As high school seniors and their families prepare to submit college applications in October and November for the fall of 2017, there’s a wealth of new data at their fingertips that can help them evaluate schools and pick the right ones to apply to.
This week, the Department of Education updated its College Scorecard database, which provides cost and outcomes data such as how much student loan debt students take on by school.
Widely-read rankings and guides from The College Board, U.S. News & World Report, Money, Forbes, and PayScale have also been reworked for the 2017 application season.
College Scorecard, used in conjunction with rankings and searchable guides (see list below), can help students and their families make smart choices about which schools to apply to.
But the arrival of all this new information is also welcome because there’s been a significant change in the college recruitment timeline that could give students information on their actual school attendance costs earlier in the process, giving them more time to weigh college acceptance letters and aid offers.
New FAFSA timeline
That’s because instead of waiting until Jan. 1, students can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as Oct. 1.
Filling out the FAFSA is a critical step in the college application process, because while every school has a published “sticker price,” what you’ll actually pay depends on how much federal, state and school-based financial aid you qualify for.
The information you provide about your family’s income on the FAFSA is shared with the colleges you intend to apply to, and state higher education agencies where those school are located. The FAFSA helps determine not only what aid you qualify for, but your expected family contribution toward the cost of your education, which will vary by school.
W. Kent Barnds, the executive vice president of Augustana College, says moving up the timeline for filing the FAFSA by three months is “one of the most significant changes to the college recruitment timeline that we’ve seen in a generation.”
That’s because if students and their families can see the what the actual cost of attending schools while they’re still researching them, they won’t be forced to make a last-minute decision about which offer to accept, Barnds says.
From now on, students will be able to file their FAFSA as soon as October because they’ll be allowed to submit income data that’s a year older than previously required. This year, you’ll be able to retrieve 2015 income data already on file with the IRS using an app, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), that will transfer the information directly into your online FAFSA form.
If you’re accepted by a school you applied to and listed on your FAFSA, you’ll get an aid offer from the school’s financial aid office detailing the types and amounts of financial aid you’d receive from federal, state, private, and school sources.
Colleges have their own financial aid timelines
Barnds warns that not every college will be able to adjust their own timelines right away. Colleges are still finalizing their own costs, and will have to push up their own timeline for making financial aid awards if they are to provide earlier admissions decisions. Formulas for federal financial aid haven’t been nailed down yet either — the maximum federal Pell Grant award for 2017–18 won’t be determined until early 2017.
So the bottom line for the 2017 application season is that while filling out the FAFSA in October could help you get aid offers sooner, some schools will be better than others at turning aid offers around (keep in mind that some financial aid is offered on a first-come, first-served basis, so filling out the FAFSA early also could give you a leg up in that repsect).
There is a workaround for schools that are slow to adapt to the new timeline. If you fill out the FAFSA online, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR) in just days. The report provides basic information about your eligibility for federal student aid, and your expected family contribution.
What you won’t have until schools send you an aid offer are the cost of attendance, and grants and scholarships that they’re able to provide to you. To estimate your net cost — the amount that you’ll have to pay out of pocket, or borrow — look for online net price calculators on each school’s website (you’ll often find links to a school’s net price calculator on College Scorecard).
If you want to compare multiple schools, College Abacus connects with net price calculators at more than 5,000 schools in real time.
Get smart about which schools to apply to
As its name makes clear, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid doesn’t cost a thing, and you can provide your information to as many schools as you’re even remotely interested in attending (if you’d like to provide your FAFSA info to more than 10 schools, follow these steps).
College applications, on the other hand, come with application fees averaging $40, with many schools charging $75 or more, according to U.S. News & World Report. So applying to every college or university you might conceivably be interested in could be prohibitively expensive.
It goes without saying that what you’ll pay to apply to colleges pales in comparison to all of the expenses you’ll rack up getting your degree.
Fortunately, there are many tools available to help students get a sense of not only the cost of their degree, but the quality of the education they can expect to receive. These tools can help students minimize the student loan debt they take on, and maximize their ability to repay it.
The Department of Education’s College Scorecard offers data on 7,000 schools, with thousands of data points providing insight key performance indicators like college completion rates, debt and repayment statistics, and post-college earnings.
College Scorecard will let you check an individual school’s net price by income, the typical debt load of graduates, graduation rate, median earnings 10 years after entering school, size and makeup of the student body, and available academic programs.
This year almost 700 institutions that predominately grant certificates were added to College Scorecard, and the Department of Education updated “caution flags” that point out which schools in the database face financial or federal compliance issues.
Recognizing the usefulness of tapping into this data at the time students are filling out the FAFSA, the Department of Education plans to integrate it into the application, says Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell.
List of college guides and rankings
Given the depth of information provided by College Scorecard, it can help to turn to guides and rankings for the big picture. Here’s a list of some of the better known resources.
The College Board BigFuture
College search tool that allows students to apply filters including location and type of school, selectivity, majors, sports and activities, cost and diversity.
U.S. News & World Report
Numerical rankings of nearly 50 types of schools, from national universities that offer master’s and Ph.D. programs to “best value schools” and regional colleges. Users can also search for and rank schools by state using criteria like tuition, enrollment, acceptance rate and majors. Access to expanded profiles, test score data, financial aid stats available to College Compass subscribers for $29.95 per year.
Time / MONEY
After eliminating schools with low graduation rates, financial difficulties, or less than 500 undergraduates, MONEY ranked the remaining 705 colleges by assessing how well students at each school did compared to expectations for students with similar economic and academic background, tapping data from the Department of Education, Peterson’s, and PayScale.com.
Ranking of more than 600 schools “well worth the investment,” includes interactive search tool with filters for region, type and size of school.
Washington Monthly’s College Guide
Touted as an “answer to U.S News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige to evaluate schools,” Washington Monthly’s College Guide and rankings rates schools on social mobility, research and service. A “Best Bang for the Buck” ranking shines a light on schools that help students from modest backgrounds “attain marketable degrees at affordable prices.”
PayScale College ROI Report
One weakness of College Scorecard data is that future earnings will depend not just on the school students attend, but the major they choose. Although it’s not always the case, graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and medicine tend to earn more than those with liberal arts degrees. The PayScale College ROI report ranks 962 schools based on the “return on investment” of a degree from that school over 20 years. Click on a school, and you can check median salaries by job title for the school’s alumni, based on data collected by PayScale.
Peterson’s college search
Peterson’s, which claims to have the most comprehensive database on colleges and grad schools, offers a search tool that allows users to use filters including planned area of study, desired cost, GPA and test scores, and school size.
The Princeton Review
Although perhaps best known for its test preparation services, The Princeton Review also offers a college search tools that lets students filter results by major, tuition and fees, academics, enrollment size, and activities. Users can also rank schools using a long list of criteria, ranging from the practical (“best career placement”) to the personal (“best college radio station”). Reed College, Skidmore College, Brown University and Bard College currently rank at the top of schools that cater to “tree-hugging vegtarians.”
Barron’s Profile of American Colleges
Barron’s offers college profiles, tools for navigating the application process, information on paying for college, and help preparing for SATs and other standardized tests.
Fiske Guide to Colleges
A valued source of information for more than 30 years, the Fisk Guide To Colleges promises “an insider’s look at what it’s really like to be a student at the ‘best and most interesting’ schools in the United States, plus Canada, Great Britain, and Ireland.” Testimonials by students and “information you won’t find on colleges’ websites” is supplemented by lists of popular majors at each college and indexes breaking down schools by state, price, and average debt. The guide will set you back $24.99 in paperbook or as an eBook.
Rating the ratings
With so many choices, it can be hard to know where to start, or which rankings, guides and search tools to give the most weight. NPR’s Anya Kamenetz has put together an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the criteria employed rankings and guides, such as selectivity, reputation, learning, earnings, and broader outcomes like health and longevity. Most aren’t all they’re cut out to be, she concludes.
If you find that you’re not destined for a top-ranked school, take heart. Kamenetz notes that research conducted by Purdue University and Gallup found “going to a top-rated school had no impact on later success or happiness.”
Matt Carter writes for Credible, a multi-lender marketplace that allows borrowers to get personalized rates and compare loans from vetted lenders, without affecting their credit scores.