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How to Avoid a Top Ramen Lifestyle After College Posted on:Tuesday, November 20th, 2012


Selecting the colleges to which you will apply should be a carefully weighed process, much like shopping for a car.  Imagine that you’ve just been given the green light on buying your first car. There’s only one catch–you will be responsible for the car payments after the first year.

So you’re standing at the dealership and have the choice of buying a moderately priced used Honda with great mileage in perfect condition. The Honda is priced at $12,000 and will run you about $200 a month to finance. Your second option is a sleek and sexy black BMW 5 series with lots of swag and a sticker price of $39,000 with a monthly car note of $560 after a substantial down payment.  For most students this would be a no-brainer process. “Uh…sure mom I’ll take the BMW please.” Right? Wrong!!!

Unless you don’t mind slurping Top Ramen out of the back of your Beemer for the next 10 years, you may want to stop and consider your selection.  This is exactly what happens to many students who select colleges for the wrong reasons. What they are often left with is a shiny diploma to go along with a huge debt, which can result in a very limited lifestyle upon graduating from college.  If you are like most students in America, it will serve you well to consider the return on investment (ROI) in making your college selections. Learning how to select colleges wisely is perhaps the most important first step of the application process.

As you look at your college selection list, would you be able to identify colleges on your list that are known to meet students’ “full financial need?”  These are colleges that are notorious for giving generous grants and scholarships to students to cover financial needs beyond Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Sometimes, private and out of state colleges like Pomona College or Duke University, can be cheaper than attending flagship state colleges like UCLA or UC Berkeley, which have seen rapid tuition hikes in the last few years.

So how does one find the more generous schools? Well you could start with the US News & World Report rankings.  It’s simple; the schools at the top of the ranking attract plenty of wealthy students who can pay full tuition, so that any endowment money these schools have can safely go to supporting low and middle-income students. Schools with the most generous need-based financial aid packages include: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, CIT, Middlebury, Swarthmore, Haverford, Pomona, and many other Ivy League schools.  Having said that, these schools are still ridiculously challenging to get into, but it is certainly worth applying.

Ranking can play another role in selecting colleges strategically.  Private colleges with lower rankings must do more to attract students, especially affluent students. Therefore, they are more likely to dole out heftier merit-based scholarships in order to lure smart students to maintain their own rankings. So if you find that your family makes just a bit too much to qualify for state or federal grants, you might consider researching colleges that are known for higher merit-based giving.

Here’s how you can research a schools generosity level.  Head over to College Board’s BigFuture website.  Simply plug in the name of the college in the search box at the top, click on the college, than the paying tab on the left, and you can view the Net Price and Financial Aid by the Numbers tabs.  Let’s take a look at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.  The average net price for a family that makes $30-48k per year is only $5,681.  The net price is the full cost of attendance after grants and scholarships are deducted. Claremont McKenna meets 95% of a student’s financial aid need and the average amount of money owed upon graduation was $15, 936. Not bad.

Just for the heck of it, let’s compare that to UCLA.  Wait a minute, at UCLA the average net price for a family that makes $30-48k per year is $9,720. Only 73% of financial need is met at UCLA, with the rest consisting of loans. This is surprising, as most students assume that attending a state college or university is always the more affordable route.

As you take one final look at your college lists and wrap up applications, take a look at the financial figures—they matter.   A little bit of research can go a long way in enjoying life post-graduation without the burden of debt and excessive amounts of Top Ramen.

If you’d like more detailed information into the financial aid trends of colleges I highly recommend picking up Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

P.S. In looking for an image for this post I came across a Top Ramen casserole. Gross!
Can anyone top that? I think I’ll offer a scholarship for the most inventive recipe:)

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