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Many students base their college lists on what their friends are talking about, their parent’s alma mater, or high-profile college sports on ESPN. This may be a decent way to begin the conversation about college, but it’s certainly not the way to end it. Ultimately, it’s wise to be informed and strategic about your college applications.

Colleges are very different in fundamental ways. The setting may heavily influence whether your student will flourish.

Therefore, it’s vital to be intentional in finding the right fit(s). A student that fits at Columbia will probably be a poor match for Brown. A student that loves Duke’s atmosphere might be miserable at Yale. You get the point.

College fit incorporates three main ideas: academic fit, social/personal fit, and financial fit. Here at The College Funding Coach, we focus on how to bring the oft-overlooked financial fit piece into the picture, but we will discuss all three below.

Which schools are affordable for you? Get your free College Money Report.

College Fit Works Both Ways

Fit is something colleges look for in applicant essays – an applicant who’s a good fit will demonstrate this in their essay and application.

Colleges want to know how an applicant fits into their student body, that this student will bring something needed to the school, and both will thrive together.  These essays are easier to read and write when it’s a good fit on both sides.

College fit is so crucial because, beyond the hurdles of applying and getting accepted into a college, your ideal goal is uncovering a college (or colleges) at an affordable price where your student will belong, feel engaged and challenged, and be given the best chance for success.

Academic Fit

We all want to make sure our kids attend a school that will match their learning needs and provide a supportive ecosystem that challenges them to grow. Here are some of the classic questions that will help you determine academic fit:

  • Does the college/university offer majors and programs of study that match your child’s interests and needs – many students enter college undeclared or wind up changing majors – are ALL the academic options/majors you’re considering available at the school you’re considering?
  • What are the school’s academic strengths? If your child is interested in a niche major and changes, will this school still help them succeed? If they change majors, will they still want to stay at said school?
  • Public vs. private? Large or small?
    • Some small private schools excel at developing “mediocre” students or kids who don’t know what they want to do.
  • Does your student want to be a big fish in a small pond, or do they want a more competitive, challenging environment?
    • It’s not just a question of “can your student hang with the competitive high-achievers?” Instead, you should ask, will your child be engaged and content in an environment like this? Getting accepted into a reach school is a remarkable achievement, but it might be tougher to achieve academic success there. If the student attends a school where most of the other kids are overachievers or better prepared, the struggle to keep up might produce more stress than needed. This may be extremely damaging to your child’s ability to develop, grow, and connect with the community around them.
  • How does your student learn best? Does the college/university provide styles of instruction to complement the way your student learns? (e.g., classroom time, theory-based lectures from faculty, group projects, presentations, experiential hands-on learning, digital learning, online classes)
  • Does the college/university provide levels of academic rigor to match your child’s aptitude and preparation? Your student should never be coasting.
  • What are the academic priorities of the college? (e.g., research, doctorate programs, undergrad teaching)
  • What type of academic curriculum does the school offer?
    • Open – students are free to choose which classes they want to take, there are no general education requirements, and students can design their own path to a major or concentration.
    • Core – there are specific courses all students must take, regardless of their majors.
    • Distributed – there aren’t specific required classes, but there are guidelines to the number and type of courses that each student must take in each academic area.
  • What are the placement rates if the student wants to attend graduate school?
    • Suppose the student needs recommendations from faculty to get into the graduate school of their choice. In that case, the student will want to be at a school that’s large enough to support them but small enough to develop close relationships with faculty.

Ultimately, the goal with academic fit is to find a school that will help your student learn in a way that is most natural and appealing to them. That way, they stay engaged in the learning process and remain motivated to excel.

Shellee Howard, Founder and CEO of College Ready, sums it up nicely. Academic fit is not just ‘Can my student get in?’ It’s also ‘If my student gets there, can they hang, can they fight, and be successful and happy?’

For More Detail on Academic Fit: 10 Items You Should Research Before Ever Committing to a College

Social Fit

Academic performance is strongly correlated with co-curricular student involvement.

Most schools aim to offer rich, diverse communities where students of all backgrounds can thrive and grow. Nevertheless. each school has its own unique culture, feel, or “vibe.” What may be ideal for others, even family members, may not be a good fit for a particular student.

Social factors play a big part in whether a student will graduate, transfer, or drop out. Mental health is a critical issue. For emotional well-being, students need a sense of belonging and a place that can feel like home for the next four (or more) years.

To determine social/personal fit, consider the following factors:

  • Large vs. small – some schools have 40,000 students, some have 400.
    • Is your student the type to thrive in an environment of enormous lecture halls with 100+ students?
    • Does the student need individual attention and/or is overwhelmed among large groups of people?
    • Is the student more likely to make deep, lasting friendships when he/she is surrounded by a few hundred or several thousand students?
  • Where is the campus located?
    • City, suburban, rural?
    • Close to home or as far as possible? (Note: it’s trendy for high schoolers to want to go as far as possible, but this may not always be the right fit for your student.)
  • Do most students live on or near campus?
  • Does the campus feel safe and comfortable? Does it resonate with the student? Can the student picture himself/herself going to this school?
    • If the student values diversity and inclusiveness, is that evident in the student body, faculty, and curriculum?
  • What do current students do in their free time?
    • What co-curricular activities do the college and wider community offer?
    • What is the social scene like?
    • Does the student want a school where much of the social life revolves around Greek Life and/or athletics?
    • Does the student want to be involved in the community outside the school?
      • What do the philanthropy and community service programs look like?
      • What is there to do off-campus?

Your child needs to be honest about his/her likes and dislikes and how well they align or not with the communities present at the school.

Shellee Howard of College Ready gives a personal example of social and academic fit concerning the level of intensity and competition at Harvard:

Her son encountered a situation at Harvard where he knew he wouldn’t get an A in a class; he didn’t want it as badly as the other kids. Her son was initially worried that this made him an outsider, even a bad person, but he ultimately decided he was ok with getting a B in that class. Shellee’s daughter, on the other hand, visited Harvard and immediately knew the intensity was not for her. She was not ok with being in that world and didn’t want that for her life.

Students must understand what they’re getting into. Will they be negatively affected by a hyper-competitive school? Or, will they thrive in this atmosphere?

If the school is a poor social fit for your student, he/she will be miserable. Students transfer and often lose momentum when their chosen school isn’t what they expected. Even if the academics are a good match, students who don’t have friends or don’t feel socially happy tend not to do very well in college.

A student who feels like they belong—who is tethered to the place, its people, and its mission—will be more engaged. And engagement is key to success.

Financial Fit

The third way to evaluate college fit boils down to money.

Does the school fit into your budget? What can your family afford?

Howard emphasizes that every family’s financial circumstances are unique. Some families are happy to write the check if their student gets accepted – financial fit might be their lowest priority. On the other hand, some families might not be able to afford their student’s dream school(s) and want to avoid debt at all costs – financial fit would be their top priority.

Figuring Out What You Will Pay at Each College

The good news is that you will likely not pay the listed sticker price for college.

Paying for college is sort of like paying for an airline ticket—some will pay more, some less. Imagine, however, that the airline can see how much money you make and whether you are a reputable flyer, and they adjust their prices accordingly.

This is what we in the college funding industry refer to as net price.

Net price is the college’s cost of attendance all-in minus grants/scholarships. If you research schools by net price, you may find that a wide variety of private colleges & out-of-state universities, as well as in-state schools, may be affordable for you.

Most students and their families are unaware that there’s a flip side to the financial coin. A school that values the student will recognize compatibility, and the school will demonstrate its commitment to the student financially. The school will invest in the student’s talents, interests, and perspectives through need-based or merit-based aid.

Further Reading: How Does College Pricing Work?

Merit-Aid Tip: A simple way to secure financial assistance is to select schools where the student is in the top 25% of the talent pool (GPA & test scores). In addition, it is important to understand that some schools only provide need-based aid (Ivy League schools and some top private schools) while other “tier 2” schools offer merit aid to those who qualify.

Be realistic about your family’s finances and avoid taking on excessive debt in the name of your education. Specifically, avoid falling victim to the “prestige complex.” That is, don’t feel beholden to college rankings and brand-name schools. There are so many other factors that go into college selection.

Here are some questions to determine financial fit:

  • Look at outcomes – What percentage of students graduate in 4 years? With how much debt does the average student graduate?
  • Does your student want to go to graduate school? It is a good idea to save money on undergrad in this case and develop a grad school funding strategy.
  • How much in student loans will you have to take out? Will you be able to pay these off without causing significant financial repercussions down the line?
  • What is the average starting salary for your student’s major at each school?
  • If you qualify for need-based aid, will the school meet most of your eligible need? And, of this need, will most of it be in the form of grants/scholarships?
  • Does the school offer generous merit packages? To which students do they offer these merit packages? Are they only for the select few?
  • Have you made a plan with a financial advisor or college funding expert that covers investment, tax, and cash-flow strategies? The earlier you start planning for college, the more flexibility you will have in the future!

If you are looking to create a college funding strategy, determine which schools are affordable for you, and pay for them as efficiently as possible, consider scheduling a free consultation with one of our coaches.

Bringing It All Together: Why Does College Fit Matter?

Howard encourages every family to thoroughly evaluate academic, social, and financial fit for their student(s). In addition, she suggests that each family then prioritize the three types of fit.

Every family is different; however, we find these general trends to be true.

  1. Students will most likely rank social fit first and ignore the financial fit.
  2. Parents tend to rank either academic or financial first, social fit last.
  3. Despite parents’ focus on academic and financial fit, they often feel bad that they are “restricting” their students to certain schools and consequently don’t set expectations and guidelines for their kids early on. This lack of transparency often results in kids getting emotionally attached to schools they can’t afford.
The Financial Repercussions of Choosing the Wrong College

Ideally, you can have conversations with your student early on and intertwine all three types of fit. Every parent wants a great, affordable school where their child will thrive.

Picking the wrong school may cause the student to feel miserable socially, unable to afford tuition, and/or feel out of place academically.

What are the specific repercussions of picking the wrong school?

  • Students will likely transfer: The National Student Clearinghouse reports that 38% of students transfer to a different college.
  • Students will likely change majors. Studies and surveys show that between 30% – 50% of students change majors at least once.
  • The student may not graduate college in four years (only 41% of students graduate in four years),
  • The student might even drop out of college entirely. This is probably the worst thing you can do from a financial perspective – you now have spent or owe money and have not strengthened your earning potential.

All these things result in wasted time and money.

This is why it’s so helpful to make a college funding plan early on that allows for contingencies and gives you the best chance to send your kids to their best-fit colleges.

The good news is that most college-aged kids have a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive in a multitude of different settings. So, don’t get stuck on one school. There are about 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the US; you should be able to help your child find several colleges that are “right” for them.

Related Reading:

Consider Going Out of State for College

The EFC Mumbo Jumbo

Why College Is So Expensive and What You Can Do About It

Do 529 Savings Plans Make the Grade?

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