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College Considerations: The Balanced List and Return on Investment

It’s hard to believe that the first semester is almost over! With our presents wrapped and applications for the class of 2023 done and dusted, one might think it is time for college admissions planning at Access College America to take a nap! Not so!

Before it is time for all the holiday breaks and the indulgences that they bring, let’s take a deep dive into what our underclassmen are ultimately working toward: the Balanced College List!

I have been stressing this with all of my junior class scholars this semester, but the concept applies to all grade levels. How do we begin to build a truly balanced list of 6-8 schools where we can check all of the boxes of fit? Let’s define the elements first!

Academic Fit

The academic fit of any college or university has to do with the numbers portion of your application: the GPA/transcript, test score and class rank. If you are a 9th or 10th grader, you may not have a test score yet and your GPA is a work in progress, but it is still important to consider where you are and where you are headed. How do your numbers compare to the average admitted freshman at colleges you are considering? To research these numbers per school, simply google “Common Data Set” and the name of the school you are researching. Field C9 will give you test score data, and if average GPA is provided, it is a short scroll down to that. There will be a breakdown for class rank by percentage, so take that into consideration as well.

Remember that for 9th and 10th graders, you may need to look this up again in the second semester of the junior year in order to get the most recent statistics! For academic fit, be sure to check out the college’s website and be sure they have your major of interest.

Social Fit

Social fit encompasses much more than just sports teams and vibe! How far is the school from your hometown? What extracurriculars are offered? Where do students eat, live and study? Are you more comfortable with a huge university where you are exposed to all the opportunities (small fish, big pond), or would you prefer a small liberal arts college where you know most of your fellow students and professors? (Something in between can be good, too!) In terms of diversity, do you want to attend a university where most of the students are like you or different from you? Answers to these questions can be found with thorough research on a college’s website, as well as through campus visits and recruitment events. When in doubt: check it out! In person visits are key to feeling the social fit!

Financial Fit

Though this might be the least fun to talk about, financial fit has to be part of the equation of the balanced college list. Here’s why: as a family, a college education will be one of the most important investments you ever make! A place to start is your EFC or Estimated Family Contribution. Have your tax documents handy when you are doing this. A simple calculator from Big Future/College Board is all you need. You may also check out the net price calculator for each college on your list. These are linked at and can be analyzed as part of the entire college picture.

Another consideration on financial fit, especially if you are unlikely to be eligible for need based financial aid, is how generous the school is with scholarship funding and institutional financial aid. Look at the size of the endowment for a school, and how much it awards in scholarships. A breakdown of this can be found on the financials tab of Sometimes a school will meet 100% of a student’s financial need (if they are determined to have such) but be less generous with scholarship funding. This is often the case with schools that are highly selective (admit rates of 25% or less) and highly expensive. Ivies, I am talking about you!

One thing that families forget to take into consideration is that the most selective schools don’t need to entice students to campus with lucrative financial/scholarship packages. They have no trouble filling up their class with excellent students who are willing to pay, so they leave it at that! For slightly less selective colleges, they will try to persuade students to accept their offer of admission by lowering the price through scholarships/grants/financial aid packages. Enrolling in the honors college at a target or safety school can be an excellent choice if the school offers a great education at an affordable price.

It’s All About Balance!

To narrow down your college list, I suggest that families choose two reaches (ones for which the student’s statistics are slightly below the average admitted freshman), two or three likelies, and two or three safety schools (ones for which the student’s stats are significantly higher than the average admitted freshman). There is no need to apply to more. You can only attend one! With thorough and careful research, this can be done! Fall in love with all schools on your list, and be open to what opportunities each can afford you.

Something that we always encourage is for families to not get caught up in the ‘luxury goods’ mentality when shopping for colleges. College fit is not about perceived prestige, name recognition or social bragging rights. It is about gaining the skills and knowledge you will need to succeed within your chosen career path. It’s about broadening your mind and becoming a self-sufficient, contributing member of society.

As a career specialist, I feel that I would be remiss if I did not say a word about Return On Investment. College isn’t an end in itself; it is a means to one. Take a look at the employment statistics of graduates and the graduation rate of the schools on your list. Consider your major and what a starting salary for graduates within that major might look like. Look at the salary data for those with 5 or 10 years of experience. Take a look at the lifestyle you want to eventually have and the reality of student debt. Employment data should indeed drive debt tolerance. I will use education as an example, because teachers are required to have at least a bachelor's degree and teacher salaries are public record per district. Going into significant debt for an education degree is a very bad idea because the starting salary is traditionally low. Low starting salaries with huge student loans to pay back while trying to establish an independent life can be a recipe for failure to launch. Graduating without much debt is the key to success here! I am by no means discouraging a career in teaching! I am, however, encouraging everyone to be realistic about the cost of college. Certain majors such as engineering can take five years to complete because they are so difficult. Keep this in mind when considering costs as well!

We do a deep dive into all things career planning at Access College America, so get in touch if you want to learn more about a super cool tool we use called You Science! (Yes, it includes labor statistics as well!)

In the meantime, don’t forget that a Balanced College List and considering Return on Investment are best practices to set yourself up for success in your application process. We help students Prepare, Apply and Achieve in these areas and more, and as always, are here to help! Learn more about guidance with college planning by visiting us at!

This post is guest authored by Bonnie Kleffman, M.Ed., GCDF, College Consultant Director with Access College America.



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