Major decisions can be stressful and complicated, not to mention expensive: Which house in which neighborhood? Which job? Which retirement investments? This summer, many students and their families will make perhaps the most anxiety-inducing of long-term investment decisions: choosing a college.

With almost 3,000 four-year colleges and universities and another 1,700 two-year institutions across the country, selecting just one can be daunting for any prospective student. But the choice becomes more manageable once students and their families identify their needs and investigate which institutions are best equipped to serve them.

Except very few students ever do that.

Instead, many filter their college options based on factors like proximity or “sticker-price,” which often have very little correlation with their likely academic success or the actual cost. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

Graduation rates vary widely, even among colleges with the same selectivity and admissions standards. Six years after enrollment, just under 60 percent of students have finished a four-year degree. And, time-to-completion can have a massive impact on cost. Even when a college is close to home or seems affordable for other reasons, these proximity and cost factors have little bearing on the likelihood of earning a degree. For low-income students, a local college with lower tuition could actually turn out to be more expensive than far-away or more selective colleges seeking to attract students like them through grants and scholarships.

Finding the right college match can mean the difference between earning a degree­­ and wasting time while accumulating debt. Sadly, research suggests that low-income and first-generation students who stand to gain the most from attending a well-resourced, selective college are most likely to limit their search based on perceived barriers like selectivity, cost, or geography. Today, savvy students are paying closer attention to factors like graduation rates, demographics, and discounts or grants that reduce the actual cost of college. This approach not only broadens their options for college but also gives them a more accurate view of the potential return on their educational investment.

Here are four factors students and families should think twice about when starting the college search:

Proximity. For many students, staying close to home is important for financial or family reasons. But if colleges close to home don’t have the programs they’re interested in studying or the supports that are most beneficial in helping them get a degree, they should be encouraged to look at institutions outside their immediate geographic location. The point here is that graduation rates vary widely from one college to the next, and while convenience might help students get to and from school, it won’t necessarily help them to graduate. Before students limit themselves geographically, they should be sure they have a fair chance of succeeding wherever they decide to pursue their education.

Price. Students and families can be easily scared off by high tuition prices, but what many don’t know – and aren’t told – is that these are “sticker prices,” the full-price amount that few students actually pay. “Net price” – the average cost after all grant aid and loans are taken into account – is a better barometer of affordability. The federal government’s College Scorecard also includes net price by income level, so prospective students can see what other students in their income bracket are paying, on average. In almost every case, it’s a fraction of the posted “sticker price.”

Brand. It can be easy to rely on universities with name recognition. But name recognition isn’t everything, and it can give students and families a false sense of confidence. A college that is a good fit for one student may not be for another, and there are many lesser-known colleges that provide a great education and graduate large percentages of their students. Don’t rule out a college simply because you hadn’t heard of it before starting your college research.

Selectivity. On the flip side, students shouldn’t shy away from “reach” schools – selective institutions with high standards for admission. Too often, high-achieving, low-income students “undermatch” by enrolling in colleges that are less selective than others where they could be admitted. In fact, more selective colleges often have a level of rigor and programmatic support surpassing that found at less selective institutions, and this added rigor and support often leads to higher chances of success and a greater return on investment. This return on investment is a critical point to consider, especially for low-income and first-generation students looking to college as a path to socioeconomic mobility.

The good news is that the complexity of college matching means that students have a multiplicity of paths to achieve their college hopes and dreams. Online resources now provide students with unprecedented transparency and hard data to not only help them make good financial decisions, but also to understand the success rates of students who are most like them. With the support of parents and counselors, the once-daunting task of whittling thousands of options can become less stressful, better informed, and – most important – in the best interest of the student.

A version of this article first appeared on on July 27, 2016.


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