With literally thousands of colleges and universities to pick from, the opportunities for an outstanding educational experience have never been greater. At the same time, not all factors are equal and not every place is right for every student. It’s important to explore beneath the surface and make a choice that will pay off in the long run.

When considering which school to attend, a lot of students immediately check where their top prospects rank nationally and regionally according to the lists published each year by various organizations—the most popular of which is U.S. News & World Report. It’s very tempting to view these recommendations as live-or-die statistics and consequently overemphasize a school’s place on a list (or absence from it) in your decision-making. Yet there’s a lot more to a college or university than these rankings. A tremendous number of schools don’t make the Top 20, but that doesn’t mean they’re not excellent in their own right.

Here are some other important questions for students to consider when evaluating colleges:
• What is the student-to-faculty ratio?
• What is the culture of the school and its community?
• Do I prefer living in or near a large city, or do I like a more small-town setting?
• How strong are its academic programs in the areas of study that interest me?
• Will it allow me access to great opportunities in my field after I graduate?

Beyond personal fit, it’s also important to consider a college’s Return On Investment or ROI. Rather than ranking schools based simply on prestige and quality of education, many college guides are now classifying them according to return on investment—analyzing which schools will profit you most based on your projected lifetime earnings. To do this, they weigh things like the level of debt their students graduate with and alumni salaries.

Payscale.com has ranked nearly 1,500 colleges, both public and private, in this way. Payscale.com also lists specific majors and the starting salaries of graduates from each of these schools. So if you’re concerned about how much college will cost you compared to what you can expect to make in your lifetime, sites like this will give you an idea.

To determine your own ROI for a particular school, think through factors such as:

Net Price – The published price on a college or university website is often very different from what a student ends up paying. A more effective measure of a school’s actual cost is its net price. To figure this number, you take the entire cost of attendance and subtract any potential grants and scholarships. Schools that receive federal aid are now required to have a net price calculator on their website to help you know the true cost of attending.

Four-Year Completion Rate – Many students at colleges that claim to be four-year institutions take longer than four years to complete their degree. Therefore, pay attention to the completion rates at your top-choice schools.

Earning Potential – Having a good idea of your future earnings will help you make better decisions about the appropriate amount to spend on your degree. While it’s impossible to predict your exact income, PayScale.com annually releases data on salary potential at various universities.

Opportunity Cost – In an educational capacity, “opportunity cost” is basically a matter of weighing missed income against the value of a degree. This is especially relevant for people who are considering advanced degrees.

Keep ROI in mind when deciding on which college to attend, but make sure your choice is based on the school that best suits your educational and personal needs. There’s a lot to evaluate. Fortunately, there are so many resources available today to help with the decision-making process. Explore the variety of books and websites that supply extensive details on your prospective colleges, and don’t forget to take virtual and in-person campus tours. Your front-end efforts can lead to an excellent fit with significant financial savings.

Attending a college that’s nationally ranked can have benefits, but if you end up struggling or you graduate strapped with debt, it may not be worth it. Look beyond the rankings and find the school that will let you shine. Choosing a college that really aligns with your personality and goals will allow you to flourish while in school as well as beyond graduation.

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