In terms of financial investment, selecting a college is one of the more significant decisions a typical family will make. But many families are not equipped to make the decision well. This post offers a simple and concise step-by-step guide to help you navigate the college decision process confidently.
Do your research
Overwhelmed families often skimp on or rush through the information gathering phase. Don’t make this mistake. Take your time. Become well informed.
- What do I need to know?
- What are my requirements?
- Are there constraints?
- What are the options?
- How can I compare those options fairly?
A typical 17-year-old high school junior is ill-prepared to select a college. She does not have, a priori, the answers to the questions above. Research and exploration are necessary.
Available college guides provide a wealth of information based on common criteria. What is a college’s retention rate? How social is it? What is its on-time graduation rate? What are its four-year costs? What percent of its students graduate with debt? How large is the average debt? What percentage of students pledge fraternities and sororities? The answers to these questions begin to build the necessary knowledge base for the young decision-maker and her family.
That knowledge becomes enriched with actual college visitation where the conceptual becomes concrete. Experiencing different campuses helps to further define the options, articulate the requirements, clarify the decision criteria and begin to highlight the inevitable trade-offs.
Generate & weight your criteria
A criterion is a standard, rule, or test on which a judgment or decision can be based. For example, if you are buying a house, a criterion might be “number of bedrooms” or “size of the yard.”
With research under way, a family can identify key college selection criteria clearly and simply. Use a few words, like a book title, followed by a succinct definition. Place one criterion per 3 x 5 card until all possible criteria have been specified.
- Distance: the school is no more than five hours away
- Major: the school has the major I am interested in and many other majors in case I change my mind
- Facilities: the campus has well maintained, aesthetically pleasing facilities
As a family, share, clarify, combine and refine your criteria. Then converge on a final set. You will have defined your desired outcome and now know explicitly what kind of college you are looking for.
With the college decision criteria agreed to, you can now weight them. First, order the final set of 3 x 5 cards in declining order of relative importance. Then assign a weight (between 0 – 100) to each criterion, making sure that the sum of all weights totals exactly 100.
Identify possible colleges
At first, diverge broadly. Don’t converge on a few colleges too quickly and risk leaving an optimal choice off the table. Once all options are on the table, apply your decision criteria as a “first sort” to filter out sub optimal choices and to begin to converge on the final set of options that will require more intense scrutiny.
Complete a side-by-side comparison
Creating a side-by-side comparison is not rocket science. Simply build a table with the colleges still in the running across the top and your decision criteria down the side. From your research, add quantitative and qualitative evidence of each option’s “contribution” to each criterion. This, of course, can be done real time during college visits.
With a side-by-side complete, you have a solid decision framework that includes your final options, weighted criteria and clear evidence of the contribution of each college to each criterion.
Assess each college against each weighted criterion
At this point the decision may be obvious. If it is not, you may want to score each college against each criterion in a decision matrix.
Yes, this takes time. But investing 30 or so minutes thoroughly to examine the true contribution of each college to a set of explicit requirements can pay a very big dividend over the course of a young person’s life. Thirty minutes of effort may return fours years of satisfaction. Pretty sound investment, I’d say.
You can complete your decision matrix using a chart and calculator or a spreadsheet. For your convenience, you can download a working spreadsheet.
Simply follow the directions on the spreadsheet to enter your
- Decision criteria across the top row of the matrix
- Criteria weights
- Options down the first column
While referring closely to your side-by-side comparison, score each college against each criterion in the appropriate cell. You can use a 1-9 scale or you can limit your scale to the total number of options. For example, if there are three colleges, force rank them on each criterion, giving the highest scoring college a 3, the next highest a 2, and the last a 1. Then multiply these “raw” scores by the criterion’s weight and enter the weighted score in each cell. Finally, add across each row, summing the weighted scores to calculate each college’s total benefit.
The download does all the calculations automatically. See the hypothetical matrix below.
Explore the trade-offs
A trade-off is the giving up of one thing in return for another. Just about every complex decision requires that you accept having less of one thing in order to get more of something else.
The challenge of any complex decision is how to clarify, manage and evaluate the trade-offs. The beauty of a decision matrix is that you can easily see all of the trade-offs in a single visual display. For example, the cells with the red border represent the highest score on each criterion, clearly highlighting each college’s strengths and the attendant trades in our hypothetical analysis.
These results might lead a family to decide to select Syracuse because it has the highest Total Benefit score and scores highest on three criteria: Distance, Clubs and Food. However, the trade-offs are also clear. Delaware is superior on two criteria: Social Life and Facilities. Temple, on one: Major. The decision framework creates clarity: by selecting Syracuse, the family achieves the greatest Total Benefit but gives up on superior Facilities, Social Life and Major.
Determine the cost and benefit of each college
Ok. Let’s get a little more sophisticated.
The table below illustrates a more complex hypothetical analysis of six colleges using eight weighted criteria. The spreadsheet colors high scores green, middling scores yellow to orange and low scores red. You can reference the actual scores or view the color patterns to easily understand the cost and benefits — and therefore the trade-offs — of each option.
For example, in the hypothetical above:
- Syracuse has the highest total benefit and scores high on eight of the nine criteria. It has just one minor trade-off, a middling score related to “Major.” In short, Syracuse provides a lot of benefit for just a small cost.
- Villanova scores second highest on total benefit but that high score comes with four costs: it scores very low on “% Grads Employed” and low to middling on “Facilities,” “Major,” and “Food.”
- SUNY Binghamton scores second lowest in total benefit. Its two moderate benefits, “% Grads Employed” and “Major,” require accepting significant costs: two criteria score lowest; four score middling.
- LeMoyne scores fourth on total benefit and comes with significant costs related to “Major,” “% Grads Employed,” “Food,” and “Clubs.”
- Temple scores lowest on total benefit and has no individual benefits relative to the other five schools.
- Colgate’s third highest total benefit score and high scores on five criteria come with three costs: “On-time grad,” “Distance” and “Social Life.”
Based on the hypothetical analysis, Syracuse, Villanova and Colgate are the top three choices. The different cost-benefit or trade-off calculus that comes with each school is visually obvious.
Identify the highest value option
But what about costs in terms of dollars? Syracuse, Villanova and Colgate are very expensive schools.
If you know the accurate dollar costs of your options, you can sharpen your understanding of their relative value using this simple formula:
Value = Total Benefit/Cost ($)
In other words, you can ask, What is the benefit per dollar spent delivered by each option? This changes the picture completely.
In the hypothetical example, SUNY Binghamton — previously the second lowest scorer — is now the highest scorer. Its extremely low annual cost (less than half of Syracuse, Villanova or Colgate) makes it the highest value. At SUNY Binghamton, each $1000 spent buys 76 benefit points. In contrast, at Syracuse and Le Moyne each $1000 spent only buys 45 benefit points; Villanova and Temple, 42 points; and Colgate, 37 points.
This analysis makes the decision even more informed and — perhaps — wrenching. Is it worth abandoning SUNY Binghamton, the highest value option, and paying a premium of more than 50% to gain the added benefits of a Syracuse or Villanova? These are critical questions. But having completed the cost-benefit analysis, at least you are now informed enough to ask them.
For your convenience, you can download a working spreadsheet to complete the entire advanced analysis above.
Invest the time
Completing a cost-benefit analysis will take some of your time and effort. That cost of your time will return these benefits: an understanding of each option’s total benefit, inherent trade-offs and relative value. Armed with that information, you will more confidently select the highest value option. And that is not a bad return on your investment.