What to Look for When Determining a College’s Worth
This so-called “sticker price” of a school—the tuition cost you see per year—is often not what you’ll end up paying. So, the first thing to do when determining a college’s worth is to use tools like net price calculators and have conversations with financial aid offices to get a sense of where you stand. As Minden says, when you’re buying a house, you get the house inspected before you buy it. “Why wouldn’t you do that with finances around college?”
But numbers only tell one piece of the story. It’s critical to look at what goes on beyond the first year.
To determine if a college is worth it for you, start by comparing costs across all your choices. Once you have a rough idea of what you can expect to pay across all four years, consider the opportunities at each school.
Look at merit scholarship opportunities.
Every school awards merit scholarships differently, says Minden. She encourages families to ask schools about their merit award system if it’s not transparent on the school’s website. Babson, for example, offers several merit scholarships, including several full-tuition and half-tuition scholarships, among others.
Minden says families can also look at whether a school offers an honors program that provides some sort of subsidy. Or whether you could be a Resident Assistant and get free room and board in your sophomore year. Or if you can secure a work-study job all four years.
Do the research to determine what is available and whether there are any supplemental application materials you need to include.
Talk to the financial aid team.
Having a conversation with a financial aid office is one of the first indicators of how willing a college is to work with you. If you’re not getting the information you need, it may be a red flag. “How a financial aid office treats you before you’re even enrolled is a really good predictor of what the next four years are going to be,” says Minden.
“This is your investment,” she adds. “Make sure you understand the appeals process if a financial aid package isn’t what you were hoping for.” Particularly if your financial circumstances have recently changed, you’ll want to work with the financial aid office to see what else is possible.
Dig into the post-graduation data.
It’s easy to focus on the short-term when looking at schools. After all, the cost you’ll pay to attend is more immediate than the pay off after graduation. But it’s helpful to look at what happens after students graduate from a particular college.
“If you’re investing $X, how long is it going to take you to recoup that money in terms of your ability to get a job within six months of graduation?” This is a question Minden recommends students and their families answer by digging into student outcomes.
Many colleges will publish data around average starting salaries for their previous class, the percentage of students employed within six months of graduation, the average lifetime earnings of a graduate, and more. Minden also recommends looking at the default rate on loans per school, which can indicate if most students at that school are able to pay back their loans.
Get a sense of who you’ll meet.
If you look at the before (determining costs) and after (anticipated salary and the like) as it relates to college, you also want to look at the middle. How will your network build on a given campus? Minden emphasizes that college is so much about who you meet along the way. “There are faculty members who are going to set you up with their network,” she says, based on her experience at Babson. “Students are going to meet their future business partners.”
Consider what a school is going to provide you that will set you up for success later. “College goes beyond your GPA and how much fun you had,” says Minden. “It's an investment through a network.”
Talk to current students and alumni.
Current students and alumni are great indicators of whether a college is really living up to its marketing materials. Talk with current students during a campus visit, or ask the admissions office if they have students that you can chat with digitally.
You can also look at LinkedIn to see what types of roles alumni currently hold and at what companies. You may even opt to call a school’s alumni office to ask for more information about what the college’s alumni are doing, or if they have any data on their alums.
At Babson, for example, you can connect with an Admission Ambassador, a Babson graduate who can discuss their Babson experience and how Babson may be a good fit for you. Alumni are located around the world so you may be able to meet with one in person or virtually.
Minden reminds students to consider looking at colleges through the lens of how will the student experience transform you? Many schools have open houses and show the most outgoing students, but not every student is starting a company in high school or participating in dozens of clubs. Visit campuses knowing that these students were in your same shoes only a year, two years, or three years ago. How will the college you attend take you to the next level? Can the schools you’re looking at take you to the next level?
“You need to ask yourself, ‘Am I going to go to an extension of my high school?’” says Minden. “Or, ‘Am I going to go somewhere that will push me and turn me into something I never thought I could be?’”