A Better Way to Search for Colleges: The Upside Down College Search

This Way or That WayDo you need a better way to search for colleges?

Last week, I wrote about The College Search Family Caught in the Middle.  Basically, if your family makes too much money for need-based aid, but you don’t have enough college savings for four years of college at any school your son and daughter may wish to attend, I would consider you as a college search family caught in the middle.

At the end of that article, I said that this week I would share some thoughts on how you can avoid getting too far down the path with a college you can’t afford.  I think there is a better way to search for colleges for families caught in the middle.

Most families begin the college search process with some kind of preconceived notions about colleges the student should look at. Either the student has some college names in his or her head and wants to check them out or the parent has some “wouldn’t if be nice if …” colleges in mind for his or her student to look at. Maybe Mom or Dad looks at the US News College Rankings hoping to send the student to a school near the top of the list.

Most students, for one reason or another, start their search by focusing on one of these categories:

  1. Community colleges/2-year campuses
  2. In-state public colleges
  3. Fairly local private colleges that are not well known outside of the area
  4. Wherever sounds good
  5. Ivy-league or whatever ultra-competitive college I can get into

The first two categories don’t cause a ton of angst for college search families caught in the middle because they have the most affordable sticker prices. Depending on your state, your flagship state school may be expensive compared to the non-flagship public colleges in your state, but it should still carry a sticker price lower than most private colleges.

The colleges I label as “fairly local private colleges that are not well known outside of the area” tend to also have lower sticker prices, with tuition up to around $35,000 per year. These are also the type of colleges that tend to give a generous amount of merit aid to attract good students.

It’s the 4th and 5th categories that cause the most heartburn, especially when your student starts looking at these without any financial guidelines being set.

Families that can cash flow four years of college at any school in the U.S. don’t need a better way to search for colleges.  They can let their student freely search within categories 3, 4, and 5 without worry.  It won’t matter if the student selects a super-expensive school.  They have it covered.

College search families caught in the middle don’t have that luxury.  They need to control the college search process at the beginning. They need a better way to search for colleges.

This is where the concept I’m calling the Upside Down College Search comes into play. It involves building a realistic list of colleges to start with rather than doing that later. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a smaller list to start with.  It more likely means you will have a different list of schools than you imagined. To use an analogy, it doesn’t mean you cast a smaller net, it means you cast a tighter net with smaller holes.

Components of the Upside Down College Search

  • What your family can afford
  • Your student’s high school GPA and ACT/SAT scores
  • Your student’s list of “must haves” – could be majors, sports, activities, size, location, etc.  However, the more your student is willing to keep an open mind, the more schools he/she will have to choose from using this process.
  • Merit scholarship data, including statistics on the percent of students who receive merit aid and specific merit scholarships offered by the schools

You want to create a college list that increases the likelihood that you will be able to afford each and every school on the list, rather than needing to hold your breath until the financial aid award letters come in after acceptances.

I am going to break down the Upside Down College Search process into digestible steps for you.  There is too much detail to go into at one time, so I will cover it week by week.  I will start with detailing out each of the components and after that, I will explain what to do next.  We will build a framework for a better way to search for colleges one step at a time.

Next week I will cover the factors you need to consider to determine what your family can afford and the tools and processes you should use in determining that.  If you haven’t already signed up for my weekly newsletter, that’s a great way to get notified when the next article is published.

Posted in College Search
2 comments on “A Better Way to Search for Colleges: The Upside Down College Search
  1. EL says:

    You have perfectly described our situation. We’ve already ruled out the Ivies and name brand schools. My daughter is at the very top of the class for all schools considered however after using some of the NPC’s this weekend this may not be enough. A school we really liked has published its highest merit award at $15K off a sticker price of $68K–that’s insane! Thankfully, we have a great public option and my daughter is fine with that if we can’t find a better alternative within striking distance as far as costs go. I look forward to this series!!

    • Wendy Nelson says:

      Hi Elyse,

      Thanks for sharing your situation! Good to know that you have a great public option. When it’s in-state tuition and a highly regarded school, that is often the best way to get a good deal. Best of luck with your college search!


2 Pings/Trackbacks for "A Better Way to Search for Colleges: The Upside Down College Search"
  1. […] What can your family afford for college?  Knowing this is the first step in the Upside Down College Search process.  I introduced this concept last week as A Better Way to Search for Colleges. […]

  2. […] is step two in my series on the Upside Down College Search, breaking down this process and giving you a framework to follow to find great deals for college. […]

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