Brian McNally applied to a broad range of schools, including Georgia Tech, Duke University, and Harvard. When he received his first college acceptance letter, he was thrilled. But he was quickly jolted back to reality when he took a look at the hard numbers. With the high cost of tuition, he had to rethink his goals.
Brian’s situation is common this time of year. You anxiously await your acceptance letters, but after the initial joy, you start thinking about how you’ll pay for school. If financial aid packages are less than you expect, you may think, “I can’t afford college.”
Below are four questions to think about as you evaluate each college acceptance letter.
1. What’s the total cost of admission?
While Brian got into great schools as an engineering major, many of them came with a steep cost.
“Most were going to cost be $20,000 to $40,000 a year after partial scholarships. I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and I weighed all of the options. My parents backed me, saying they would figure out how to pay for it if I really wanted to attend one of the schools, as they were all highly rated,” says Brian.
Many feel pressured to find a way to pay for the pricier, more glamorous options. But that can mean stretching their budgets beyond what they can reasonably afford.
When the acceptance letters and financial aid offers come in, look at the total cost of admission. While you may receive scholarships, most only cover the tuition portion. You may still be responsible for covering fees and room and board, which can end up costing you thousands.
Looking at the total cost of admission, including living expenses, to ensure you have a complete picture when making a choice.
2. Will brand-name recognition impact your career?
Brian says he thought about how his school selection would impact his career. In his personal life, he’s known friends who had to go to the big-name schools because their fields were so competitive.
“My cousin wanted to work in finance, so he had to go to an Ivy-League school [before he] worked in New York. He needed that expensive school to give him the connections and prestige to play in the big leagues on Wall Street,” says Brian.
And in some fields, that’s necessary. If your goal is to work in Big Law or a large finance firm, your credentials matter. In other industries, simply having a degree from any school is enough. Networking with established professionals can help you determine what degree and alma mater you need to succeed — and what’s worth the investment.
3. How do your financial aid offers compare?
Brian had a number of options, but he ultimately decided to attend the University of Central Florida. After scholarships, he graduated with a free degree and landed a job in engineering at Boeing immediately after school.
“I had a plan, and it was obvious for me to take the free education and go from there,” he says.
Scholarships and grants can greatly reduce the cost of your diploma. Even a pricey private school can end up more affordable than a public school, depending on the offer. Before making a decision, compare every aspect of your financial aid package.
4. How will debt affect your life after school?
“I have questioned my decision in the past,” says Brian. “It’s incredible to think what might have been had I chosen another path. But I’m glad I went this route because I had zero debt coming out of school, which has made life much less stressful. I’ve watched others struggle to manage their debt after graduation.”
While you can pay for an expensive university with loans, student loan debt can have a significant impact on your life after graduation. In fact, graduates report delaying marriage, travel, or buying their own homes because of debt.
Compare your potential debt to your eventual salary after graduation. Unless you plan on entering a high-earning career, your loan payments will eat up a substantial portion of your income. That can limit your ability to live your life on your own terms.
“I think the best advice I’d give to others is to take a hard look at the value of the college education. What are you setting yourself up for? What’s $150,000 in debt — or more — buying you? There are so many challenges in life; don’t dig yourself another hole to build yourself out of,” says Brian.
After getting a college acceptance letter, make an informed choice
Whether or not you decide to go to an expensive “dream school” is a very personal decision. It’s important to make an informed choice once you get that first college acceptance letter and fully understand all the factors and potential consequences. By considering every option you can make a choice that works best for your plans for the future.
For more information about managing the cost of your education, see eight full-ride scholarships that cover tuition and more.
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