The College Search: Find the Right College for Both Academic and Financial Benefits

Choosing the right college can be one of the most intimidating tasks in a high school student’s life. There are over 4000 universities and colleges to choose from in the U.S. There are several factors to consider, but the ones to start with are location, size of school, curriculum offerings and financial capacity.  Once students have answers to some of these questions, then creating a college list becomes more tangible.  Generally, students should apply to 8 – 12 colleges/universities to give them the best chance of getting accepted to somewhere they want to go.  Usually, students want a couple of reach schools, 3 – 4 likely schools and 2 or 3 safeties.  Let’s dive into the top factors that can help students create their college list.


Location is one of the easiest places to start when building your college list.  Most of the time, students consider staying close to their family or relatives.  On the other side of the spectrum, some students want to go as far away as possible from their current location to get a truly new experience.  Whatever a students’ motivation is, one of the most important concepts to pay attention to is where do you want to work AFTER college?  I understand that kids going into college are not necessarily thinking about where they want to be in 4 years, but location is crucial to think about when creating that college list.  In an ideal world, the college grad has an idea of what career path they want to take, however more often than not, this is not the case.  BUT keep in mind that where you go to college is going to be the easiest place to find a job after school other than your hometown.  This is because you will naturally build your network during college.  Over 4 years students will meet new people, have new experiences, find jobs during school — these are all reasons to be aware of the location of your school.  Job recruiters will likely come to your campus to give students an idea of what is out there.  Word of mouth is also a great resource when looking for work – students may hear of something local that piques their interest.  Now, what if your student decides that he/she/they doesn’t care so much about location?

Size of School

Let’s talk about size.  What does size actually mean when addressing colleges/universities?  Generally speaking, small colleges have less than 5000 students.  Medium size schools range from 5000 – 15,000 students while large schools are usually larger than 15000 students.   A few examples – Amherst College in Massachusetts has a student population of around 2000 students while Notre Dame has around 8700 undergraduate students.  The University of Michigan has a little over 30,000 students.  In California, Chapman has around 8000 students, while UC Berkeley has around 30,000 undergraduates. What does size have to do with your college experience?  EVERYTHING.  Are you looking to blend into a large campus and community or are you looking for a more intimate experience?  Classes at larger universities tend to have more people per class.  Smaller liberal arts schools that can have classes with significantly fewer students – almost like a private high school.  Something else to consider – do you want to go to graduate school?  Usually the larger universities offer graduate programs and degrees as well.  Size is a solid factor to consider when building your college list.


Another factor to consider is curriculum offerings.  What is your student interested in or want to study?  Engineering?  Pre-med?  Theater?  Majors and minors are easily researched through university and college websites. The key to researching majors and minors is understanding where those subjects lead – what kind of career or job are students shooting for when they pick their majors? The goal is for your student to work toward a career or job after their 4 years in school.  

What if your student has no idea what they want to do in terms of a job/career?  What if your student, like most kids, hope that college presents some ideas and paths for him/her/them to follow?  Then consider schools that have a wide range of classes and allow students to declare their major either sophomore or junior year.  Attending a school with a freshman core requirement and then choosing how they want to move forward gives students the ability to get used to their new independence and explore their interests without tying them to one major right out of the gate. Changing majors can often delay a student’s graduation date which can mean more time at school and then of course, translates into more money.  Length of time to graduate is something to consider when choosing a school based. 

Financially Feasible

Discussed above is mostly about what your student wants – the factors that should be taken into consideration when creating a college list.  Unfortunately, most of the time, students’ choices are limited by what parents can afford. Most parents pay from either income, assets, scholarships/grants, loans or ultimately decide that they cannot afford to send their student at all.  One thing that parents need to realize is that there is over $183B out there in student aid.  The trick is getting the financial aid to apply to your student.  Many people do not apply for financial aid wrongly assuming that they make too much money to qualify.  However, there are so many factors that go into whether students qualify for financial aid – and not just federal, but private as well – that assuming your student won’t qualify can be a big mistake.

The first step to obtaining financial aid is submitting the FAFSA.  The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  As I mentioned above, people tend to think that they will not get any financial aid, so why bother.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to file this form.  Yes, families may not qualify for federal financial aid, but this is the starting point for ALL schools to decide whether families are eligible for institutional aid as well.  Financial aid comes in the form of scholarships, grants or loans.  Students are not eligible for any of these options, even institutional, if they don’t file the FAFSA.  So yes, many people won’t qualify for federal grants and scholarships, however if they want to even qualify for federal loan options, families need to file the FAFSA.  I recommend always filing the FAFSA to keep all of your options open.  Even if you qualify only for federal loans, there are strategies where loans can be used to save in the long run when paying for college if you know how to plan – but that is a different post.

The other form that some private schools will ask for parents to fill out is the CSS Profile – the College Scholarship Service Profile.  This form is significantly more intrusive than the FAFSA, but is the gateway to more institutional financial aid.  If your student is applying to a college that requires this form, then be ready to disclose much more than you did on the FAFSA. Lastly, I want to mention deadlines.  These forms are often due right around the time the application is due.  So while your student is working on the applications themselves, be aware that the financial aid forms are likely on your plate, as the parents, since parents often hold all of the financial information.  

To discuss how to find the right college for your student financially and academically, book a complimentary consultation with me to see how I can help you and your family navigate the maze that is college and put a plan in place for the next 4 – 6 years.