Student Finance

Determining the Real Cost of College and Its Value

Picking a college with the best value is your first big lesson in decision making -- make sure you consider everything.

Shawna Newman

February 23, 2022

Determining the Real Cost of College and Its Value
Evaluate your top college choices with these candid questions.
College is a serious investment, so you want to be sure you make the very best choice. Many of the topics we’ll discuss in this article are—SHOCKER—not readily mentioned in viewbooks or on campus tours. The task of ensuring you’re making the best higher education choice is in your hands. This article is your cheat sheet to uncovering the most valuable college for you. Dig deep – and ask the questions discussed below – to uncover your total cost and the true value of your top colleges.

Don’t Let Sticker Price Suck You In

What does this sticker cost not include? Shopping for a college has become more complex. The cost of college is increasing nationwide, and due to this colleges have become creatively competitive. They want your business and to gain it they’re marketing their tuition at sticker cost. According to Forbes, "The confusion - or alarm - is stirred by pundits who cite only the “sticker price” of college even though they know that’s a price that the majority of students do not actually pay."
It’s important to know that comparing sticker prices can be tricky. Some colleges may leave out the cost of room and board, while others may include it in their sticker price. It’s important you know what you’re paying for as you may need to take out student loans (and pay them back later). Here are some other hidden costs that may not be included in the sticker price: • Student Fees • Computer Fees • Textbook Costs (Rentals/Non-Rentals) • Room and Board • Meal Plans Your net college cost is the final amount you’ll pay. It’s the sticker price minus your awards (scholarships, grants and financial aid). Typically, you’ll start receiving financial aid packets from your top colleges in the spring semester of your high-school senior year—this is where your net college cost will be detailed.

Do Students Stay or Do They Go

What are the student retention and transfer rates? First let’s cover what retention and transfer rates actually are. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at the same school the following year is the retention rate. A transfer rate example would be a student in a four-year degree program that decides to go to another college within six years. If both rates were high, you may ask about the student support programs offered. For instance, does the school with the low retention rate have free tutoring? Is the college with the high transfer rate located in a more rural city? Do they offer student activities during the weekends? If one of your top college choices has a low retention rate or a high transfer rate, be curious! Both the retention and transfer rates could be a hidden (and true) look into colleges’ student support systems.
Ask questions and use the United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard to start your research. The College Scorecard provides information such as annual costs, retention rates, college location and size, the average salary of graduates and more.

The Graduation Rate, Student Support Connection

What’s your graduation rate? While the number of those that hold a Bachelor's degree in the U.S. is slowly increasing, according to the United States Census Bureau, collectively it’s still a small number. Obtaining your Bachelor's degree is a very honorable thing, but not everyone is up to an additional four years (at least) of education. However, if a college graduation rate equates to less than half of the student body with a diploma—you may want to consider it a negative ding. It could also be connected to another value question... What does access to student services or support programs at your top choices include? Are they free? Colleges need more than a variety of academic departments and majors to retain students; they need student services. These offices and amenities on campus provide emotional, physical, and financial support for students. Colleges with a student-focused mission may offer dedicated student-support perks such as: • Custom admissions teams and/or advisors • One-on-one college advisor visits each semester • Counseling services • Gym Access (Exercising can make you happier and more focused!) • Tutoring The goal of such services is to ensure their students have the tools and resources necessary for college completion. Lower graduation rates could be reflective of colleges that don’t consider student support a high priority. If you find your top choice university has a low graduation rate, speak with an admissions representative or a degree program coordinator. They should be able to offer you candid insights.

A Ramen Budget in New York City

How much does it cost to live in this college town? If you’re going to be pinching pennies like most college students (AKA: living on a ramen budget), then you may need to think twice about attending college in an expensive city. According to Investopedia, New York City is the most expensive city in the U.S. Five popular California cities, as well as Honolulu are on the “top 10 most expensive U.S. cities to live in” list. Odds are you will want to explore your surroundings outside campus (and you should). So, check out and compare costs in each of your top choice college towns to ensure you can handle the cost of living. Use NerdWallet's cost of living calculator to compare common item costs, such as: • A loaf of bread • A liter of milk • Museum fees • Gas prices • Public transportation fees

The Student to Instructor Ratio, Current & Future Values

What’s the student to instructor ratio here? If your top-choice college list includes a variety of larger and smaller colleges, you’ll need to keep this in mind when making evaluations based upon the student to instructor ratio. A ThoughtCo article that you, "Watch out for schools with student to faculty ratios over 20 to 1." The idea behind a lower student to teacher ratio is added time for questions and more office hours availability for professors. A lower student to instructor ratio may lead to better grades and increased motivation; which equates to better success for college graduation! If your top colleges are big, that’s okay. Investigate the student to instructor ratio of the specific degree program you’re seeking. Just be sure you’re comparing the ratios fairly: oranges to oranges, not oranges to apples. Most larger colleges’ freshmen and sophomore level courses are big classes. However, the instructor to student ratio should decrease once you reach the classes that are more specific to your degree during your junior and senior years. Once you get into more degree specific courses, you’ll want to be sure you have plenty of time with the instructor and that they have the time to invest in you. After all, this DOES have something to do with what you want to be when you grow up. You’re going to be excited about all the case studies you get to dig into, and you’ll have questions!

Employment or Bust

How likely am I to get a job after I graduate? This may be the best value indicator when comparing your top college choices, and the good news is that it’s easy to find the answer! It would be disappointing, and stressful, if you graduated college but couldn’t find a job. Check to see if your top choice colleges have a career center or offer career counseling services. Also, be sure to take advantage of a free resume review. Why wouldn’t you?!

No Regrets, Apply for Fastweb Scholarships

The value of a college degree is real. According to an NPR article, college graduates with “a bachelor's degree will earn $1 million more over their lifetime than someone who has just a high school diploma.” It’s up to you to ensure you’ve made the best, most valuable, college choice. No matter which college you choose, you will want to ensure you earn all the scholarships you can. This extra money provides value to your college journey and offers you the financial support you’ll need. It’s important to apply for scholarships as often as you can—even as a college student. Our database has more than a million scholarships just waiting for the right student. Be sure youupdate your Fastweb profile regularly. Your profile is an important tool, ensuring you are notified of the scholarships you qualify for.

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