When we work with families on the college planning process, some parents and students wonder why it matters that you find a great fit college. It can seem like a confusing process to consider so many factors—size, location, educational approaches, programs, culture, religion, cost, and selectivity—in deciding which colleges to apply to. And yet, it is critical for student success. Because the college admission process is not just about getting in, it’s about finishing college and thriving in life. And for that, fit matters.

A Poor Fit Can be a $100,000 Mistake

The National Council on Educational Statistics reports that the average cost of college – after scholarships and financial aid grants – is between $25,000 and $50,000 per year. That means that many students will spend between $100,000 and $250,000 on a college education. That is more than a car, more than twice the likely annual income from your first job, and more than most weddings. More, in fact, than almost anything you will buy other than a house. And in spite of these huge costs, only about 60% of all students graduate within six years, and more than 20% come home after their first year.

That means that the cost of not finding a great fit college can be very high. It can leave students saddled with unnecessary debt. For some students, it can be a $100,000 mistake. For parents who attended college at a time when costs were much lower, that realization can come as a revelation.

Why Students Leave College Early

Money Issues

Being unprepared for the expense of college is a huge reason for students to drop out. So before you go, spend some time understanding what you can do to reduce costs:

  • Find colleges that will offer more aid and better financial packages: Colleges differ hugely in how much money they will offer students. Depending on your specific circumstances—income level, assets, grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities—different colleges will offer quite different packages. LifeLaunchr’s webinar on understanding the financial aid system and maximizing your outcomes can be a great resource.
  • Find scholarships to help you pay. Every year, about $3 billion in scholarships goes unclaimed. There are local scholarships, scholarships based on interests, ethnicity, academic discipline, and many other scholarships.
  • Learn how you can save money on college: Besides financial aid and college grants, there are many ways you can save money on textbooks, courses, and other expenses. Learn them and find a way to make your education affordable and debt-free.

Cultural and Academic Fit

  • Finding a school where you can fit in culturally, where the academic demands are appropriate, and where you can get help when you need it is very important. For many students, the big challenge is that they are at a school that is too big, where they are “just a number.” For some, it is that they are at a school where the academic demands are not aligned with their capability. Take the time to do your research, and get expert help to find a great fit college before you make a choice.
  • Lack of a community and mentorship: For many students, it is the lack of a community where they can get advice on the issues college students deal with: course selection, internships, jobs, and so on. Building a network of supporters and mentors early can help immensely. Connect with your counselor at school. Find a mentor or coach who can help you make decisions as you go.

How to Find a Great Fit College

  1. Finding a college that is a great fit always starts with academics, because the purpose of going to college is to get an education. Find colleges that offer the programs you’re interested in, and create a statistically balanced list.
  2. Second, take time to introspect or speak to a coach and understand what you’re really looking for, and build a list that is authentic.
  3. Finally, consider cost and make sure you can afford your choices.
  4. Remember, expert help can make a difference!

College can be the best investment you make. The data shows that college-educated students earn a million dollars more in a lifetime than students who don’t attend college. But the key is finding a great fit college and finishing with a degree that can help make a middle-class life, or better. So pay attention to finding a great fit college before you go.

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