Budget Student's Guide to Looking for and Choosing a College

Guide to Choosing a College

By Toni Martello

When planning out your college-on-a-budget school search, a number of factors come into play. Though the cost of tuition may seem to be the biggest consideration when whittling down your pick-list, the campus culture, student body, and institutional support all weigh heavily on the kind of experience you’ll have at a particular school. Check out the tuition and financial aid packages of each of your options, but don’t forget to look for the less obvious costs that can add up and put a hitch in your budget.

The price tags and additional costs associated with attending private schools put them out of reach for many low-income students. For this reason, state and community schools are more likely to have students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Familiarity with low- and middle-income students may make others (peers, professors, administrators, etc.) at such schools more sensitive to the needs of students on a budget, like having to work, having fewer financial resources, or the fact that they may not have had the same academic opportunities as those from wealthier backgrounds.

Some private colleges are starting to increase their aid packages to draw more low-income students, and thus a more diverse student body. In the past several years, schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and Wesleyan have eliminated loan-based aid for families below a specified income threshold, and others have lowered caps on the amount of loans given as aid. If you have what it takes to get into one of these schools, the promise of no loans might be strong incentive in deciding between colleges. If the schools you’re considering don’t offer this benefit, look into their policies on need-based aid. Many upper-tier schools forgo awarding merit-based aid in order to strengthen their need-based aid offerings. In general, schools with larger endowments will have more money to allocate to financial aid. This, of course, does not guarantee that they will spend their money on scholarships, but schools with greater financial resources typically have an increased capability to do so. When applying, check with the school to see their policies on financial aid and their budget allocations for scholarships.

Though scholarships and financial aid are high on the list when choosing where to spend the next four years of your life, watch for other costs that can creep up after the big checks are covered. Here are some other factors to consider when looking at colleges as a student on a budget:

• The location of the school and cost of travel. How often do you plan on going home – how many breaks are there? Does housing stay open if you elect to stay on campus? If not, what are the alternatives to campus housing? Are you okay with not going home often? Consider your own emotional needs and those of your family over the next four years.

• Housing and meal plan policies. Are you required to buy a meal plan and live on campus? Are there cheaper alternatives off campus?

• Loans and debt. How much debt are you willing to take on? How do you plan on paying it back? How will the amount of debt constrain your future decisions?

• Acceptance on campus. What is the social climate on campus like? How accepting is the community of people from various backgrounds (economic, ethnic, geographic)? How do you think you would feel if you were in the socioeconomic minority?

• Social costs. What social events and activities are favored by the student body? How much will these cost? For example, consider a campus where the majority of students are involved in Greek life. Think about the expectations (and associated costs) of clothing, pledging, sorority/frat dues, social events (formals/balls), etc.