It’s that time of year when glossy college pamphlets litter dinning room tables, teenagers labor over personal essays, and parents wonder whether any 17-year-old is truly capable of selecting a school that could set their path toward adulthood.
Picking the right college can be a daunting task, fraught with a few tears, disappointments and cold-hard realities of costs and affordability. But don’t freak out. There are a slew of websites chockfull of information about all the things families should consider as their college-bound student applies to schools —graduation rates, average expenses after grants and scholarships, department rankings…you get the point.
While the following suggestions are by no means an exhaustive list, these are a few websites that are worth a look.
College Scorecard (https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/): This offering from the White House has an extensive, but not exactly complete, list of public and private colleges and universities across the country. Students can type in a school, location, program or size criteria and pull up data on graduation rates, average annual cost, earnings after college, student body demographics and more.
One of the most important features of the scorecard is the info on the number of students who have paid at least $1 toward the principal on their student loans within three years of leaving school. If you know your child will have to borrow heavily to attend college, it could be helpful to get a sense of how students are managing their debt.
Keep in mind that the post-college salary info is an average based on all programs offered by the school, everything from engineering to art history. With all due respect to art history majors, it’s unlikely they are pulling in the same kind of money as engineers fresh out of college. For a more complete picture of post-graduation bank, check out state higher education websites. A number of states, including Virginia, list average earnings by degree.
Money’s Best Colleges (http://time.com/money/best-colleges/): A fairly new entrant to the rankings game, Money Magazine is establishing its list as a must for parents interested in the return on investment. To get to that ever-elusive ROI, the magazine looks at how much families pay after grants (net price), how much they have to borrow, graduation rates and whether students gain marketable skills.
The value of an education can never just be measured by whether your child lands a great gig. But if you’re borrowing more than you paid for your car and giving up all of your savings, it would be worth it to know whether a college will give your kid a fighting chance in the job market. The way Money reaches that conclusion is a little squishy because it looks at self-reported data from Payscale and a Brookings Institution analysis of popular skills listed by alumni on LinkedIn.
Still, there are data points that are invaluable for parents, namely the inclusion of federal PLUS loan data. PLUS loans, which have no borrowing limit, are typically used by parents to fill in the funding gap left after scholarships, grants and federal student loans, which have a total borrowing cap of $26,000. Another key addition is the so-called value-added graduation rate, which looks at completion based on the economic and academic profile of the student body.
Consumer Affairs’s Online College Review (http://www.consumeraffairs.com/education/online-colleges/): As older, working students have become the norm in higher education, online colleges have gained traction with flexible class times and remote access. Yet few college search sites include these schools in their reviews. Filling the gap, Consumer Affairs put together a list of online colleges that includes whether the school is accredited, the degrees awarded and which types of students would get the most out of the program.
The list only looks at 10 highly rated schools based on consumer reviews, so it’s not comprehensive, and the reviews are of course subjective. Still, the consumer watchdog website offers a basic lay of the land and advice on what students should consider before selecting an online program.
Edvisors (https://www.edvisors.com/): This is one of those websites that can take families from planning for college to life after graduation. Edvisors covers the watershed of college finance, including filing out the FAFSA, searching for scholarships, working during school and repaying student loans.
The tutorials and calculators on the site are among the best features. Families can learn the difference between private and federal loans as well as get some sage advice on responsible borrowing.
U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges (http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges): You can’t pass up the granddaddy of college rankings. While the list has been assailed for favoring colleges that spend a lot on students and faculty, it still has useful information about student life, campus services and the amount of financial aid students receive on average.
Perhaps the best part of the website is all of the articles offering advice on college admissions, studying abroad, application fees and anything else you might want to know about.
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