When Building a College List, Always Start with Financial Fit

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?”

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.

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