D-DAY – Decision Day – May 1

May 1 is National Decision Day for high school seniors to deposit at one college or university. This year, as with many things, some schools have extended the date until the first or second week in May – you must check each college’s acceptance letter for their specific details.

For some students it’s super-easy; no pros/cons chart, they just know where they want to go and are happy they were accepted. But for others, it’s a dilemma.

How to decide? College A has the beautiful campus and the great location but College B has the specific major and is more prestigious. Finances make it easier for some, great school, great price, you’re going there. But lots of offers, including some with attractive financial packages can further complicate the decision-making process.

Here are some things to think about as you’re trying to narrow the field:

  • Understand the true cost of the college. The top 50 most expensive colleges in the United States range from $73,000 – $80,000 per year; but that doesn’t include travel, books, fees and pizza! Go beyond tuition and room/board by adding in books, activity fees, transportation, Parents’ Weekend Visit expenses, fraternity and sorority fees, entertainment and miscellaneous expenses as well.
  • Review the financial aid award letter. If you find the offer letter unclear, be certain to contact the Financial Aid Office directly. Make sure you understand the difference between grants/scholarships (money that does not need to be repaid) and loans (money that does need to be repaid). Determine if the scholarships and grants are renewable each year or are for freshman year only. Find out if there are special requirements, such as a minimum GPA to maintain the scholarship. Understand the specific rates and the amounts you might be borrowing. Figure out the total accumulated debt at graduation and then calculate the monthly pay-back after graduation. Is that figure realistic given the potential career field you’re considering?
  • Critically review the academic opportunities. Research potential majors and determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum at each college you’re considering. While this step is easier if you’re focused on your area of study, even if you’re undecided, take a look at a few likely possibilities.
  • Contact the Career Services office and ask them to share a list of companies and organizations that recruit graduates. Find out about summer internship opportunities in areas that interest you. Ask about the percentage of students accepted at graduate schools (MBA, law school or med school).
  • Check out the school’s retention rate, what percentage of freshmen return for sophomore year. If these are high numbers, it’s an indicator that students are happy.
  • Check out the college’s four-year and six-year graduation rates. Nationally, less than 50 percent of students graduate in four years. Private colleges and more elite colleges and universities will typically post numbers in the low to mid 90s while large state universities and less selective schools are thrilled if they reach the mid 80’s.
  • Revisit. Go back with a more critical eye. Can you really see yourself on this campus? Do an overnight if possible and try to sit in on a class.
  • Trust your instincts. What feels right is often the best place for you.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: