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Crunch the numbers before choosing a college

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I recently found myself warding off a headache that was coming on while I pleaded with one of my students to find an alternative college choice.

Yes, he’s been accepted to his top school. Yes, they have offered him scholarship money and a need-based grant. And, yes his parents even want to see their son at this college.

So, why was my blood pressure rising to the point that I could feel it in the tension behind my eyes? Simply put, they really can’t afford it.

May 1 is fast approaching and this is the day - Decision Day - that most schools give as a deadline for students to let them know if they will be in attendance.

As exciting as Decision Day can be, choosing a school that’s too expensive can be a decision that students and parents come to regret.

As families are gearing up to make their choice, I thought it would be worthwhile to consider these things before you sign on the dotted line.

List costs of attending 

To really understand the impact that your child’s education will have on your bank account, parents will want to create an exhaustive list of what everything will cost. The school will provide you with the “Total Cost of Attendance,” which should include everything from tuition, room and board, to healthcare and technology fees.

Here’s what they can’t tell you:

  • How much it cost for a plane ticket to and from college, twice a year.
  • How much it will cost to insure a car, out of state.
  • How much money you’ll need to send for household items, school supplies, and storage during winter break.

You get my point. Everything adds up and each expense needs to be accounted for -  down to that laptop your son or daughter is probably asking for. The best thing to do is compare each award letter and school costs. College Board provides a webinar and other resources to help you make an apples-to-apples comparison.  

Evaluate loan options

You might find that your child’s college choice is suggesting that you take out a Parent Plus or private loan to cover the rest of the cost of attendance. While these loans might be easy to get your hands on, it might be harder to get the lender’s hands out of your pockets.

Unlike, the federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans that are offered to college students, private loans could have earlier repayment periods - in some cases the first payment might be due a month after the money is borrowed - and increased interest rates.

Before you sign off on any additional loans, you will want to understand what that monthly payment will be and how much you end up paying when it’s all over. In my student’s case, his parents would need to borrow an additional $16,000 per year. Once interest is applied, they will be paying back $25,000, per year!

Plug your numbers into Bankrate’s Student Loan Calculator to help determine what you truly will be responsible for paying back.

Investigate job placement rates

Depending on the type of school or your child’s prospective major, the dream school might not be offering the biggest bang for your buck. Read through the award letter carefully and make sure you and your child are clear about the credential that they will walk away with.

There’s a huge difference between paying $50,000 for a Bachelor’s Degree versus an Associate’s Degree or a diploma. A “degree” gives the student more flexibility and leads right into the next level of educational attainment. Certificates and diplomas represent the completion of a program or concentration of study and are not as widely valued, depending on career field.

Other language to read carefully is around graduate job placement rates. Just because a school publishes a high job placement rate does not mean that the school helps students secure jobs after graduation, or that their graduates are finding jobs in their career fields.

If you expect for your child to get a job right out of college and start paying back loans, you’ll want to make sure that the school has a formal job placement program and that your child is going into an industry that’s in demand. Check out the High Priority Occupations list for Pennsylvania to determine if the school you are considering is worth the money for the career field your child will enter.

Choosing the right college can be stressful, with all of the factors that parents need to consider. If you have questions, leave them in the comments section, I’m happy to help you figure it out.

Melissa A. Rowe, M.Ed., is founder of  Capture Greatness! – A Scholarship Writing & College Coaching Initiative. As a writer, education advocate, and college counselor, she teaches young people how to write effectively to fund their college educations. A Philadelphia native, with over a decade of experience in education, Melissa has held positions in schools, colleges, and out-of-school time programs. Recently, she has been recognized, by WHYY, as an American Graduate Champion for her work with students from under-resourced schools. Through Capture Greatness, Melissa has helped local students earn more than $1,000,000 in scholarship money, including four Gates Millennium Scholarship recipients. Learn more about her work at:


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