There are certain characteristics you may want your best fit college to have: a top–notch biology program, a respected reputation, even a desirable location. And then there's the cost. We all want affordable cost.

Private and public schools' tuitions are increasing dramatically.  We know from working with students and their families and from the results of our annual College Hopes and Worries Survey that the growing fear among college applicants is that they will be accepted to their dream school but not have the means to pay for it. Some students don't consider schools whose price tags are too high. That's a mistake!

Here’s our advice: When you are deciding which school to attend, consider the cost. When you are deciding to which schools you will apply, cost should take a backseat (for now).

When you are creating your list of dream, match, and safety schools, you’ll consider many factors, but at this point, the cost of college should not be a dealbreaker. What you are expected to contribute could be far less than the cost of attendance. Sometimes, your out-of-pocket costs may be less at a school with a higher sticker price than a school with lower sticker price.  How?

Financial Aid Enters the Picture

With a financial aid award, your ultimate, out–of–pocket costs may dramatically decrease from the original sticker price. Some schools offer more generous award packages than others. Some award packages will be less loan–heavy (forcing you to borrow more) than others. And some will cover more or all of your need than others.

The bottom line is that you won't know what your financial obligation will be until after you:

  1. are accepted
  2. apply for financial aid
  3. receive your financial aid award letter

Only then will you have all the information (financial, too) to decide which school is the best choice to attend.

Taking the Long View

College outcomes such as starting salaries and career placement rates have become just as important to students and parents as academic quality and campus life when choosing a school.  As you are researching colleges, take a look at the available career and salary data along with academics and on-campus career resources when considering whether to invest your tuition dollars (not mention your time, energy, and passion) in a particular school.  

Making Your Target List With $ in Mind

We wish we could say, "You can completely ignore the cost when deciding where to apply." We can't. Just as you may apply to expensive schools with the hope of a generous award package, you should also apply to reasonably priced schools (or financial safety schools) in the event that your award package falls short of your expectations. The best financial safety schools are ones that you would happily attend if your other choices don't pan out.