Applying to College? Ask These Questions to Increase Your Chances of a Positive Experience, Part 3.

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Do you want to maximize the return on the investment of time and money you plan to put into your education?

If so, my final set of questions focuses on helping you try to do this in the way you and your family hope it will.

College Search Consultants, your high-school college counselor and others can help you answer some of these questions. Ultimately, you must make informed choices based on who you are and what you want from your college experience if you are to answer the questions I’ve posed so far — and the ones below — as best you can. Generally speaking, seeking outside help of some kind whether from consultants or respected members of your community is likely to give you clearer answers than you’ll get if you “go it alone.”

These questions focus on matters such as time from matriculation to graduation, financial aid, and determining the likelihood you’ll be employed or in advanced training once you graduate — all things you should ask if you want to get your money’s worth.

1. What percentage of admitted students never complete degrees/complete them in more than six years? Finding this information out about the schools you’re looking at is important because the more people who don’t finish or take a very long time to graduate, the greater the chance you’ll be one of them. Many student dropouts or slow degree earners can indicate the campus has relatively poor advising, financial aid, wellness etc., resources to support you in getting your education and going on to bigger and better things.

2. What percentage of students graduate in less than six years? You need this answered because in many cases colleges don’t give financial aid for terms longer than six years. People eligible for government aid must be aware of this because the Federal Government rarely gives loans or grants for more than six undergraduate years. As the average student needed more than five years to graduate, before the Coronavirus struck, and will probably need even more time today, paying attention to how long it takes people to earn their degrees can help you decide if one campus or another is the right one for you.

For example, if the average student is graduating in more than five years, there is a greater chance you could lose your aid eligibility if you don’t progress toward your degree at a satisfactory pace than on campuses where the average student is done in less than five years.

3. How much do people with socioeconomic circumstances like mine pay to attend here? Be clear in asking this question and as thorough as possible in using some of the tools out there that people use to calculate their potential aid packages. After all, almost everyone can qualify for some kind of aid either from the government or via private scholarships. The key thing is what kind and whether it has to be paid back.

You want to try to determine what you can reasonably expect the final cost to you of getting your degree will be assuming your time to degree is about average. Estimated costs for tuition, fees, housing, transportation and course supplies can be very deceptive before figuring in financial aid. Nearly all campuses have tools called net price calculators. These can help you figure out what the cost to you of going there may be. They can be particularly helpful right now as the FAFSA uses your family’s tax information to calculate your aid. The net price calculators can give you estimates based on what your family is making right now. As all too many people are aware after the economic disruptions caused by Covid-19, financial aid can make a big difference. Using campus net price calculators may help you figure out what your aid might look like after you negotiate with any college that chooses to admit you based on your family’s current economic situation.

Don’t avoid applying to a school because its pre-financial aid costs seem high. At least one private liberal arts college claims up to ninety percent of families will pay less for someone to go there than they would pay if their child studied on a public four-year campus in their home state. Others make similar claims. Keep time enrolled in mind when you’re asking about total cost since added time actually enrolled on campus to complete your degree, or taking too many classes to get there, may significantly raise the total cost to you of earning your degree. You may even risk running out of some kinds of financial aid if earning your degree takes too long.

Make it a very high priority to apply for Federal Financial Aid via the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. There are convenient desktop and mobile tools to do so. Nearly half of people who could benefit from applying for Federal financial support don’t, meaning they miss out on billions in public and private loans and grants every year. Missing out on that money makes going to college an even bigger problem for many than it should be. Don’t be one of those people who doesn’t get the money you qualify for because you didn’t submit your FAFSA!

4. What percentage of this campus’ and major’s graduates are in full time jobs or advanced training six months after they complete their degrees? This is a key question given the amount of time and money you are investing in your education. There is some variation as schools have different mixes of majors and concentrations. In many ways it will be your final major, not the campus you attend, that shapes your likelihood of having full time employment (i.e. a job with “benefits” like health insurance and retirement accounts) after you graduate. This does not mean you can’t or shouldn’t compare the colleges you’re interested in even though your final major may well not be decided. Ask how successful young alumni of the campus and of the major are at getting jobs or slots in graduate or professional school. Depending on where you go, you may invest close to 300,000 dollars in an education that needs to lead to a job…or more training. Make sure you have the best chance to get return on your investment.

You have to do well in your classes, but if you’re not advised well, or if you’re not in a program that tends to send students onto jobs or advanced training in your area of interest, your time and money may not pay off for reasons you can only partially control. It is particularly important to be aware of external factors like advising at a time when schools are cutting back on investment in career services.

Paying attention to historical tendencies in getting graduates into jobs is important because although people had been hired in great numbers until recently, recovery from the shock to the economy caused by the Coronavirus will take a long time. Given what is happening in our world right now, I don’t need to tell most of you that the chance of getting a good job out of college is likely to rise or fall sharply at least once while you’re getting your degree. It is an unfortunate reality that most prospective students need to balance thoughts about where they’re going to school and what they’ll major in with profound awareness of likely career or training outcomes after they graduate.

5. What percentage of students applying to advanced training actually get in? Learning this is important because many schools will say: We have “x” students who apply to graduate/medical/law/business/etc., school each year. They may make it hard to learn what percentage of these students actually get in. If you ask, they should tell you because they usually know.

For example, raw data from the American Association of Medical Colleges has information on medical school applicants by state, college, ethnicity and more for applicants in 2019–20. If every applicant from the top thirty colleges by number of applications was admitted to medical school, only about a fourth of the places in U.S. MD training programs would have been available for students from the thousands of other colleges and universities in the United States. In reality, sixty percent of medical school applicants each year don’t get in. Logically, therefore, many people from these “large applicant pool” schools aren’t admitted. So, ask what percentage of students who apply for specific kinds of advanced training have actually gotten in over the last five years. The percentage of applicants who get into the kinds of advanced training they applied to indicates whether students get honest, useful advice throughout their time on campus that actually helps them understand whether applying is likely to work out for them or will simply be a matter of giving money to admissions offices in places where there’s no chance they’ll be offered a spot.

Honest, direct, advice can help students get into schools. It can keep you from spending years and money studying for degrees that aren’t a good fit for you. It can also help you avoid applying to programs you have little chance of being admitted to because of relatively low grades or test scores. Keep any data you find in mind as you apply and decide where you want to go.

6. Am I applying here because I think I can be happy or because I (or my parents) want the school’s name? This question has a lot of levels but it’s an important one to answer. If you apply to big name schools only because they have big names, you may find you’re not as happy or successful there as you will be at a less well-known school (or at some subset of the big-name schools), that fits your personality, interests, views, goals, and needs best. Applying on reputation alone may be extremely tempting… and equally risky. Applying because you know the school has the people, resources, opportunities, activities and environment that fit you best is always the smart move.

A thought for parents: if you’re pushing your child to apply to a place because you want them there for your purposes, not theirs, you risk not acknowledging the gifts and talents of the amazing person you’ve brought up.

If you choose not to recognize who your amazing child is and what campus may fit them best because of who they are and what they’re interested in, they may well not graduate or they may badly underperform because they’re not where your hard-earned dollars will give them the best chance to succeed based on who they are, not who you want them to be.

IN SUMMARY, some colleges are better at helping their students complete their degrees than others. It’s important to find out how many students don’t complete their degrees on campuses you’re considering. Ask how long it takes the average student to complete their training as this, too, can affect the cost of your education. The cost of going to college can be, and usually is, ameliorated by financial aid. Use the FAFSA Forecaster and “net price calculators” available on most campuses you are considering to figure out how much people in socioeconomic circumstances similar to yours are paying for college. You will often find that, once financial aid is figured in, colleges that appear to be too expensive will cost you less than you (and the people around you) thought.

Remember that campuses are trying to account for the economic disruptions around Covid-19, so if you are admitted somewhere you want to go but can’t afford it based on the financial aid package you are offered, appeal the award, give them the information they ask for, tell them you really want to go there, and cross your fingers — you may get the money you need to go.

Find out what percentage of alums are in jobs that pay them well, or have been admitted to advanced training six months after they graduate. Colleges have a sense for this. It’s worth asking as relatively low success rates may be an indicator that you should apply elsewhere.

Dr. Matthew Weed is an educational search consultant, motivational and topical speaker, and more. Learn more about him on his website at www.drmatthewweed.com or follow him @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.