“So, where are you going to school next year?” Sometimes it feels like this is the only question people ask you. Maybe you’ve been dreaming about a certain university, or maybe you have no idea what you even want to do with your life, let alone where to go to school. Choosing the right program is one of the biggest decisions of your life (no pressure). But before you take the plunge, here are three questions to help you figure out “What’s best for me?”
1. Do I know what I want to do with my life?
If you can answer a resounding “Yes!” to this question, I would suggest you stay open to new possibilities. For example, I really thought I wanted to be a psychologist, so I found a great school with a great psychology program. However, after my first semester I realized I liked psychology, but I loved writing and teaching. I switched my major to English Writing & Rhetoric; became a published author; taught at inner-city schools; and now I work for the U.S. Department of Education. My point is you never really know where life will take you. So if you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, great: get into the best program you can—just don’t close yourself off to trying new things.
Freshmen orientation. You can almost smell the nerves in the room, but you’re not worried. Dorm room, check. Class schedule, check. Textbooks, check. Watching your siblings and friends go through their college years has prepared you for the years ahead. Surely there were bumps and bruises, but there’s bound to be people on campus to help you avoid making life changing mistakes and make the most of your time at the school. Right?
Here at the Department of Education, we asked some of our interns for any advice they would extend to incoming freshmen to make their college years un-regrettable…
When I was in my last semester of high school, I checked my family’s mailbox just as much as I checked Snapchat and Instagram combined. It was the season of admissions decisions, and I was getting letters from all the colleges I’d applied to.
But once I’d gotten into several schools, my attention shifted to my e-mail inbox. I was waiting on information that was just as critical: my financial aid offer from each college. I knew that for me, the amount of financial aid I got from a school mattered just as much as the general admissions decision. I’d fallen in love with each of the schools I’d visited, and I knew I’d be happy anywhere. Basically, my choice was going to come down to the money.
Analyzing different aid packages can seem like way too much math for the end of your senior year—at least it did to me—but it’s important stuff. Check out my four steps to make this analysis simpler.
What to do once you get an aid offer
1. Make sure you know what you’re looking at.
The financial aid offer (sometimes called an award letter) typically comes in an e-mail from the college’s financial aid office. The offer includes the types and amounts of financial aid you’re eligible to receive from federal, state, private, and school sources. Be sure you understand what each type of aid is and whether it needs to be paid back. For example, when I got into UNC-Chapel Hill, my aid offer was a mix of scholarships, which I didn’t need to pay back, and private loans, which I did. My offer from Duke (booooo) had mainly the same stuff with some grant money mixed in.
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Lucky for you, hundreds of colleges nationwide have signed on to present financial aid offers in a standardized format known as the Shopping Sheet. The Shopping Sheet is a standardized award letter template that makes it easy to compare financial aid offers from different schools. In addition to providing personalized information on financial aid and net costs, the Shopping Sheet also provides general information on the college, like graduation rate and loan default rate.
A college or career school education = more money, more job options, and more freedom. Yet, with more than 7,000 colleges and universities nationwide, deciding which college is right for you can be difficult. Maybe you want to find a school with the best nursing program, or study abroad options, or the best college basketball team; every person values different things. However, it’s also important to remember that college is one of the biggest financial investments you will make in yourself. Just as important as academics and extracurricular activities are the financial factors: how much a college costs, whether students are likely to graduate on time, and, if alumni are able to find good jobs and pay off their loans. That is why the U.S. Department of Education developed the College Scorecard. It provides clear information to answer all of your questions regarding college costs, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings.
As you’re comparing colleges, use the College Scorecard to compare these four things:
1. Net Cost
For starters, you should consider how much you’ll actually be paying on an annual basis. That’s not necessarily the sticker price, but it’s the sticker price minus all of the scholarships and grants that you will receive when enrolling in an institution. This is called the net price, and it’s important because it’s the average amount students actually pay out of pocket.The College Scorecard can show you the average net price of each school compared to the national average. It can also give you a net price estimate for each school broken down by family income. Here’s an example: