3 Tips for Choosing the Right College (Hint: It’s Not About Reputation)

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Choosing the right college is one of the biggest decisions a high schooler will make. Yet according to a recent TD Ameritrade survey of 1,000 American teens, many students are focusing on the wrong things.

Nineteen percent of students said “struggling to pay the tuition” was their biggest concern related to college — more so than finding a job, managing coursework, and making friends. However, only 36 percent strongly agreed it was more important to attend an affordable college than one with the best reputation.

That means 64 percent of teens might be making the wrong choice when it comes to college — a decision they could regret for years to come.

So if you’re confused about which college to choose, keep reading. We’ve got three tips for choosing a college that works for you and your budget.

3 tips for choosing the right college

When it comes to choosing the right school, college affordability should be one of your top concerns. If you end up taking on a mountain of student loan debt, it could seriously hinder you when you’re in your 20s and 30s.

So before you submit your letter of intent, take the following steps.

1. Rethink what makes a “good education”

The more expensive school isn’t always the better one. But only 31 percent of teens strongly disagreed with the statement: “colleges charging higher fees provide a better standard of education.”

The other 69 percent of respondents were either lukewarm or in agreement.

When choosing a college, don’t assume you’ll get the best education at a pricey private school. Although some of the most prestigious schools are a great value because they meet the full needs of every student, other smaller, more expensive schools might not.

Thankfully, reports from The Economist, U.S. News & World Report, and Student Loan Hero revealed the return on investment (ROI) of different colleges.

Although each list used a different methodology, they all considered factors like cost of attendance and median earnings of graduates.

In other words, don’t look at which college has the prettiest campus or most famous name. Instead, analyze which one might give you the most bang for your buck.

2. Consider alternatives to a four-year college

While 65 percent of the teens TD Ameritrade surveyed expected to attend college, only four percent expected to attend trade school. Another 17 percent were undecided between the two.

However, if college ends up not being the best path for you, it can be an expensive mistake to make. And remember that dropping out of college doesn’t make your student loans disappear.

According to the survey, 39 percent of pre-college teens hadn’t considered any alternatives to a four-year college. In fact, only 35 percent had thought about a gap year, while 30 percent had thought about studying for two years instead of four.

But if you’re like the 15 percent of teens whose main concern was taking on too much debt, it’s imperative you consider other options.

Whether it’s taking a gap year to earn money and decide what you want to do, attending trade school to learn a valuable skill, or spending two years at a community college, make sure you’re thinking outside the box.

Still not convinced? Here are the 10 states where community college students save the most money. You could save an average of $11,377 by taking that route.

3. Discuss money matters with your family

The TD Ameritrade survey also found that 19 percent of teens hadn’t discussed college costs with their parents; another 43 percent had discussed some topics but not all.

Choosing a college is the biggest financial decision a young person will make. Therefore, whether you’re the parent or the teen, you should make sure the lines of communication are open.

Here are some examples of questions you should discuss:

  • Will the parents help pay for the cost of college? How much will they contribute?
  • Are there any stipulations for the parents paying for college, such as the student maintaining a certain GPA or getting a work-study job?
  • If student loans are needed, will a parent be a cosigner?
  • Who will handle paying back the student loans once the student graduates?

For example, taking out $3,000 per semester might not sound like a lot. But over four years, it would add up to $24,000. At an interest rate of 5.70%, you’d be on the hook for $263 per month — for 10 years after you graduate.

That money could instead go toward traveling, socializing, or even something a bit more responsible, such as retirement. To see examples of the monthly payments you could incur, check out our student loan payment calculator.

Look at the whole picture

When it comes to choosing a college, your decision has an impact that lasts far beyond the four years you’re in school. So don’t let reputation, your friends, or other factors sway you more than they should.

Instead of thinking about cute campus tour guides or glossy brochures, consider cost and ROI. Research affordable alternatives to four-year schools. And instead of assuming your parents will pay, discuss everyone’s expectations.

When you do your research and crunch the numbers, you’re much more likely to make the best choice for you.

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College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount.  The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 9/3/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


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  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
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  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable Margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.50% as of July 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
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Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of October 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 2.05%. Variable interest rates range from 3.15% – 11.41% (3.15% – 11.26% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.

Citizens Bank Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank- participating school. 

Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

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