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5 Factors When Making the College List

By Bob Cole

  • January 16, 2024
  • 4 min read


student opening college door

The college process depends on one thing, the college list. It’s an important document that takes shape junior year and goes through several drafts by the time students apply to college. As you do more research and look closer at colleges, the list will get shorter, or at least that’s the goal.

To help you get there, we’ve compiled a list of 5 factors to consider when making the college list, from the true cost of college to life after graduation. In putting together this article, we spoke to several college administrators from participating schools in our 529 plan.


1. Net price

The net price is your cost of attendance after a college applies discounting through institutional grants and scholarships. It’s the number you should really be looking at opposed to the sticker price, which is the published cost for tuition, fees, room and board and other expenses. The net price is often much lower than the sticker price, especially at private colleges.

“Contrary to popular belief, the sticker price does not reflect what many families pay to attend one year of college,” says Mary Nucciarone, director of financial aid at the University of Notre Dame. “Depending on the awarding policies at a particular college or university, you may end up paying a lot less because of discounting, making your actual cost much lower.”

There are a few tools that can help estimate your net price.

  • Visit a prospective college online and use its net price calculator. Every college is required to provide one.
  • Research the cost of attending the most and least expensive schools based on tuition and net price through the College Affordability and Transparency Center.
  • Look at historical net price data using College Navigator. After searching for a college, scroll down to the “net price” tab to view historical averages by income range.


2. Academic programs

It’s no surprise that academics are important when looking at colleges. The right undergraduate program shapes the college experience and prepares students for the future. Even if your child starts freshman year undecided, they likely have a general idea of what they want to study now.

While you’re building the college list, make sure to check whether a college has the major – and even the concentration within the major – you’re looking for. It’s also worth checking how a college ranks for that area of study. Not all academic programs are created equal. A great search tool is, which allows you to search top colleges by major.


3. Graduation rate

A college’s graduation rate can be a significant measure of the quality of the school and should never be overlooked by families.

On average, across the nation, private nonprofit colleges have higher graduation rates. * And the schools with the highest graduation rates tend to be prestigious private colleges. According to data collected by College Tuition Compare, the top five colleges with near perfect graduation rates (97% or more) are Yale, Harvard, Northwestern, Princeton and Duke – two of which are members of Private College 529 Plan.

If a college doesn’t have their graduation rate available online, you can find it using College Scorecard through the Department of Education.

*Data is looking at six-year completion rates for first-time students. Source: National Student Clearinghouse, Research Center.


4. Job placement and earnings

While the value of college is subjective and can mean many things, it’s important for most families to get a return on their investment. That’s why job placement and earning potential are important factors.

Most colleges collect data on their recent graduates and share it proudly under career services, like this Boston University page. Some schools even go further by publishing top employers by academic program and their average sign-on bonuses. If you cannot find this data on a college website, check with College Scorecard or directly contact the institution.

It’s important to note there’s always variability in a metric like this. Future job market demands are tough to predict. And while a college might put significant time and effort into their career services, a student’s major could impact their options immediately after graduation.


5. The campus experience

The truth is everyone has a different experience at college. What’s transformative for one student could be average for another. That’s why it’s essential to get a feel for campus life, even if your student plans to commute.

“For many colleges and universities, the campus and classroom experiences align to define the institutional culture,” says Tom Bear, vice president of enrollment at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “What students do when not in class, the types of traditions held in high regard, time devoted to studies, and social activities, they all provide a sense of shared values and priorities. Keep these in mind as you develop your college list.”

One of the best ways to get a feel for campus is by visiting it in person. If you can’t attend an open house or campus tour, many colleges offer virtual events to learn more about life outside the classroom. You can also speak with the admissions office about connecting with current students, much like the Mt. Holyoke College ambassador program.

Portions of this article are adopted from the March 2021 Forbes article, “When Considering Private Colleges, Look Beyond the Big Number.”

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