When Building a College List, Always Start with Financial Fit
At The Core is excited to share a guest blog about finding your financial fit from Mark Salisbury, CEO and co-founder of TuitionFit. He has spent 25 years in higher education. Mark’s research and perspectives have been highlighted by NPR, WNYC, Forbes, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed. TuitionFit was created to “build a world where everyone can find a college option that is affordable, accessible, and, most importantly, that transforms the range of opportunities that awaits them after they graduate” through pricing transparency.
Overwhelmed by Choices
Trying to answer the question, “How do I find the right college for me?” can quickly induce a wave of cold sweats. There are so many different aspects of fit one could consider:
- academic rigor
- major options
- social life
- size of student body
- cultural values
- urban or rural setting
- location (or distance from home)
- athletic or artistic opportunities
- alumni network
- even food options
Worse still, what seems like it matters a lot right now might not matter at all after a couple of months on campus.
So where do you start? How do you figure out which fit factor matters most?
Start with the End in Mind
The best way to clear away the fog is to skip beyond the college years for a moment and imagine what you want life to look like several years after college. You might have a great job, you might not. You might have an amazing social life, you might not. In either case, if things aren’t the way you’d like them to be, you can do something about it. But if you are deep in student loan debt, there is no escape. You are pinned under a decade (or more) of financial pressures that will continually limit your options.
Now, let’s back up a few years and imagine that you are somewhere early in your college career. Something about your college experience isn’t going like you’d hoped. Maybe you’re having second thoughts about your major. Or maybe your social group feels a little stale, and you wish you could start over somewhere very far away.
Again, in each case, there’s something you can do about it. Second thoughts about your major? Change it. Social circle getting stale? Expand it. Want to get away? Study abroad. But if you can no longer afford the price your college is asking you to pay? Best case: transfer. Worst case: drop out. Either way, the debt you’ve acquired is already on you to pay back.
Financial Fit First
Financial fit has to be the first factor you use to build your college list, because it’s the only one that you can’t fix if you get it wrong. With every college you consider, start by answering this question: “Is this college going to charge me a price that fits what I want, or can afford, to pay?”
Understanding financial fit is more than just knowing the price tag. It is an understanding of how much your family will be expected to pay. (This is where TuitionFit can help.) Families need to be aware of what the potential return on investment for the education received at that college may be based on employment prospects, future salary estimates, and graduation rates. The family also must be aware of all their funding sources (savings, cash flow, grants, scholarships, etc.) to fully fund college for all four years.
Every other fit factor can be reframed, refined, or revisited while you are in college with minimal impact on your path to a college degree. But the length of time it takes to make up for a poor financial fit (i.e., the time it takes to pay back the student loans you borrowed) will far exceed the time and effort required to adjust if any other fit factor doesn’t quite work out.
Once you’ve found a college that will fit you financially, you can dive deeper into all of the other fit factors that might matter for you. Then, no matter what college you choose, after you graduate you’ll have the financial flexibility to take any opportunity that comes your way.
Include TuitionFit in your list of tools
To ensure that the college a family chooses is the best possible financial fit, add TuitionFit.org to the list of tools that you use during both the early and late stages of the college admissions process. Because TuitionFit is built from actual pricing data that students and families have shared over the past few years, families can use TuitionFit to ensure that their college list includes schools that fit whatever price range they’ve selected. And when acceptance letters and financial aid offers begin to arrive, families can see how their own offers compare with thousands of offers received by similar students.
Thank you, Mark! Want to hear more? Watch Beth Probst’s interview with Mark called “The Secret to Shopping Smart for College.”
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