Weighing colleges in a pandemic requires close review and clear financial priorities

weighing colleges takes time

Most families with high school seniors approach college admissions deadlines with heavy doses of excitement, fright and fear.

But this year, there are reasons to be even more on edge, with the pandemic squeezing family finances tighter than ever. Many students have to weigh school choices sight unseen, since it is difficult if not impossible to visit campuses and to talk face-to-face with teachers, students, and college admissions and financial aid officers.

With admissions letters starting to hit mailboxes, it also means financial aid award letters won’t be far behind. Here are some key steps and strategies to keep in mind as you whittle down your college shortlist.

Make sure your top choice is *still* your top choice

Yes, your son or daughter has been admitted into their dream school, at least that was how they felt about the college a couple months ago. But with the pandemic still raging, do they still feel excited and comfortable being 600 miles from home? And what about your feelings? Might your Plan B or C, which are both closer to home, be better?

Feelings about schools can change, which is perfectly normal. Take one more look at campus size, location, and culture. As the IvyWise website recommends, students need to take a step back, weigh all the offers in hand, and consider their feelings.

Do your homework

With campus tours and formal visits with admissions and financial aid officers on hold, some schools have turned to Zoom and other social media outlets to answer questions from prospective students. Check the school website for question and answer opportunities. Or just pick up the phone or email the school if you need to know more.

Know your financial needs and understand what the school is offering

Understand the financial assistance each school is offering. Do you know the difference between a grant and a loan? Does the financial aid award letter include the total cost to attend or just tuition, room and board?

For example, there may be lab fees for science classes and art classes may have materials fees, neither of which is typically included in an award letter.

A 2018 analysis of more than 500 financial aid award letters by non-partisan think tank New America, found that what different forms of aid are even called can vary from school-to-school. For example, some work study programs were referred to as “self-help aid,” and there were more than 136 different names for a student loan, some of which didn’t even include the word “loan.” Some letters, the study noted, didn’t even draw a distinction between different types of financial aid, instead lumping them all together into one award.

If you do borrow, aim to keep the total at about $8,000 a year — about average among borrowers.

Prioritize your remaining choices

How badly do schools really want you? Here’s one way to measure: I recommend placing a priority on schools that will pay you to attend by offering more “free money” in the form of scholarships and grants, as opposed to schools that offer mostly loans.

For example, several years ago when one of my kids was down to his final two choices, one school offered a very generous package of scholarships and work study programs that offset more than half the tuition tab and other costs.

The other school, which had a much higher tuition, offered zero merit-based money although there was a package of loans. Which school really met our financial needs? Easy choice.

There are many great colleges that don’t cost an arm and a leg. And when in doubt, vote with your pocketbook.