In my previous post, I encouraged you to learn about different kinds of colleges and universities and to use your own learning style and preferences as a lens for building your college list. When it came to my own search, this happened more on the fly- while I was visiting colleges. So back to the Dean’s College Search Memoir…
I visited LARGE-ISH IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL (which turned out to be more than twice the size of my hometown and promptly dropped off my list). I visited the medium-sized public university my cousin attended, and the mid-sized college that was really a university given its multiple schools and graduate degrees my sister attended (where I learned the technical definitions of “college” and “university”). My response to these visits? Meh.
Nothing struck me. I could see how they appealed to others, but for me they were sort of like cheese pizza: totally respectable choices, but lacking something that excited me (like prosciutto or sautéed mushrooms or fresh basil).
So I went on to visit SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE suggested by a favorite teacher and SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE #2 which was not too far from SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE as well as another school that sounded a lot like SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE in the brochures (yes, I am old enough that my college search was an entirely paper-based, internet-free affair). I visited SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE first and FELL IN LOVE. The woman who conducted my information session was smart and funny and wore cool glasses. I wanted to be smart and funny and wear cool glasses! She talked about seminar classes, study abroad, having dinner with your faculty members at their homes, theater and rah-rah sports events. She talked about students who LOVED to learn. All of these things sounded great to me and very much like the ticket out of my small hometown that I was longing for. I was smitten. Everyone I saw on campus was happy. I was happy while on campus. Match made in heaven. I bought a sweatshirt while my parents sweated about “how much was this fancy place with the sprawling nearly 600 acres, tiny student-faculty ratio and learnin’ going to cost…”
ERDean’s Piece of Advice #2: Have a conversation as a family early in your search about financing your college education. Talk honestly as a family about who is going to pay and how much. Start learning about financial aid now: what is an estimated family contribution or EFC? what is need-based aid? what is merit aid? will you and your family qualify for need-based financial aid? what does it mean to meet demonstrated need?
As you dig into this new language of financial aid, try not to get overwhelmed. There can be a lot to learn, and please know that financial aid teams across the country want to help. One of the most important things I learned early in my college search was that although an EFC is what your family will be expected to pay, it’s not equivalent to what you have in the bank. Your EFC is more like your purchasing power: what investment in the cost of education is reasonable relative to financial circumstances.
One thing that would have been helpful to me back then is something you have available to you today: Net Price Calculators (NPC), which are tools to help you determine what students like you have paid to attend a particular institution. Pick a few colleges and universities and use their NPC to determine what your EFC might be, and therefore, how much financial aid your family might (or might not) qualify for at those different schools. *A note on NPCs: good information in, means good information out! Estimates and guesses make for inaccurate financial aid projections.*
See what feels doable, practical, and comfortable for you and your family. Pay attention to which colleges meet full demonstrated need if that will be important to your family. There are something like 4,000 colleges and universities in this country, and there is enough variation in price points and opportunities for financial aid that I know there are schools out there that you will love and will be affordable.
A neighbor recently asked me “if visiting colleges is like shopping for a wedding dress: don’t try on anything you can’t afford”? The easy answer is YES!
Don’t put yourself in the position to have to say no to something you’ve already fallen for… but before you make the call on whether you can or cannot afford a specific college, make sure you have all the facts about financial aid, your options, and that you’ve done a healthy self-assessment as a family.
Trust me: I fell in LOVE with a place with a pretty high price tag (yes, this is foreshadowing, but don’t worry, it all turns out well in the end).
Next up: “Two of a Kind” or “They look the same on paper, but…”