How to narrow down your college picks

June 10, 2013 

With more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, how do you even begin to narrow it down to a list of a dozen or less to pursue?

Well, if you are one of the 92 percent of families who say that financial considerations will impact where their students attend college, I’ll share with you the approach I usually use when working with families.

• Start with at least one in-state public university or college.

Your in-state schools will have the lowest starting sticker price of your four-year options. However, in the end, they are often your most expensive option, compared to the generous aid and scholarships from private schools.

Still, it’s good to have that base covered. If you are a resident of North Carolina, be mindful that the University of North Carolina is nobody’s safety school. If you’re applying to UNC, I recommend picking an additional N.C. public school as well.

• Consider private schools that offer merit scholarships and need-based aid, such as Furman, Wofford, Presbyterian, Mercer and Sewanee.

While private schools have substantially higher sticker prices than state schools, in many cases they can be so generous with need-based aid and scholarships that the family’s out of pocket expense is less than what they would pay to attend a state school.

Just today I had a joyful single mom call me to report that, after we submitted a financial aid appeal, her son was going to attend an elite private school for $7,000 a year, even though the sticker price was almost $50,000 a year.

• Consider private schools that offer no merit scholarships but great need-based aid, such as Vanderbilt, Duke, all the Ivy Leagues, Davidson, Amherst and Williams.

These top-tier schools don’t need to use merit scholarships to attract the best and brightest students, so they instead provide exceptionally generous need-based aid to their accepted students.

Getting in is the tricky part. So, if you have a very bright student and are of middle to modest incomes, this could be a great option. Most Ivy League colleges will say that if your family income is less than $100,000 to $120,000 per year, tuition is free. That won’t happen at a state public school.

Consider out-of-state public schools.

Out-of-state public universities can be the priciest option of all, unless you’ve learned of a program that will waive the out-of-state tuition rate.

Look for majors that qualify for in-state tuition by searching the Academic Common Market (on or by having exceptionally high SAT or ACT scores. Many schools will waive that higher rate to attract top students.

As you’re narrowing down your choices, I encourage you to visit as many schools as you can and do your research on them. I especially look for schools that have high freshman retention rates — their freshmen show up again to be sophomores — high four-year graduation rates and low student-to-faculty ratios.

The most current and thorough statistics about college admission, student retention and other information can be found on the U.S. Department of Education’s free site:

Elizabeth Hartley is a private college placement consultant in Lake Wylie and a member of the National Association of College Admission Consultants. She works with schools, foundations and individuals on college admission and scholarships. Sign up for her free monthly newsletter at

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