Many American students rely on financial aid to attend college, and a big part of the college application process is figuring out how affordable a school will be.
Financial aid packages, which can be composed of scholarships, grants, loans, and work study, are sometimes difficult to understand.
Since different schools have different policies, it can be hard to actually figure out which college gave you the best financial aid package.
Finding the best financial fit combines knowing the school’s policies with knowing what your personal preferences are. Paying attention to these five policies, along with knowing your own preferences, will help you find the most affordable school for you.
1. The meal plan
College dining halls are typically set up one of two ways: Either every food item costs a certain amount of points or dollars, or you pay a flat price to enter the dining hall and eat as much as you’d like.
It’s important to figure out which of these plans will be the most cost-effective for you. The “point” system might work best for a student who would like to grab their food and run to class, or a student that typically eats smaller meals.
A student that eats bigger meals, such as an athlete, will probably find that the “buffet” system makes the most sense. One way to figure out which plan will work best for you is to spend your senior year paying close attention to your eating habits.
Do you need to have dessert? Do you prefer five small meals instead of three large ones? Knowing how you prefer to eat before you’re confronted with a decision based on financial aid can help you make a sound choice.
Perhaps you’re going to school halfway across the country or maybe you’re commuting to a community college down the road. Either way, distance is going to factor in cost-wise.
Students going to school far away need to think about the cost of trips to and from school, how they will ship and store their belongings, and whether they will need to invest in clothing suitable for a different climate. Students that commute to school everyday need to think about the costs of gas, parking, car maintenance, and the time spent traveling.
Students that have two financial aid packages that seem similar should figure out all the travel costs related to attending school and then see which school is actually the most affordable.
Pay close attention to housing policies. Some school require that you live on campus for all four years, and some schools barely have enough dorm rooms for the freshman.
Some schools also price different dorms differently. For example, a room with air conditioning might cost more than a room without. Calculate exactly how much housing will cost you at each school and pay close attention to the costs of living. Off-campus housing in Manhattan will cost you far more than an apartment in Cleveland.
4. The small things
When thinking about the costs of college, don’t forget to think about the little things that can add up. Remember to think about things like health insurance, textbooks, activity fees, and an allowance for fun. Not every school handles these things the same way. Some schools allow students to rent textbooks instead of purchasing them.
Some schools require that students have health insurance, while other schools have partnerships with local hospitals and students don’t pay extra for health insurance. Make sure you remember to allow yourself for doing fun things off campus. Schools in major metropolitan areas will have a lot to offer, while schools in small towns may not boast as much.
One way to figure out how much these things cost is to ask current students. Ask them what they spend on textbooks, how often they eat out, and what they didn’t expect to spend as much money on. Another place to explore is the school’s student activity office. This is an office that specializes in making sure students have access to fun events that are low-cost.
5. The four-year graduation rate
Let’s say you have two schools that have offered you the same amount of money. You have compared everything and it’s looking like the cost to attend either school will be the same. How do you make a good choice financially? Check out the school’s four-year graduation rate.
A higher percentages means more students finish in a timely manner, while a lower percentage means there are a lot of fifth- and sixth-year seniors. You can find this number in the US News and World Report rankings or on the College Board website.
Graduating in four years instead of five can save you thousands of dollars in tuition and associated costs. A school with a higher four-year graduation rate likely has more resources to make sure students stay on the right track academically.