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

choosing a college

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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