for graduate school.”

Some interesting financial aid factoids:

“Aid” often means loans and work-study. Be sure to read your letters carefully so you understand your complete financial commitment over four years.

The definition of need differs depending on the college. Wealthy colleges with huge endowments such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. provide need-based aid (not merit) to families making more than $200,000 per year.

A number of colleges, including Davidson, Bowdoin (Maine), Pomona (Calif.), Harvard (Mass.), and Swarthmore (Pa.), meet full demonstrated need with no loans.

Good resources: