Consider the Dollars and Sense of Your College Search
August 27, 2013

When it comes to college searches, high school students go about it many different ways. Some of you will take a legacy approach where you plan to attend the same college one (or both) of your parents did. Others of you will look to the most academically challenging school you can get into and some of you will strive for an Ivy League school for the prestige of it. Still others will pick a school in your own backyard for convenience sake. Still others opt for an online experience because you plan to work your way through school and assume this may be easier.

But with the prevalence and easy access to student loans, many of you may not fully consider the financial impact of accruing debt while you’re gaining knowledge. Here at we are all about student loans, but most of our readers are already neck deep in student loans when they come to us. Today we’d like to address those of you that are just starting out and have yet to begin piling on the debt. We’d like to offer some advice on the financial aspects of your college search. Here are some factors you simply must consider when you’re selecting your college:

#1 Earnings Potential

7 Habits of Highly Successful People author Steven Covey says to “Begin with the end in mind” and this is so true when it comes to the college search. You have to consider what financial position you’ll likely be in after you graduate to determine how much you can afford. If you plan to teach, you’ll likely be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, but will still have to make a decade of payments before forgiveness kicks in.

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If you plan to major in journalism, you may find the salaries are often low and job competition high. Attorneys will have more earnings potential, as will engineers and nurses. The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t incur more in student debt than your first year’s salary. But it may be wise to be even more conservative than this since unemployment among recent grads is higher than it’s been in years and it may take you some time to secure your first job.

#2 Scholarship Availability

If you have scholarships available to you, this should be a prime factor in your college search. When comparing schools, which institution will offer you more in free money should be a major consideration. That being said, you must view scholarships in context to overall tuition. If one school costs $30,000 per year and is offering $10,000 in scholarships, that’s not nearly as good as a school that costs $10,000 and offers $5,000 in scholarships.

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You should consider all sources of free money. For instance if your state offers college money from the lottery or other source (like Georgia’s HOPE scholarship) then you must put that in the plus column when comparing in-state versus out-of-state schools. Some scholarships can follow you wherever you go and thus will be a factor at any school. Look for the school where your “free” college money will make the biggest dent in tuition.

#3 Non-Tuition Costs

Schools not only hit you with tuition, but they tack on room, board and fees. At many schools, fees are skyrocketing as a way for them to increase revenue without putting it on the “tuition” line item so they seem more competitive. In addition to that, schools add on out-of-state fees to students coming from outside their state which is (to our thinking) a bit of a rip-off since they want (and need) students from all over the country to survive.

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Add up all the costs so you can see what the school really costs. Then look at your scholarships and other “free” money to get an idea of your true out of pocket costs for a particular school. Books should be pretty much the same at any school, but if the fees, rooming and food costs at one school are way out of line compared to other schools, you may need to put that school on the back burner and look to another option for your education.

#4 Indecision

For some high school students, you may be crystal clear on what you want to be when you grow up. But for many others of you, you may have no real idea of what you want to do with the rest of your life. And who can blame you? You’re 16, 17 or 18 and are still evolving as a person. It’s difficult to know what you’ll be happy doing in 20 years for a career. In fact, you may need some time in school to take classes and try some internships to find your passion.

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If this is your case, you may want to consider starting at a community college or lower-cost state school to work on your core courses and get your feet wet. This can allow you time to figure out what you want to do without incurring any student debt. Check ahead of time to ensure that all courses will transfer in, but you’ll often find that as long as the school is a member of the university system in your state, you should be in good shape.

#5 Think Twice About For-Profit Schools

Students at for-profit schools are at risk for higher than average student debt and lower outcomes in terms of employment and salary in many cases. Although only 13% of students attend for-profit colleges, a whopping 47% of student loan defaults come out of these institutions. This should be a big red warning flag for you if you’re considering a for-profit school. These can include colleges, career and vocational schools.

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Students at for-profit schools accumulate more than 63% more in student debt and costs of education are between two and four times higher than public schools. If you are considering a trade school look for a program at a community college rather than opting for a private school. You’ll get the same education for cheaper. For-profit schools should be a last resort for you because the outcomes are lower and costs higher.

Final Thoughts

Although the government lauded itself for launching the College Scorecard to “help” prospective colleges students and their families make better decisions when choosing a college, in fact, the functionality is less than impressive. Instead, consider the Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Reality Check which compares cost, graduation rates and future earnings by grads. Also check out College Prowler which offers a look at cost but also other aspects such as atmosphere, drug safety, access to guys/girls, dining, housing, Greek life and more.

Noodle is a new and unique tool still in beta that allows you to input your GPA, test scores, gender, ethnicity and high school activities as well as what you want in academic workload, diversity, social life and more to recommend schools for you.

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Wherever you end up going to school and however much you have to borrow to attend, just know that is here for you! From the moment you sign that first loan document, you can start tracking your college debt with us. One of the biggest causes of inability to deal with student debt is a lack of information about what you owe.

Many are surprised by the total debt they’ve accrued and don’t even know their debt load until they graduate. For a great read on college costs, check out Walden on Wheels and read our interview with the author and student loan survivor. And be sure to get off on the right foot – sign up for’s free student loan tracking and optimization tool and be sure to read our blog for tips and strategies on minimizing school costs and dealing with debt.