How to Factor In Cost When Applying to College

October 13, 2018 Updated: October 14, 2018

NEW YORK—Picking the right college isn’t just a matter of finding a good fit for a student’s talents and interests, but should also involve what a family can reasonably afford.

As U.S. high school seniors prepare their college wish lists, more parents than ever are scrutinizing the price tags. A recent T. Rowe Price survey on “Parents, Kids & Money” found that 74 percent of parents would be willing to send their kids to a less-expensive school to avoid debt, compared to 61 percent last year.

Figuring out what a family can afford starts with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), beginning on Oct. 1. This federal form computes an expected family contribution that many colleges will use to determine aid.

There are other factors that can affect a student’s total financial package and some families turn to admissions experts such as Peter Van Buskirk to help them sort through their individual situations. A 25-year veteran admissions officer at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Van Buskirk is now director of student advocacy at Revolution Prep, a national group that provides academic support to students and maintains the website

Reuters spoke with Van Buskirk about what families need to know about finding the best college fit that they can best afford.

Q: How do you know if a college is a good fit?

A: The best college will always be the one that values you for what you have to offer. They see what you have done in school and life, and is excited about admitting you and will give you what you need—even financially.

Q: How important are admissions officers in the process of the financial package?

A: You should look at them as investors. They are faced with the prospect of filling a limited number of seats from a vast body of applicants. They look at it as return on investment. If you want assistance of a certain amount, their need for return on investment goes up.

The financial aspect isn’t kept separate. There’s real accountability.

Q: How can a student tell how much the admissions officer values them?

A: It’s hard to know in exact terms. I talk about selectivity. I also talk about leverage. In the exchange, it will be the party that has the leverage who controls the conversation. The highly selective schools have the leverage all the time. They can choose one out of 20, so it becomes a lottery.

In a situation where a student’s credentials put them at the top of the process, then the student has more leverage. Parents and students need to be realistic. If they say, “My kid needs to go to an Ivy,” it can be a great education but not necessarily the best fit.

If they manage expectations, they will put themselves in situations where they will be valued, and then the institution will do what it can to make sure they enroll. They can’t cover everyone with aid, but it will go to the students they care about most.

Q: What is most important for families to communicate to schools?

A: Colleges are trying to predict the likelihood that you will enroll. Now, colleges are tracking students by the number and type of contacts they have with the institution. Some do it with science, some do it implicitly.

They don’t want to give places away to students applying whimsically. They want them to know the institution and have done a careful self-assessment. You have to know where you are applying and what you want to study.

Q: Do the odds get better if you apply to more schools?

A: It’s terrible logic. The prospects of getting in aren’t additive. It just increases the likelihood you will be frustrated.

Q: When should cost enter the equation?

A: At the very beginning. Make sure you are choosing the college because it meets your expectations. We’re not paying tuition to sit at football games.

Be thoughtful about the way you put your list together. I can’t tell you how often I talk to students and do a very intensive personality and diagnostic interview. I want to know how they think about themselves. Later, we talk about colleges.

By Beth Pinsker