Fit: It’s Critical to College Affordability

May 1 will soon be here. That’s the deadline for paying a non-refundable enrollment deposit to hold a place in the 2016 freshman class of most four-year colleges and universities. At many institutions, this deposit will also secure your student’s enrollment in a particular major.

Hopefully, by May 1 you’ll have been able to compare the costs of attendance and financial offers for all the schools your student is considering. If so, the choice is simple, isn’t it? Pick the most affordable school: the one whose financial aid offer produces the lowest amount left to be paid, right?

Not necessarily. Dollars and cents aren’t the only thing to take into consideration. Equally important is the question of the “fit” between your student and a particular institution and major.

Think about it. A student who attends an institution that doesn’t fit his or her needs is, not surprisingly, more likely to suffer emotional distress and poorly academic performance. He or she might not flunk out of the institution, he or she’ll face three choices. The first of these is to transfer to another institution. If your lucky the new institution will accept all courses successfully completed at the prior school. But all too often, transfer students end up retaking at least some of their previous courses; so transferring often inflates the cost of attendance because students pay twice for the same classes*.

Second, your student could “tough it out” at his or her original school. But then, to make it through that institution, there could well be extra costs for support services (counselors, tutors, etc.). Or there may be one or two semesters in which it all becomes too much and the student “stops out” of school. This can result in paying more to earn a degree in five or six years instead of four. Either way, if toughing it out affects your student’s grades and/or graduate or professional school test scores, it could also affect his or her ability to get admitted to such schools and/or to receive assistantships and fellowships to help pay for them.

Finally, students mismatched with a college or university may throw up their hands and simply drop out of higher education. From an affordability perspective, this is akin to writing off a substantial financial investment. Educational loans still must be repaid, but without the increased earning power that generally accompanies a degree. And even if your student goes back to college a few years later, the scholarships he or she initially received will be lost, increasing reliance on borrowing to pay ever-increasing costs of attendance.

A poor fit between your student and his or her major can lead to similar outcomes — even if the student remains at the original institution. Courses taken to fulfill requirements for the original major may not apply to a new major, so your student ends up paying tuition for more credit hours than necessary. Toughing it out in a major that poorly fits the student’s aspirations and interests can contribute to lower grades, extra expenses for support services, and failure to meet academic requirements for scholarship renewal. It can also lead to stopping out or even dropping out.

In today’s world, you cannot afford to ignore issues of college affordability. But neither can you afford to ignore issues of fit between your student, an institution, and a major. Will your student feel comfortable on this campus and be turned on by that major? When thinking this through, it’s vital to recognize your student’s ambitions, passions, and personality traits. Would she be bored at a small church-related liberal arts school in a rural town but stimulated at a large, diverse university in the midst of a big city? Did he hate every math and science course he ever took, but was he fired up about classes in English composition, music, speech, and theater? Is it important for her to remain relatively close to home and family? If he’s highly social, should he really attend that commuter school where most of his friends will go home every night and weekend?

College comes during one of the most critical stages of human development, and chances are your student will be a very different person four years from now. But you’ve lived with that young man or young woman longer than anyone. You’ve watched him or her grow up, observed his or her behaviors, shared his or her victories and disappointments.

In short, you know your child best and, whether that child says so or not, chances are you’re his or her closest advisor and confidant. So as you counsel your student about what may be his or her most important and expensive life decision, remember this — while you probably can’t afford to ignore how much it’ll cost for your student to attend different colleges or universities, in the long run higher education affordability and success are all about the fit, too!

College Affordability Solutions can help you evaluate your student’s financial aid offers and determine the net costs and funding gaps you and your student will incur at institutions making those offers. Email collegeafford@gmail.com to learn more.

* In Texas, all successfully completed lower-division courses that are part of the state’s core curriculum are fully transferable among public institutions; but the applicability of transferred courses to specific degree programs is determined by the receiving institution.
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