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How to find the college that is "worth" your money

When choosing a college, the last thing you want is to incur a load of debt or feel like you don't belong.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

WASHINGTON — A diminished college experience and a move to remote courses due to COVID-19, while paying the same amount in tuition, have forced families to question whether college is "worth it.” On top of that, a sluggish economy and cuts to household income have impacted how families are thinking about saving, spending, and investing for the future.

Money just released their annual "Best Colleges for Your Money" rankings to guide families through the decision-making process.  This year, Money put more weight on affordability factors including the net price of a degree and new data on average student debt and career earnings.

We chatted with Kaitlin Mulhere, Education Editor at Money about how the pandemic has changed how we apply for college, how to make sure our top choices value diversity and how we can take advantage of financial aid.

Credit: Money.com

 Q: What’s different about Money’s ranking of the “Best Colleges for Your Money” this year? What factors did you weigh more than others and why?

Kaitlin Mulhere (KM): So, every year in our college rankings, we emphasize affordability, it's one of the most important factors in choosing a college that's a good fit for you. But this year, we really emphasize that even more, and when I say affordability, what I mean is the average price of a degree, how much student debt, both students and parents have to take on at a certain college, as well as whether or not students are able to repay that debt. And this year, we actually also added a couple new measures that looked at the average price broken down by family income.

Q: How is the pandemic changed how people apply to college?

KM: It's really interesting because we've heard so much about how different life is on college campuses for current students this year, but I think we've heard a little bit less about how different applying to college will be this year. And it really is an applications season like none other. There are hundreds of colleges basically near a universal shift to test optional, which means that students can choose whether or not they want to submit their essay or a SAT score.

A lot of extracurriculars have been canceled or changed because of the pandemic, a lot of grades have been turned into pass/fail. So, their GPA is different. All of those normal things, that in the past students would fill out their application with, are going to look a little different this year.

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Related Interview: The Best Colleges in America for your Money

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Q: How do you find a college that values diversity, that values anti-racist policies?

KM: Yeah, this is a great question. We have an awesome story all about this on our website at Money.com, but to give you the Cliff's Notes version…

One of the first things that students can do is look at statistics. You want to look at both the enrollment, the student body, the demographics of the student body, but also the faculty on campus. You want to make sure you're going to be seeing teachers and professors that look like you in your classrooms.

Another really important thing is to talk to as many administrators, faculty and students as possible on campus about what the racial climate is like. You can ask both administrators and students how the college has responded to any racist incidents that happened in the past.

You can also talk to faculty about the ways in which Black history or Black culture is taught on campus. One of the really good advice points that a professor recommended to our team, was that you should ask us to see if that is in the curriculum throughout the campus, or if it's all limited to a single African American Studies Department.

Q: So be your own advocate. You can ask those questions.

KM: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And another thing you want to look at is the graduation rate and the student debt broken down by race. In both of those areas, we see large gaps for black and Hispanic students compared to their white peers. So ideally, you want to find a college where the gap is smaller, or at least where they are acknowledging the gap and talking about ways in which they are resolving it.

Q: A lot of colleges are starting virtual. So, can you ask for a reduction in tuition? How does that work?

KM: Yeah, well, you can certainly ask, and we've seen we've seen students do this all over the country. We've seen a handful of colleges that did reduce tuition places like Princeton, Williams College, George Washington University, but it really is a minority. Most campuses have just chosen to freeze their tuition at last year's rate, so they are not increasing tuition, which saves families a little bit of money but certainly isn't the same as reducing tuition.

Now, if your finances have changed, you can absolutely go back, and you should go back, to the financial aid office and ask if there's any more money for you. Usually you'll have to do a pretty official process of submitting some financial statements, maybe showing that your parents lost a job or that you lost your job, that your pay was cut, whatever it may be, to demonstrate that your financial situation has changed. And then the college can help you either find more federal grants, or there may be emergency grants offered by the college or outside scholarships.