Hand putting coin into black piggy bank, surrounded by a pile of other small coins.
All, College Fit, College Planning, Financial Fit

What College Costs

Let’s be real. For most families, affordability is a significant factor when deciding which college to attend. Wise families realize that being able to pay college costs is just as important as being admitted. And they realize that building affordability into the college list is better than blindly hoping they can “make it work” by stringing together small outside scholarships and big parent loans. When you consider college affordability, think about your family budget, financial aid practices, and where your student is likely to receive substantial financial aid.

College Costs: What to Count

When weighing the cost of attending a college, it’s important to consider both direct costs, what you pay directly to the college, and indirect costs, other expenses that come from being a college student. Tuition and fees, housing, food, and books are examples of direct costs. Transportation, bedding and other dorm supplies, entertainment, clothing, toiletries, computers, laundry, club & activity costs, and fraternity/sorority expenses are examples of indirect costs. Housing and food may be direct or indirect costs, depending on whether the student chooses to live and eat on or off campus. When you add up direct and indirect costs, you get a total price for attending that school.

Total Cost of Attendance = Direct Costs + Indirect Costs

Some colleges make a reasonable effort to estimate the overall cost of attendance, but it pays to look at the assumptions. James Madison University, for example, includes transportation, personal costs, and even loan fees in their cost of attendance estimate. But students who live far from Virginia might find the estimated travel costs too low, and students with more expensive entertainment and recreation habits may find they have to boost their personal expenses costs at most of their colleges.

College Costs: In State vs Out of State Tuition

You might notice a difference in the tuition costs based on the student’s state residency. This tuition difference recognizes the fact that public colleges receive some financial support from state governments. In essence, residents of the state are already supporting the college through their tax dollars. Some colleges list two separate tuition rates. Other colleges list one tuition rate, but charge an additional non-resident supplement or surcharge. According to the College Board, the 2022-23 average price of tuition and fees for a public four-year college in-state was $10,940, while the average cost for a public college out-of-state was $28,240.

Residency for College Tuition

States set their own policies about what qualifies a student as a resident for the purpose of tuition. Requirements vary, but typical considerations include where the student lives or graduated from high school, what state of residence the parents claim, and administrative evidence of residency such as paying income tax or registering to vote. Military families, expat families, and students who split their time between divorced parents may need to provide additional information in support of state residency claims.

It can be difficult to establish residency after starting as a student at the college (most states don’t count a move for educational purposes as grounds to change residency classifications for tuition). I recommend finding the college or state guidelines for residency and reading them carefully. What worked for your neighbor a decade ago or your cousin in another state might not prove useful for your family’s situation. Don’t be afraid of asking questions of the college or requesting an appeal based on additional information. Usually the registrar or bursar’s office handles this type of question, but military families may also want to reach out to the veterans’ service office on campus. (These can have different names, but are the office where the School Certifying Official for VA educational benefits like GI Bill works.)

In State Tuition for Military Families

Military families may have residency in one state, but live somewhere else because of military orders. This can create challenges in qualifying for in state tuition, but they may also find that their kids are eligible for in state tuition rates both where they live on military orders and in the state where the parents maintain residency. But a college may require annual verification of status and revert to out of state tuition rates if the military parent takes orders to another location.

Federal law requires colleges to charge no more than in state tuition to students using VA educational benefits such as Post 9/11 GI Bill, Fry Scholarship, or Chapter 35. But colleges are also allowed to require additional documentation of an intent to establish residency in the state where the college is located. This might include a state driver’s license, proof of address in the state, or other documents. Federal law addresses what happens when the student is using VA educational benefits, but does not require the college to continue charging in state rates if the student stops using GI Bill or other VA funding. Some colleges keep the student at in state rates, and others will immediately revert back to the higher out of state tuition rate. I’ve found the veterans’ service office is the best first stop for these questions.

College Costs at Private Institutions

What about private colleges? The average cost of tuition and fees at a private non-profit college was $39,400 for the 2022-23 school year. But this figure is too general to mean much for most families. There can be huge differences between actual net costs at individual private colleges, depending on how they award financial aid. So don’t assume that a private college would always be more expensive than a public college (especially a public college where the student would be a non-resident). In other words, try to compare estimated costs rather than lumping all private colleges and all public colleges into the same baskets.

Types of Financial Aid

There are two main categories of financial aid and several ways that aid can be provided. How a college determines eligibility for financial aid and how they package it depends on a combination of the college’s resources and institutional priorities and the family’s financial resources.

Assistance can be in the form of grants (money that does not have to be paid back), work study (money earned through specific campus jobs), and loans (money that will have to be paid back — with interest). This aid might come from the Federal government (ex, Pell Grants, Federal Work Study, or Federal Student Loans) or from the college itself.

Need-Based Aid

Need-Based Aid is financial aid that is offered because the college has determined the student and their family have fewer financial resources that could be used to pay for college costs. This determination is made through a review of financial aid applications, specifically the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and/or the CSS Profile (a separate financial aid application used by about 300 colleges).

The FAFSA is required if students wish to use Federal Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Work Study, or Pell Grants. There is no cost to submit the FAFSA, which opens the October before the school year in which financial aid would be used and considers income from the “prior-prior” tax year. In other words, students who are seeking federal aid for the 2024-25 school year would submit the FAFSA that opens in October 2023 and would use income data from the 2022 tax year.

Related: Learn About FAFSA

The CSS Profile is used by a smaller number of colleges, that are usually private or highly selective, and that often give large amounts of need based aid to help pay for heftier costs of attendance. This form is administered by College Board, and there is a charge to submit each application (there is no charge to families earning up to $100,000). The CSS Profile asks more questions in order to create a picture of family financial resources that goes beyond income and savings. The colleges that are most generous with need-based aid, tend to require the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA. [List of CSS Profile colleges and programs.]

Merit Aid and Scholarships

Non-Need Based Aid, sometimes called Merit Aid is financial aid that is not tied to the student’s family financial status. This aid might be labeled as scholarships and could be automatic, based on grades and test scores, or be competitive, with additional application requirements. Sometimes colleges will discount tuition for students in order to encourage them to enroll. These colleges might find that families think better of a college that offers a $20,000 discount labeled a “scholarship” than another college that simply prices its tuition $20,000 lower.

Both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile produce a number that represents how much each formula thinks a family should contribute EACH YEAR towards the cost of attendance. This is labeled the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC isn’t all that a college might expect a family to pay annually. Very few colleges meet 100% of demonstrated need. Instead, students may find that after federal and institutional aid is subtracted from the cost of attendance, there is a difference between the EFC and what the family has to pay. This is often called gapping.

The EFC will be renamed the Student Aid Index (SAI) in 2023 along with other changes to the FAFSA. More about these changes will be coming out in 2023, but for now, Jeff Levy has a good overview.

Paying for College with Outside Scholarships

Another factor to be aware of is Scholarship Displacement. This is when colleges reduce financial aid offers in response to outside scholarships. Students may find that there is no real reduction in what they have to pay to a college even though they earned outside scholarships, from local organizations or support groups.

There are a few states where legislation banned scholarship displacement at public colleges. But it’s still widely practiced, so students should ask colleges about their policy for “stacking” outside scholarships and institutional aid.

3 Ways to Estimate College Costs

So, how do you come up with an estimate of how much your family would have to pay?

Net Price Calculators Estimate College Costs for Individual Students

Net Price Calculators (NPC) are available on most college websites*. They ask for some of the same information required by the FAFSA or CSS Profile and usually produce an estimate that includes federal aid (including Federal Student Loans!), applicable state grants, and typical discounts from the college. The more detail an NPC asks for, the more accurate its results are likely to be. However, they are only an estimate and are not binding on future offers from the financial aid office.

Colleges usually update their NPCs shortly before the new application cycle begins in August. The easiest way to find them is to do an internet search for the name of the college and “Net Price Calculator”.

*Federal law requires colleges that accept federal aid to have a Net Price Calculator. Some colleges that do not accept federal aid will not have this tool on their website. If that is the case with a school you are considering, contact the college financial aid office for more information about expected costs and institutional aid.

Common Data Set Records Need Based and Non-Need Based Aid

The Common Data Set (CDS) is a set of questions and responses that use a common format across all participating colleges. This provides information about admissions, costs, class size, number of degrees in each major, and financial aid.

Section H reports Financial Aid data. It lists how many students requested need-based aid; how many were determined to have need; how many received need-based grants, self-help (work study), or other grants; and what percentage of need was met. Another set of responses shows how much non-need based aid was awarded the same year. Pay attention to both the percentage of students awarded aid and the size of the award.

Question H5 shows how many students took out loans and the average size of the loans. Be aware that this may not include all loans taken out by parents, such as home equity loans used to pay for college costs. You can find a CDS by searching for the college name and Common Data Set, then selecting the most recent year available.

Need Based and Merit Aid Spreadsheet

Another valuable resource is an annual Need Based and Merit Aid spreadsheet compiled by Jeff Levy and Jenny Kent of Big J Consulting. They pull data on need-based aid and non-need based aid from several hundred colleges and put it into a spreadsheet that you can sorted by field. If your family has high need, look for colleges that has a high number in “Average Percent of Need Met.” If your family has a high EFC but wants to control college costs, look for colleges that have a high number in “Percentage of Non-Need Undergraduates Receiving Merit Aid.” But keep a close eye on the amount of “Average Merit Aid Award” and remember that it might discount a higher cost of attendance, leaving a total cost of attendance that is still higher than you might want to pay.

College Fit Includes Affordability

I know this can feel both confusing and overwhelming. It might seem like a lot of alphabet soup and looking at the costs can trigger strong emotions. But denial isn’t a great coping strategy. Some families ignore the cost of attendance. Others tell their children “just get into the best college and we’ll make it work.” Spring of senior year comes around and they realize that only a few of the colleges that offered admissions are actually affordable. One of the best resources on college affordability is The Price You Pay for College by Ron Lieber, a financial columnist for the New York Times. I recommend this book to the families I work with.

It’s better to have an awareness of cost and affordability earlier in the process. When I am supporting client families through this process, I ask them to make an honest assessment of their college budget and estimated need. Then when we create a student’s college list, we work hard to include colleges that are affordable and likely to admit the student. If this is an area where you’d like help, use the Contact page to schedule an appointment.

Lisa visits Mary Baldwin University, home of two early college programs
All, College Fit, Homeschooling

Early College Programs

High school students often have the opportunity to take college classes before graduation. They might take dual enrollment classes taught at their high school. Or they might enroll in courses directly with a local college. Sometimes these are dual credit courses that receive both college and high school credits. Early college programs take this a step further. Students in these programs are full time college students, who may even live on campus as full participants in college life.  

Is Early College a Good Idea?

Recently, I met with representatives of several early college programs. Each had its own twist on the concept, but agreed that students who did well in their programs were intellectually precocious, highly capable, and emotionally mature. Obviously, students in early college programs need to be ready for full-time, college-level academics. But to succeed, they also need to self-advocate with professors, engage with classmates (who might be several years older), and keep track of assignments and daily tasks without a parent at their shoulder. What’s more, college classrooms often discuss texts and topics that might feel awkward for a younger student. You should consider all of these points when deciding if an early college program is the right fit.

Examples of Early College Programs

Some high schools have early college programs co-located on the high school campuses. These offer full-time college academics, while allowing the student to remain at home and perhaps participate in high school athletics and clubs. But there are also college-based programs that go beyond this college in a high school concept.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock is a program that admits students who would be entering their junior or senior year of high school. There are 450 full-time students who have the option of completing a full bachelor’s degree on the campus. Others complete an AA degree and transfer to another four-year college.

Mary Baldwin University offers two options for students ready for college work. Early College is a co-ed program for 16-17 year old students, while the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) is for girls as young as 13. PEG students live in their own supervised residence, for a boarding school atmosphere with access to college level academics.

California State University LA also has a college program for younger students. Their Early Entrance Program (EEP) is part of the CSU LA Honors College and enrolls highly gifted students ages 11-16 for on-campus college courses. EEP students are full-time students at CSU LA, working towards their bachelor’s degree. CSU LA is also home to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and a Math and Science High School. This means there is a significant number of other teens on campus. As a result EEP students don’t stand out as much. EEP students start with a summer intensive program, that helps them get used to the expectations of college coursework.

The Clarkson School at Clarkson University is a one-year program in which students replace their senior year of high school with a freshman year of college. Students live in dedicated dorms with a resident faculty advisor and mentors who are Clarkson School alumni. 65% of students in The Clarkson School complete their bachelor’s degree at Clarkson.

Other Options

In addition to these early college programs, there are early college academies located on high school or college campuses. Often referred to as middle colleges, these may require residency within the school district or local area. Bard College also sponsors a number of high school based early college programs that allow students to earn an associate’s degree.

You might also investigate agreements between your school district and local community colleges, such as the Virginia Beach Public School & Tidewater Community College Advanced Technology Center. In this program, students split their days between the community college campus and their home high school. This type of co-registration program can be powerful options for students who intend to attend their state’s public colleges, since courses often transfer smoothly.

Who Benefits from Starting College Early?

These early college programs aren’t the right choice for every advanced student. Some students find that Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment courses offer academical challenge. Students who have gone beyond the academics their school system can offer may benefit from an early college setting. The younger, exceptionally gifted students in some of the early college programs may find the specific support of their program makes them feel less out of place than they might feel if they had simply skipped grades in their home high school. One college representative said that her early college students often found that for the first time they were taking classes with their academic peers. This made the early college option a good choice for them.

Learn about FAFSA and how it can help pay for college
All, College Fit, College Planning, Financial Fit

Learn About FAFSA

If you have a high school student, you might see articles each fall about FAFSA. Maybe you’re wondering if you need to be worried about it. Maybe you are just wondering, “What is FAFSA?” Read on to learn about FAFSA, why it matters, and where to get help completing it.

What Is the FAFSA?

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The new application opens each fall on October 1 for financial aid that students would use the following college academic year. It is a form that collects information on student status and their family financial situation in order to determine eligibility for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and federally supported work study programs. In addition, most colleges rely on the FAFSA as a basis for awarding need-based grants from the college.

FAFSA an instrument of the US Department of Education, and the official Federal Student Aid website is robust and worth your time. It includes sections on how financial aid works, types of aid, and how federal aid is calculated. The section on completing the FAFSA form has lots of information on required documents, factors that determine dependency status, and providing financial information. Rather than quoting each of these sections here, I encourage you to go directly to the Federal Student Aid website. Not only is the information there up to date and official, but you are likely to find explanations you didn’t even realize you should be asking about.

That said, I will address a few frequently asked questions that I get each year.

Who Needs to Complete a FAFSA?

The student submits the FAFSA, but in most cases will require information about parent income and assets. The best practice is for the student to start the process by creating a FAFSA ID and then invite a parent to create a supporting account. Any student who is interested in using federal student loans, or who seeks need-based aid from colleges should submit a FAFSA. In addition, many state grant programs require students to submit the FAFSA to establish eligibility.

Some colleges require submission of a FAFSA for specific scholarships from the college. For example, the Virginia Tech Emerging Leader Scholarship for members of the Corps of Cadets requires annual completion of the FAFSA. You should read the financial aid pages for each college you apply to in order to learn about FAFSA requirements and deadlines.

Does Submitting the FAFSA Hurt My Chance of Admission?

Let me turn this question around. Are you in a good position if you are admitted to a college you can’t afford to attend?

A student might choose not to submit a FAFSA if: they can pay the entire cost of attendance for all four years, and they are confident that their financial situation will not change. Colleges are not generous when they suspect families of playing games by claiming no financial need when applying but then trying to negotiate a tuition. Some colleges will not award additional financial aid until the following year, if the student did not initially submit a FAFSA, even if the family’s financial situation changed.

If you aren’t sure how much each of your colleges is likely to cost, you want to use their Net Price Calculator and other resources to estimate annual cost of attendance and the total cost of a degree.

Only a handful of colleges are need blind for admissions. Many colleges consider how much financial aid each student would “cost” their financial aid budget when they build their incoming class. Students who know that they want to be considered for need-based aid not only should submit the FAFSA and do so in a timely way (I suggest by the end of October), but also need to ensure that their college list includes schools that are good financial fits for their family budget.

Related: What College Costs

When Do I Have to Submit the FAFSA?

You don’t have to submit on October 1, but be aware of deadlines at individual colleges. Schools often have a fall deadline for priority financial consideration that would require not only financial aid paperwork, but also a completed college application. I recommend that families try to submit the FAFSA before the end of October. (Note that you will also see dates that are state deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. This represents the last date to submit FAFSA for that school year in order to be eligible for state grants, but may be long past when colleges have allotted their need-based financial aid for the year.)

Note: If you know that you will not be eligible for need-based aid, but want to use federal student loans, you have the option of waiting to submit the FAFSA after colleges give admissions decisions and letting the college financial aid office know that you are only submitting for the purpose of federal loan eligibility. (But do read the previous section on who should submit a FAFSA.)

What Information Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?

Questions will ask about current assets and income from the “prior-prior” year. A student applying for aid for the Fall 2023 college semester would use income information from the 2021 tax year. More information on required documents and instructions are available on the Federal Student Aid website.

Does It Matter What Order I List Colleges on the FAFSA?

It depends. Colleges can no longer see the other schools you send FAFSA information to or what order you list colleges on the form. This was a change around 2016 after some colleges started using the college list to infer how interested the student was. This tea leaf approach was unfair, since students didn’t necessarily put intentional thought into completing that section. So the order doesn’t matter for college admissions.

But FAFSA is also sent to state agencies responsible for awarding state aid for college. Some states require schools to be listed in a specific order. Currently, if you are a resident of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont, or West Virginia, state aid is dependent on where you list an eligible state college. In addition, there are 33 states, districts, and territories that require students to list an eligible in-state college to be considered for state grant aid. You can check your state on the Student Aid website.

Where Can I Get Help on the FAFSA?

In addition to the Help section on the Federal Student Aid website, there are blue question marks within the FAFSA itself that open up help boxes for specific topics. Federal Student Aid even has a YouTube channel.  Each year there are institutions that create line-by-line walk through videos. I suggest you stick with videos from state education organizations or non-profit colleges. Remember that FAFSA is the FREE Application for Federal Student Aid. You should not pay anyone to submit this for you.

Is FAFSA the Only Form I Need for Financial Aid?

About 300 colleges, universities, and scholarships use an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile. This asks more detailed questions about family assets to determine what a family’s financial resources are.  The calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for the FAFSA and CSS Profile are often different because they use different formulas.  The CSS Profile is now free for families that make up to $100,000. For other students it is $25 for the first submission and $16 per additional report. But remember students only need to complete the CSS Profile if they apply to a college or scholarship that require it.

Um, How Do You Say FAFSA?

Great question. Say it like one word, FAF-sah.

space shuttle launch during nighttime
All, College Fit, Military

Space Force Training at the Air Force Academy

The Space Force became the newest branch of the US military in 2019, and the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) commissions about 100 cadets as Space Force officers each year. This is around 10% of each graduating class. To prepare cadets for future Space Force roles, the Air Force Academy has added more Space Force officers to the staff, increased space oriented academic programs, and created summer training opportunities that expose cadets to life as a Space Force junior officer. The Space Policy Show recently devoted an episode to Space Force training at the Air Force Academy. I thought this was an excellent overview of what cadets experience. It should be of interest to students considering applying to the Air Force Academy.

Space Related Academics

There are several majors associated with space, including Astronautical Engineering and Space Operations. However, cadets in any major can also complete the Space Warfighting minor. There are four different tracks within the minor: Operator, Intel, Digital, and Acquisition. Each track has several required courses plus related electives that cadets can choose from to meet the minimum 15 credits.

Space Force Training

Exposure to the Space Force starts with required briefings as part of the professional training for new freshman cadets. Opportunities to learn from Space Force officers continue throughout the four years at USAFA. Space related clubs include the Cadet Space Operations Squadron, an astronomy club, rocketry club, and a strategy & policy club. These activities are open to any cadets, not just those aiming for the Space Force.

Cadet summer training traditionally includes the Operations Air Force program, where rising juniors learn about potential career fields at Air Force bases around the US. In Summer 2021, through the new Operations Space Force program, around 70 cadets visited Space Force bases to get a deeper orientation to what they might do if they become Space Force officers.

Finally, the Air Force Academy is developing a program for rising seniors called Azimuth. This is an intensive summer training and assessment program modeled on the Naval Academy’s Leatherneck training for prospective Marine Corps officers. The Azimuth program will draw from pre-astronaut candidate training to “motivate, inform and also evaluate” cadets. The Space Force assignment board will consider performance in Azimuth, academics, and extracurricular activities when making service assignments decisions.


Over forty Air Force Academy alumni have become astronauts and the Air Force has many space related missions. However, the Space Force is more than just space operators. The Air Force Academy plans to expose cadets to the range of responsibilities held by future Space Force officers. The goal of these initiatives are to generally increase “space mindedness” for all cadets. This will help them in their careers, whether they commission as Space Force or Air Force Officers.

There will be very few opportunities to commission into the Space Force from other service academies. According to Col. Jeffrey Greenwood, the US Space Force Liaison to the Air Force Academy “If you want to come to the Space Force, you need to come to the Space Force Academy – and that is USAFA.” This echos comments from Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond (the service chief of the Space Force) in June 2021. Because the Space Force only brings in around 300 officers a year, he doesn’t see a need for a separate Space Force Academy. The largest group of officers will come from USAFA and Air Force ROTC. The Space Force also has a University Partnership Program to reach out to college STEM majors who are interested in space.

High school students interested in the Space Force should watch the whole episode. It will give you a broad view of what training you might expect as a cadet. It may even suggest topics to discuss in application essays or during interviews. If the idea of attending a service academy sounds interesting, consider applying for one of the academy summer leadership programs when you are a high school junior.

All, College Fit, College Planning, Financial Fit

Tips for Finding College Fit

Building a college list shouldn’t just be picking names off a rankings list or applying where your best friend wants to go. Your time at college is likely to be an important period of personal and professional development as well as one of the most significant financial decisions your family makes. It’s worth your time to investigate if the colleges you are considering are places that will allow you to grow as an individual.

I wrote these tips to help you start thinking about what you are hoping to do in college and what factors might make a college a good fit for you.

Decide what you want from college

  • A broad curriculum that allows for exploration
  • Support for a focused academic goal
  • Mentoring and training related to a future career
  • An interdisciplinary program that draws from many departments
  • Advising for professional programs (like medical or law school)?
  • Maximum transfer credit for work you’ve already done

If you know why, figuring out where will be easier

Decide what factors are important to you

Colleges can be categorized by many qualities such as:

  • Location: state, urban/suburban/rural, distance from family
  • Size: small <3k, medium 3-10k, large 10-20k, very large >20k
  • Academic programs: Majors, minors, interdisciplinary programs
  • Student body makeup: Diversity, student veterans, older students, students with families
  • Available housing: Campus housing, local apartments, living with family
  • Campus atmosphere: Competitive/collaborative, politically active, ties to community
  • Other personal factors: Disability support, sports, internships & coops

As you make lists of factors that matter to you, try to categorize them by which are essential vs those that would be nice to have.

What are dealbreakers and where are you flexible?

Clarify your budget

Tuition varies by college. Fees, books, housing, food and transportation add to the Cost of Attendance. Use tools like Net Price Calculators (on each college website) to estimate what you are likely to pay at different schools. Understand the difference between scholarships, grants, and loans. Some colleges offer the majority of students some tuition grants; others reserve financial aid to students with demonstrated financial need. You can get an idea of their past actions by looking at the Net Price Calculator or Section H of the college’s Common Data Set.

If you are eligible for special education benefits, such as the WUE tuition discounts, GI Bill and other veterans’ benefits, or state scholarship programs like the Hope Scholarship (Georgia) or Bright Futures Scholarship (Florida), take the time to read and understand the requirements and limitations of the program. There is nothing worse than being on the edge of enrolling at a favorite school then realizing you’d missed a deadline or some other requirement and would not receive that financial support.

Know what you can afford and what aid colleges are likely to offer; don’t rely on consecutive miracles.

Look beyond labels

Read descriptions of majors in both the college catalog and departmental websites. Look at degree requirements and sample course plans. Some degrees have options for concentrations within a major.

You may find significant differences in programs at different colleges. The sample course plans can help you see the difference in experience between a Mechanical Engineering degree with an Aerospace Engineering concentration and a stand-alone Aerospace Engineering degree. You may also find similar programs with different names like Film Production, Film Studies, or Cinematic Arts.

[Check out this post for more detailed tips about Researching College Majors.]

Investigate the minors available at each college. You may find these offer another opportunity to specialize or to broaden your academic experience. Often within a minor, you would take classes with students from a variety of different majors, which can give you exposure to how other academic disciplines approach similar topics. A few minors that have caught my eye recently include: University of Colorado – Boulder Minor in Energy Engineering, James Madison University Minor in Chronic Illness, and University of Cincinnati Materials Engineering Minor.

Honors Colleges and Honors Programs at some colleges create a smaller cohort of students working at an advanced level. Benefits can include priority registration, smaller honors sections of required courses, faculty mentoring, and perhaps even a research budget. Honors programs can be a way to get a more individualized experience at a larger college.

Do the research, so you have a better basis for comparison.

Keep an open mind

There are over 3,000 colleges in the US that offer 4-year degrees. There’s a good chance that excellent programs that meet your goals and needs exist at colleges you aren’t familiar with. Consider the possibilities at Small Liberal Arts Colleges, large public universities, and schools with honors programs, not just a list of famous colleges. Don’t rely on rankings, which are based on what is easily measured, not what is meaningful. The information used as a basis for rankings may not align with your personal goals.

College is an investment of time and resources; do the work to find several strong options.

Your goal should be a list of 4-8 colleges that meet your needs and that have a range of admissions likelihood. I usually suggest that at least half the list should be high chance of admission or medium chance of admissions schools. Don’t overload you list with low chance of admission or “highly rejective” colleges. That’s a recipe for disappointment.

You may find that your best friend looks at your list and asks about some of your schools. If you’ve done your thinking and research, you’ll be able to explain what is exciting about each of them.

All, College Fit

Researching College Majors

Some students know what they want to study in college. They may use this as a guide for determining which schools to apply to. This may lead them to missing good fit colleges, because their search is too narrow. They also need to consider the actual requirements of a major to see if the focus at a particular college fits their interests.

Colleges are independent institutions that develop majors over the course of decades (or longer). Which majors a college has and how they are organized will differ as a result of departmental history, funding initiatives, and student or faculty interests. Similar majors might have very different names or be found in different departments or colleges at a university. On the other hand, colleges with similarly titled majors can have very different graduation requirements.

Use College Navigator to Find Colleges that Offer Specific Majors

As an example, let’s consider a student who has been taking Asian history and Chinese language classes in high school. She wants to study more about the region and continue to study Chinese. She likes literature, but is really interested in history, politics, and economics. Other criteria in her college search include wanting a school that isn’t too big or too small. She wants to graduate in four years and is concerned about college debt.

She goes to College Navigator and uses the Browse for Programs search function to search for Chinese related majors. She finds over 100 colleges that offer a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature major and 23 with a Chinese Studies major. She isn’t sure that she wants to commit to majoring in a foreign language, so she decides to go with the colleges that offer a Chinese Studies major. There are good schools on the list, but many she expected to see didn’t show up. What happened?

Basically, her search was too specific. She thought she was doing well to consider both Chinese Language and Chinese Studies, but she missed a lot of quality programs that have different labels. Let’s go back to College Navigator and try some more search terms in the Browse for Programs.

Using the keyword Asia within the Browse for Programs tool and some creative brainstorming, I found several more programs to investigate.

Asian History
Asian Studies/Civilization
Chinese Studies
East Asian Studies
Pacific Area/Pacific Rim Studies
Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies

This produced a much longer list of 226 colleges with a bachelor’s degree in one of the above programs. This is ten times the number of colleges that had just Chinese Studies programs.

How to Narrow a Big College List

At the top of the College Navigator search results is a link to “Export Results.” Clicking on this gives an option to save in Excel or as a CSV file. Choosing Excel creates a spreadsheet file with all of the basic info about each college in the search results. All of the colleges can be viewed in one long list. Now we can apply some of the student’s other college fit criteria.

We can sort the list by graduation rate and delete colleges with graduation rates lower than 60%. This is a little arbitrary, but the national average graduation rate is around 60%. This brings the list down to 185 colleges.

At this point she can start to narrow the list using other criteria. Maybe she looks at the public colleges in her state, where she would be eligible for in-state tuition. Perhaps she sorts out the private colleges and then compares average net price.* Alternately, she could go back to College Navigator and click on “More Search Options” to use other filters like test scores or percent of students admitted. At the top of the search results is another link to save search results.

How to Decide if a Major Is Right for You

Eventually, our student will want to dig into individual college websites. It is a good practice to go to the departmental pages and look for descriptions of the major and graduation requirements. Most will have some form of “sample course plan” or “course of study” or “major checklist.” This type of document will help clarify what courses are required to complete the major.

This level of investigation is the best way to differentiate between a major that focuses on language, literature, and art (ex. Tufts University Chinese Major) vs a program that offers more history, politics, and economics (ex. American University Asian Studies Major). Some programs use an interdisciplinary approach by utilizing related courses from other departments (ex. Johns Hopkins University East Asian Studies Major).  

Our student could also use this style of in-depth research to determine if a major with a more general label like International Relations would support the type of work she is interested in. Coupling a more general major with a couple minors creates significant opportunities for customizing an educational experience (Ex. Ursinus College would allow our student to major in International Relations and minor in East Asian Studies and/or Chinese. These minors might also be paired with majors such as Economics, Anthropology, Business, or Environmental Studies.)

This practice of intentionally widening the search focus, then filtering for other aspects of fit is one I frequently recommend to clients. It’s crucial with academic plans that don’t have an agreed upon label. For example, a college film program might include majors such as Film Studies; Film Production; Film Science; Cinematography; Cinema Studies; Digital Media; or even Radio, Television and Digital Communications. It will be less useful for majors that are found on most campuses, like English or Computer Science.

Note: How Much Does a College Cost?

*Comparing average net price using this data is really only effective for private colleges or public colleges where the student would be eligible for in-state tuition rates. Public colleges report the net costs for in-state students, which means the average costs found on college search engins are usually lower than what out of state or non-resident students will be expected to pay. The best estimates on college costs will come from using the Net Price Calculator available on individual college websites.

Learn about FAFSA and how it can help pay for college
All, College Fit, Financial Fit

Understanding College Costs

Many families have misconceptions about college pricing and financial aid. They might be the result of lack of experience or dated information. They could also stem from viewing results in a friend’s situation as a universal truth, rather than the result of a combination of specific factors. In any event, what you don’t know about college costs could hurt.

Things you might not know about college cost and financial aid

  • Most colleges consider how much financial aid a student needs when making admissions decisions. (They are Need Aware, not Need Blind.)
  • Colleges use merit aid tuition discounts to encourage students to enroll. Colleges hire enrollment management professionals to maximize student enrollment while minimizing their financial aid costs.
  • The largest amounts of financial aid usually come directly from colleges, not from outside scholarships, making the choice of which college to apply to a significant factor in reducing costs.

As Ron Lieber mentions in this article about college costs, “High School Grades Could Be Worth $100,000. Time to Tell Your Child?” one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making as their kids approach colleges is not having candid and continuing discussions of college costs and family expectations about family budgets for college. It’s not surprising that parents would shy away from these conversations. Few would relish telling their kids that there are limits on what they can hope for, and conversations about money can bring on feelings of inadequacy and shame.

I encourage families to have the conversations anyway. As Lieber argues, understanding the connection between high school grades and the potential for merit aid may give a student a reason for continuing to persist in hard classes. Also being clear about family budgets and expectations related to financial support is kinder than revealing hidden constraints when it’s too late to add more affordable options. If savings for college can only cover in-state tuition, better to explain that up front. If there are other expectations, like starting with a lower cost community college, living at home, or working in the family business during the summer; these are also better discussed openly. Brené Brown introduced me to the motto “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” It certainly applies here — mismatched expectations can be the root of family strife over college choices.

I suggest reading Lieber’s article and using it as a springboard for family discussions.

Paved walkway surrounded by trees
All, College Admissions, College Fit

What Are Selective Colleges?

What does it mean to label a college as selective, most selective, or very selective? How does that relate to other labels like target, safety, and reach? Selectivity is a shorthand way to discuss colleges in terms of their admissions rate. Admissions rate is the ratio of students who apply to a college compared to students who were admitted (usually reported as a percentage). Selective colleges are not always higher quality than less selective schools. 2/3 of colleges admit more than half of the students who apply. This can include a number of quality institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges and excellent value public universities.

Admissions rate often says more about how well known a college is than how good the education or experience will be. It can also be drastically affected by factors like an increase in the number of colleges students apply to, trends in applications from international students, or college notoriety (schools often rise in popularity after winning sports championships or admitting a famous student).

What Does Selective Mean?

A selective college admits fewer than half the students who apply. This means that any college with an admissions rate of 50% or lower could be considered selective.

Because selective could include a public college with a 50% admissions rate or a private college that turns down 95% of applicants; many books and advisors try to use more specific labels. One website might use selective, very selective, highly selective, and most selective; while another might use moderately selective, very selective, extremely selective, and most selective. There isn’t an industry standard on what these labels mean.

Most selective often refers colleges that turn down the vast majority of applicants, even though they are highly qualified students. This would include colleges that admit 15% or fewer of the students who apply — or to turn it around, colleges that turn down 85% or more of applicants. You might also hear colleges like this called Wild Card schools, to convey that even for a highly qualified applicant, there is a great deal of chance involved in these applications.

How to Label Colleges

Instead of relying on squishy categories that use selectivity as the main criteria, I help students put colleges into categories like High Chance of Admission, Medium Chance of Admission, Low Chance of Admission, and Wild Card. (A Wild Card college is unlikely to admit the majority of highly qualified applicants. You might also think of these as Highly Rejective, a term coined by Akil Bello.) This system considers not only the average admissions rate of each school, but also the student’s profile relative to the profile of admitted students, as well as other factors like state residency, that can affect admission.

I use these terms instead of Target, Reach, and Safety, because I have found that labeling a school as a Safety or as a Reach school tends to influence how positively a student views the college. It is challenging for a student to resist viewing admission to a Reach school as a more positive outcome than admission to a Safety school – regardless of how high quality the student outcomes may be. For this reason, I avoid using these terms and encourage students and families to also use other labels. 

Do Most Students Attend Selective Colleges

It’s also worth taking a moment to consider how many colleges we are talking about when we use selective labels. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, around 20% of colleges would fall into the overall selective category that admits fewer than 50% of applicants. When we look at the type of colleges that students attend, we can see that 21% of first-time freshmen enroll in selective colleges and 65% attend colleges that admit 50-85% of applicants. Simply put, most colleges in the US admit most students who apply.

The breathless articles about how hard it is to get into college are often really writing about admissions at a very small number of colleges that are enrolling a very small number of students. The colleges that admit fewer than 25% of applicants enroll around 3% of the students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the US; colleges that admit fewer than 10% of applicants enroll under 1% of undergraduate students in the US [College-Admissions Hysteria Is Not the Norm, The Atlantic, April 10, 2019].

All, College Fit, College Planning

Narrowing the Search

When a student starts contemplating what colleges might be a good fit, it can feel overwhelming. How do you trim a list of thousands of colleges down to something manageable to do research on? I’ve heard of students who picked colleges by choosing which school colors or mascot they liked best. That might narrow the field, but isn’t going to do anything to help find a school that is a good match.

One approach is to consider the academic major or professional goal the student is leaning towards and look for information from professional organizations or agencies that relate. 

A few examples:

All physical therapy academic programs from Physical Therapist graduate programs to Physical Therapy Assistant two-year programs are approved by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Its website explains the difference between being a PT and being a PTA, gives career outlook info, and explains the PT and PTA admissions process.  There is also a link to a Find a Program feature that lets you filter a search by program and location. 

Students interested in dentistry should investigate resources at the American Dental Association (ADA) pages for high school and college students, the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), and the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) pages for future dentists.  These professional organizations offer information about applying to and paying for dental school and what being a dental student and a dentist is like.

Students interested in cyber security should be aware of the list of institutions designated as National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (CAE-C).    Only students at these schools are eligible for the DoD Cyber Scholarship, but this list may also be an indicator of the quality of the cyber security program available.

Would be engineers can check the ABET accreditation status of engineering programs and may also find colleges with engineering programs they hadn’t considered.   

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a list of colleges with Food Science programs

If you don’t know what organizations to look for, a starting place can be academic journals or conferences.  Colleges sending students to present posters at academic conferences may be those providing opportunities and support for students in those concentrations. Would be film producers might look for college based film festivals. It can also be worth taking notice of what colleges are doing research that you find interesting.

This process takes more time and effort than picking a college because you like fushia and orange or want to root for the Fighting Clams, but it’s more likely to help you find a college that is a good match for your interests and ambitions.

All, College Fit, College Planning

Engagement > Rankings

It’s easy to feel that college admissions decisions reflect how worthy a student is. It’s harder to realize that life is full of twists and turns, most of which we don’t see coming. Studies have shown that the ranking of the college a student attends is less important than how engaged a student is.

Engagement includes:
-Participating in clubs and teams
-Meeting with instructors and professors during office hours
-Attending extra study sessions outside of class
-Doing work related to academic interests through undergraduate research, internships, and coop positions
-Finding a mentor who shares your interests

Not ready to give up your well-thumbed college ranking? Would you be surprised to know that most college rankings do not attempt to measure factors like how much students learn during college, if they are able to declare their first choice major, what percentage of graduates are working in their field within six months of graduation or how much student debt graduates have 5-10 years after graduation?

What does this mean for you? Don’t be hypnotized by the marketing. Be willing to look beyond the handful of colleges with the best known names. Realize that small liberal arts colleges and large state schools may also offer many opportunities to engage and thrive.

Read what the research has to say about the basis of one popular ranking list and the value of prioritizing student engagement instead.
A “Fit” Over College Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Rankings