I use an analogy when I discuss college selections with parents and students. Imagine giving your student the responsibility of buying a new car. Would this be an exciting proposition for your student? Most of the students I talk to would think so. Would you let your student just pick whatever car they wanted or would you set some ground rules first? Many students would agree on setting ground rules when it comes to buying a new car. We need to take this same approach when picking a college. We can’t just let our students pick whatever college they want. They need guidance and the right information so intelligent decisions can be made. 

1. 5-star crash rating or a 4 year grad rate? When we buy a car, safety is the number one priority. This car is carrying precious cargo. Imagine the impact an accident would have if your student was driving friends or even siblings around. We want to make sure they stay safe. Do we even need to think about this consideration or is it a non-negotiable? I believe every car for a new driver should have a great crash rating, airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control at a minimum. In the case of college selection, every college we consider needs to have a decent graduation rate.

Is there a magic number? I like 4-year graduation rates of 50% or higher. That way, we can be sure that the student can graduate on time as opposed to institutional limitations getting in the way. Institutional limitations include too many students on campus and not enough professors. This also includes a shortage of academic advisors. If we do not graduate on time, this is a tragedy that can have unintended consequences on the college plans of other siblings and students in your household. Like I said, precious cargo.

2. Gas mileage or an academic fit? Gas mileage and efficiency is important. We don’t want our students to have to hit the gas pump every other day. It can slow them down and cost you extra dollars. When we pick colleges, we need to make sure the college is efficient for your student. How many freshmen make it to their sophomore year? This rating, known as retention rate, should be at 75% or better. What is the student to faculty ratio? Is your student going to be in an auditorium with hundreds of other students? I believe they should be in a classroom taught by a PhD, where that professor is on a first-name basis with your student. After the students graduate at the college, what percentage go on the graduate school? What percentage of students gets a job within months of graduation?

We need to track these types of metrics. Can you imagine buying a car without a gas mileage rating? It’s time to buy a different car. Would we ever consider buying a car without this information? How many parents and students pick colleges without even asking these basic questions? Unfortunately, I have seen too many families that buy colleges this way. Do your research and make smart decisions when buying your college.

3. How are we going to buy this car or is there financial aid? Let’s be honest, your student can’t pick a Porsche or a Ferrari when shopping for their first car. You just can’t afford it. We need to look at colleges the same way. Pepperdine in Malibu California may have everything we need in a college such as grad rate, job placement, and retention rate. However, at over 60K a year most families just can’t afford it. When we shop for a car, we need to see if there are any incentives or rebates. Are there any special financing options? With colleges we need to do the same thing. Are the colleges under consideration offering incentive packages too? By doing research and by shopping around, we can create a list of affordable and realistic options

4. Is that your best offer? Ask 10 people how much they paid for the same car, how many different answers will you get? Most savvy consumers know that car dealerships will compete for your business when cross shopping similar models. Whether a mid-sized sedan, two-seat coupe or a light duty truck; most dealerships are keenly aware of the competition. Many savvy shoppers are unaware that colleges act the same way. If we create a list of similar colleges with similar traits, we can create competition with these colleges. This type of competition between the colleges on your list can have a dramatic impact on your award letter and will help you drive off the lot with a great deal.