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How to choose the best college: one that you can actually afford

Written by
VSAC Staff

March 28, 2024


choosing college

The updated FAFSA was delayed this fall, and the impact of that three-month delay rolled down the line to colleges, families, and students. College financial aid offices are now scrambling to process student financial data and to get their aid decisions out to families as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, students—many of whom have multiple acceptance letters in hand—are waiting to find out how much assistance each school will offer them, so that they can decide where they’ll be studying.

No doubt, it’s been frustrating and stressful. Many students and families have compared this year’s college decision process to waiting on an extended phone hold. To help families make the most of that time “on hold,” we published some information recently on specific action steps they can take as they wait for financial aid offers to come in. This week, we asked one of our long-time VSAC counselors to share some general advice for students and families on how to approach that decision-making process.

No “right or wrong”

“It’s a hard decision,” says Matt “Beagle” Bourgault, who has worked at VSAC for 20 years—the first 12 years as an Outreach Counselor, and now as Director of the Talent Search Program. “But the first thing to keep in mind is that there’s no ‘wrong’ decision,” either from an educational or a financial perspective.

“When it comes to choosing the school itself, people think that ‘this is the rest of my life.’ But if the school doesn’t work out, you can always transfer,” Bourgault reminds students.

And while the financial piece is big—college is one of the largest expenses a student or family may take on—Bourgault again says there are no right or wrong answers. Instead of framing things in black-and-white terms, he says, it’s more helpful to focus on understanding the financial consequences of each option on the table. VSAC provides resources to help you walk through understanding your offers, crunching the numbers, and making your decisions, and Bourgault offers additional words of advice.

Consider the financial impact of each option

While Bourgault always advises a student to settle on a program that’s a good fit, he also says cost needs to be an equally weighted factor in a college decision. “We have this idea that you should always go to the ‘best’ school you can possibly go to. But ‘best’ is subjective, and affordability is also a factor,” he says. “We talk about safety schools and reach schools in terms of admission, but we should also be talking about financial reach and financial safety.” 

This time of year—and particularly with this year’s delay on the financial aid side—Bourgault says it can be tempting for many students to say, “I got into my dream school!” and put a deposit down right away. But, he says, they also need to think about money. 

Money can mean a lot of different things when it comes to financing one’s education. Scholarships, grants, and 529 education savings accounts are all part of the picture. If you’ve subtracted “gift” money and savings, and discover there’s still a balance remaining, sometimes loans are the best way to bridge the gap. But loans mean debt, which requires a deeper analysis.

“Sometimes going to your ‘dream school’ comes down to a decision about whether the student or the family can take on more debt. Not that maybe you shouldn’t do that, but you should just understand the implications,” he says.

For that, Bourgault advises that first families crunch the numbers using VSAC's financial aid comparison tool, which may help surface details about your education details about your education investment as well as other important considerations.

After families have done some background work and put pencil to paper to help reveal true costs as well as priorities, there may be a gap in how much you have versus how much you will spend. It is helpful for families to consult a basic online loan calculator. “It can be really valuable to sit down with a student and review what a bigger loan will mean down the road. How big will the payments be, and how much will they have to earn to pay that back?” he says.

“It’s also helpful to have the conversation early, as a family, about what the family can afford to contribute towards education,” notes Bourgault. “For example, if you need loans to cover some of the costs, who will take out the loans? And who will make the payments? Some loan options are taken out in the parent’s name and ultimately are the parent’s responsibility to repay, while other options are taken out in the student’s name and are the student’s responsibility to repay. It’s important to make everything clear.”

Don’t take anything off the table

Bourgault notes that families shouldn’t assume that the highest-price school will be out of reach, or even that it is the best fit for their student. “The ‘most expensive school’ on paper may not actually end up being the most expensive for you,” he says, noting that some schools have increased the amount of aid in recent years. “The student who can get into a highly acclaimed school, for example, may get lots of aid,” whereas some of the smaller schools they were also admitted to may not be able to offer as much.

And while Bourgault generally advises students to borrow as little as possible and not to overreach, he points out that the decision also depends a lot on the student. “If a student is a real go-getter, or they’re entering a lucrative field, we and their families may be very confident that they’ll be successful no matter what, even if they take on more debt,” he says.

Loans: what to know if you decide to borrow

If there is still a gap between what a student or family can pay and the cost of school, and loans are part of the conversation, Bourgault notes that an option is for families to take out an education loan. 

While many schools include the federal Parent PLUS loan in the cost itemization that accompanies typical financial aid offer letters, families have many choices when it comes to education loans. Bourgault points out that many colleges itemize Federal Direct Student Loans (a loan specifically for students), and Federal Direct Parent PLUS loans (a loan offered specifically for parents) in the financial aid package as a way for families to see how tuition costs could be covered. “Often, that remaining financial gap is shown as being covered by loans in the offer—which makes the bottom line a zero balance. But that doesn’t mean it’s free!” he cautions. “It’s easy to miss that a loan has actually been included.”

If you have to borrow, federal student loans should be considered first (because of the repayment benefits), but the PLUS Loan for parents isn’t always the best deal. Before accepting a Parent PLUS loan, pause and shop around. VSAC offers a Loan Guide to help students and families understand loan basics, compare education loans, become familiar with interest and repayment, and minimize debt.

It’s also important to know that a student can accept any grants or aid referenced in the letter, without having to accept the loans or type of loans as stated. If a loan is still necessary, you can accept it later on (or not), after you’ve considered all your loan options.

Bourgault also reminds students that it’s not too late to apply for some additional scholarships or work over the summer. “That extra $1,000 you don’t have to borrow, when you look at the total cost of paying that off over 10 or 20 years, will save you a lot of money,” he says.

Is the financial aid offer the “final answer”?

When students do receive their financial aid offers, Bourgault says, they shouldn’t be afraid to appeal. While he steers people away from the word “negotiation,” because it’s not exactly like buying a car, he says it can be helpful to use a comparison approach with their number-one school if the cost is still a bit out of reach.

“Students should be comfortable letting their top school know that I really want to go here, and if it were more affordable, I could attend,” he advises. “Then, maybe ask if they could match an offer from their second-choice school, or come a little closer.”

VSAC offers advice and resources to students on its Appeal Your Financial Aid page. Swift Student also offers some templates to use when writing to a financial aid office to appeal an offer.

“And certainly, if there’s any information the school doesn’t have about your financial situation, make sure you get it to them,” says Bourgault, reminding families that the FAFSA they just filled out for fall 2024 admission looks at their 2022 financial situation. “Circumstances change, due to a job change, a divorce, the birth of a sibling and so on. In those cases, schools will take another look. VSAC does the same thing for the Vermont Grant. So, if that applies to you, that would be the first thing to do in terms of appealing a financial aid offer.” 

One big caveat for this year: Colleges and universities have all been squeezed in their timeline for sending out financial aid offers, and that may be true for how they respond to appeal requests as well. One of the downstream impacts of the errors and delays, unique to this year’s troubled rollout of the FAFSA by the Department of Education, is that schools financial aid offices have less time to do all their work, including addressing appeal requests.

While you should not be hesitant to appeal, be aware that your institution may not be able to respond to your appeal as quickly as they would in a normal year.

Tips to consider while you wait

As students anxiously await news from their schools, Bourgault reminds families not to wait for a physical letter to arrive in the mail. “More often than not, there’s an online portal, and students have to log in to find their acceptance and financial aid decisions.” They may be notified via email that new messages are waiting for them in the portal—or they might not. So, check often. Many schools also publish the dates of decision notifications on their websites, which could help you know when to log in.

Because of FAFSA delays this year, some schools have extended their deadlines for students to make admissions decisions. While that deadline is typically on or around May 1, some schools have already pushed that out because of the FAFSA delays, and other schools may follow suit in the coming weeks. The National Association for College Admission Counseling is keeping a list of schools that have extended their deadlines in its  Enrollment Deadlines Directory.

The college decision process is complicated, and it can feel cumbersome and stressful. “In the end, though, it’s all still worth it,” says Bourgault. According to the College Board “Education Pays” report, in 2021, median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients with no advanced degree working full time were $29,000 (65%) higher than those of high school graduates. “While college isn’t for everyone, if it’s for you, you’re headed down a great path. The data show that college pays off.”