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What's Your Best College Fit, Financially Speaking?

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As you imagine your dream colleges, it's fine to punt college cost down the road. But when it's time to choose where to apply, you should consider potential affordability.

Just as you want to apply to the colleges that are right for you, you should also want to know if you have a chance of affording them. So include potential "financial fit" in your list of requirements.

A Financial Fit Means the College Is Likely to Be Affordable

Certainly, no one is advising you to pick a college just because the price is right. But if you have found a college with your key "fit factors" in place, you should consider cost. It's best to deal with this issue ahead of time — not when you're agonizing over acceptance letters from colleges you can't afford.

Have a "Family Talk" About What Cost is Affordable

By the time you make your application list, you and your parents should have had a conversation about what the family can afford to pay for college.

  • What amount can you and your family pay out of pocket each year for college?
  • College loans are a reality for most students. How much debt can you and your parents afford to pay back each year?

Your answers don't necessarily mean you can't attend a college that appears expensive. The right kind of financial aid might significantly reduce your cost to a manageable amount.

Assess Which Colleges Are "Financially Friendly"

Here are some signs that a college might be affordable for you.

  • A history of providing generous gift aid (grants and scholarships).
  • A history of substantially meeting students' financial need. (Many colleges don't.)
  • A policy of not reducing gift aid after freshman year. (Some colleges do.)
  • A history of providing generous merit aid (aid not based on financial need).
  • A history of low student debt upon graduation. (State averages for debt at graduation in 2020 ranged from $18,350 (Utah) to $39,950 according to The Institute for College Access and Success.) 

Consider Colleges Likely to Offer You Their Best Deal

Many colleges are most generous with students whose stats place them in the top 25 percent of their current freshman class. These colleges may offer cost-reducing gift aid to encourage top students to enroll. Consider how your stats compare before applying.

Consider Other Factors That Affect Cost

Low four-year graduation and retention rates can signal potential additional cost. Taking more years to graduate means paying for extra years of college. Transferring to another college can also lead to higher costs if some of your college credits aren't accepted or you change majors.

Use College Net Price Calculators, But With Care

Net price calculators on college websites allow you to enter your financial information and get an estimate of your "net price"—your potential freshman year cost once gift aid is deducted. But these calculators use various methods, so the results are difficult to compare. Alternatively, use a single net price calculator for all the colleges on your list. This will give you cost estimates that you can easily compare.

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