MONEY Student Loans

What Could Happen if You’re Caught Lying on the FAFSA

175518307
Troels Graugaard—Getty Images

A third of all FAFSA applications are selected for verification by the Department of Education.

College is expensive, and it’s especially shocking to some parents and students when they start the financing process to learn that one form — the FAFSA — may largely determine their financial fate when it comes to federal student aid. It may be tempting to fudge the numbers on the FAFSA to get more money to help pay for your child’s education, but getting caught could spell big trouble. Unfortunately, federal student loan fraud is a growing trend:

  • One commenter in the College Confidential forums said her parents were planning to claim to be separated in order to try to maximize their chances of financial aid: “I was definitely NOT on board with this but they refuse to listen to anything I’m saying,” the student wrote.
  • In 2014, the Boston Globe reported that a father of a former Harvard student pleaded guilty to charges of falsifying income information to get more than $160,000 in financial aid. (He apparently filed false tax returns, which likely carries additional penalties.)
  • A college professor and counselor was charged with fraud after he allegedly falsified applications for students he said he was just trying to help.
  • A mother and daughter pleaded guilty in 2014 to making false statements to federal agents in connection with an investigation of student aid fraud. The mother reported no income for a time period during which she reportedly received over $521,000 in income.

If you’re thinking of falsifying your FAFSA, just don’t. Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, penalties include a fine of up to $20,000 and/or up to five years in prison. Plus, you’d have to return any aid you had received.

And don’t think you can’t get caught. “College financial aid administrators are more skilled and experienced at detecting lies than families are at perpetrating them,” warns Mark Kantrowitz senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com which publishes a variety of FAFSA tip sheets.

What about the commenter whose parents want to pretend to be separated? It’s not an uncommon scenario says Kantrowitz, but “if it’s a informal separation, it’s only acceptable if the parents don’t live together,” he says. “They may ask for evidence that the parents don’t live at the same address.” And there are ways to find out they aren’t telling the truth. The college could “call the home of the custodial parent and ask for the other parent. If that parent picks up the phone then it’s very likely they live together,” he says, by way of example.

A more common scenario, he says, is when parents are separated or divorced and lie about which parent has custody in order to maximize the chances of getting aid. But there are ways of finding that out, too. For example, the school can match up the custodial parent’s address with the address of the high school from which the student graduated. If they don’t match? It may be fraud.

“You would be surprised how often the student blabs,” says Kantrowitz. “When a school has credible information about fraud, they are required to investigate it.”

A college education is expensive and parents and students who want to avoid student loan debt may be tempted to fudge facts. But it’s not worth it. Here’s a guide to paying for college without a mountain of debt — and without lying on your financial aid applications.

If federal student loans aren’t enough to cover your total student loan bill, you have other options. Private student loans are available for students and parents, but private loans (unlike federal student loans) will most likely require a credit check to determine your interest rate, and a co-signer if the borrower has a limited or non-existent credit history. If you have great credit, private student loans may even get you a better interest rate than Parent PLUS loans, so doing your research, improving your credit and monitoring your progress are key.

Read next: The 50 Most Affordable Private Colleges

More From Credit.com:

MONEY College

Why Stanford Is the Best College for Your Money

The snooze-fest lecture may be a thing of the past.

One key element: Teachers such as Stanford University engineering professor Sheri Sheppard. Named professor of the year, Sheppard says she’s been perplexed about how to make the large lecture class personal. “What we’ve done is take the 100 student class and divide it into four pods,” says Sheppard. “Each of those pods of 25 sit in the same area of the class and is ‘owned’ by one of the TAs.” Sheppard says this makes students feel more like they’re part of a team of students, which is more like the real world of engineering partnerships than is sitting alone in a large classroom.

Read next: MONEY’s Best Colleges list.

MONEY College

How to Find the Best College for Your Money

Leah Fasten The bike-friendly campus of No. 1 Stanford University.

Help finding the right school at the right price.

When it comes to picking a college, the quest for value has taken center stage. Schools are handing out brochures touting their job-placement records (without much to back up the stats). New programs let you test your way to a degree for just a few thousand dollars. And so far this year, Americans have searched Google using the words “college” and “value” 1.1 million times a month, a 10% jump over 2014.

Even the government is getting into the act, or trying to. In June the Obama administration succumbed to two years of opposition from colleges and abandoned efforts to rate them based on value. Instead, it will simply launch web tools in the fall that will let you screen colleges by data such as tuition, graduation rates, and post-graduate success. Meanwhile, 2016 presidential candidates on both the left and the right are appealing to voters with promises of helping students graduate “debt-free” or get “workforce-ready” degrees.

See MONEY’s full Best Colleges rankings

The reason for this heightened focus on value is obvious to anyone who has priced out college recently. Even after accounting for the typical amount of financial aid and tax breaks, the total cost of a BA from a public university will come to about $75,000; at a private college the average family should budget for $115,000-plus. Not likely to be eligible for aid? That bill could top $250,000.

The result: high anxiety among families about the value proposition of a college education. In a recent survey for CreditCards.com, 31% of adults reported losing sleep over college costs. “The debate has moved front and center as college has gotten more expensive,” says Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at think tank New America. “Students are investing all of this time and money in their future, and they wonder, What am I actually getting?”

To help parents and students answer that question, MONEY has once again set out to find great schools that are truly worth the investment. With our second annual Best Colleges rankings, we’ve identified more than 700 colleges that deliver a quality education that launches students on a successful career at a price your family can afford.

Mark Schneider, former head of the National Center for Education Statistics and current president of College Measures, collaborated with MONEY to develop the rankings, which evaluate the schools on 21 measures of educational quality, affordability, and career earnings. The careers website PayScale.com provided earnings data for the schools’ alumni, as well as analysis of those earnings based on what types of majors predominate at the schools. (You can find the full methodology behind our college rankings here.)

TK_COL_Standford_Lab

“The Farm,” as Stanford students refer to their vast campus, grows high earners.

Coming in at No. 1 this year is Stanford University, where innovative teaching, generous aid policies, and average alumni earnings well above even Ivy League standards combine to give students an educational experience that shines on all counts. But our Best Colleges list also underscores that it’s not just elite institutions that can deliver a great education and a leg up in the workforce—at a price you can handle. Our rankings include many places that don’t typically show up on best lists, such as College of the Ozarks (No. 26), where students work in lieu of paying tuition, and Maine Maritime Academy (No. 8), a public college specializing in business, engineering, and marine biology. “A school’s name isn’t everything. Results are,” says Schneider. “You may be surprised that schools you may never have heard of will give you a better shot at success.”

As you browse our rankings, keep a few things in mind. Some of the data used to evaluate colleges are imperfect. The test scores of incoming freshmen are self-reported by colleges. The earnings estimates are based on voluntary surveys. Plus, schools within 20 or so places of one another are roughly the same, especially at the top. But paired with your own research and visits, these rankings can be a valuable guide to where your tuition will go the furthest.

The best-value colleges aren’t necessarily the cheapest. But studies show, and our rankings confirm, that key aspects of the college experience are worth paying more for. So as you set out to find the best college fit for your student, pay attention to these five important signs that a school is a true value.

1. Help Getting You to the Goal

At its most basic, the job of a good college is to enable students to get a degree, preferably in the four years that’s promised. Sounds simple, and yet it’s a high hurdle at many colleges—on average, only 39% of students graduate in four years. Even finishing in six—the standard gauge calculated by the federal government—can be a challenge.

With how much you’ve learned in college tough to judge, a school’s graduation rate is generally recognized as the most important measure of educational quality. In part, that’s because students who feel that a college is wasting their time will vote with their feet. But it also reflects a reality. “The best school you can go to is the best one you can graduate from,” says New America’s Fishman.

Graduation rates are also one of the most important predictors of later success. Less than 1% of students who attend the schools with the 100 highest graduation rates on our list default on their student loans. The default rate for the schools at the bottom of our list: 8%.

Check out the new MONEY College Planner

Reflecting the critical importance of this measure in the value equation, we put almost a quarter of our ranking weights on graduation rates. Graduation rates also figure prominently in another one of our measures: net price of a degree. That’s because when you need more time to graduate, college becomes even more costly. So our estimate for the net price of a degree takes into account the time it takes for students to graduate from that school, as well as typical financial aid awards.

How to spot value: The best schools graduate more than what’s average—65% at private colleges, 58% at public. Check on what support your student will get, including tutoring or counseling and enough spaces in required classes.

TK_COL_RMorris_student
TK_COL_RMorris_Hospital

The career-focused majors at Robert Morris, such as nursing (above) and computer networking (top), pay off.

2. A Push to Exceed Expectations

You may be aiming for the best college your child can get into. But tours and marketing materials, not to mention data on the average student, won’t tell you if that college will do the best job with a kid like yours. That’s why MONEY developed what we call a value-added measure. We looked at how well students of a particular institution do in three key measures—graduation rate, student loan defaults, and post-college earnings—compared with schools whose students had similar high school grades and similar economic backgrounds as measured by the percentage of low-income students attending.

Our rankings reveal plenty of schools that give students a remarkable boost. Consider our No. 1 Value All-Star, Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, which accepts students with spotty high school records and graduates them at almost twice the rate of schools with similar standards. The small classes and personal attention from professors inspired Trevor Kimlick of New Paris, Ind., who graduated near the bottom of his high school class, to buckle down and focus on schoolwork and his career. He made the Dean’s list in his first semester, despite working more than 20 hours a week, and he graduated into a job he loves—as a planner for the Menards hardware store chain. While Trevor could have gone to a cheaper college, and he and his family will be paying off the tuition loans for many years to come, they say they got value for their dollars. “It was an investment” says Trevor’s father, Vincent.

How to spot value: Use our value-added grades as a screening tool. You can also look up graduation rates by race and gender at Collegeresults.org. Talk to students at the school who share characteristics with your student to see how they fare at the school.

3. A Blend of Practical Skills and Smarts

It’s a conundrum. Studying liberal arts typically makes it harder to find a good job out of the gate. But sticking to pre­professional coursework is risky too. Four years ago a rising freshman eager to qualify for a high-paying job might have majored in petroleum engineering. But he or she would graduate today into a job market in which oil companies are laying off thousands, notes Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School and author of the book Will College Pay Off? “Timing the job market is virtually impossible,” he says.

Saying you have to choose between a liberal arts and a preprofessional degree, though, “is kind of dumbing down the conversation. It’s not either/or. It is and,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup’s education division. A school that balances academics with real-world practicality is the best value. In a 2013 Hart Research Associates survey, most employers said the most successful workers had both field-specific and broad skills and knowledge.

Read MONEY’s full Best Colleges rankings

When Edlyn Wang told her high school friends she would be going to Babson College, one wrote in her yearbook, “Good luck at that college you made up,” the 2012 grad recalls. But Babson, a business school where about half the course load is liberal arts, has gained attention for its high-earn­ing grads. The college was ­MONEY’s 2014 best value and ranks No. 2 this year. Wang, now a buyer for Ross Stores, says her mix of classes—­financial analysis as well as writing—gives her an edge.

Overall, Babson alums report earning $60,100 within five years of graduation, more than $9,000 above the average for schools with similar students. (Almost a quarter of our rankings are tied to earnings.) Another measure of the value of the college experience is whether you leave campus with a network in place to help you navigate the hiring maze. Surveys by Jobvite, which makes résumé-screening software, find that personal referrals are recruiters’ best source of hires; 40% of workers say they got their best job from one.

How to spot value: Look for colleges that connect coursework to the real world, Cappelli suggests. “People learn best in the context of real problems,” he says. And you want a school that pushes a multidisciplinary approach, says Josh Jarrett, a former deputy director of postsecondary success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of Koru, a job-training program. Techies need to practice writing and speaking. Poets need to develop financial skills.

Also favor schools that help you go from the classroom to the office. Gallup found that students who got internships in college were 50% more likely than those who didn’t to thrive professionally later. Employers offer nearly two-thirds of interns full-time jobs, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found. So ask how the school helps students land paying internships.

Career services staffing makes up 5% of our rankings—1.5 workers per 1,000 students is average for our list—and this year we also looked at whether a college has a program to connect job-­seeking students with alumni, a good networking tool. Grads from the 116 schools on our list that don’t have such programs report salaries that are, on average, about $1,500 a year lower than those of schools that do.

TK_COL_TexasAM_lawn

Texas A&M has an unusually cohesive campus culture for big public university.

4. Face Time that Pays Off Now and Later

You’re not getting much bang for your buck if your kid fades into the back of a big lecture hall for most of college. “Mentorship from instructors is one of the most fundamental aspects of a good-value college,” says Busteed. In the largest-­ever survey of the impact of college experiences on graduates’ lives, Gallup last year polled 30,000 American adults. Those who were happiest and most professionally successful were twice as likely to say they had a professor who “cared about me as a person” or “made me excited about learning.”

MONEY’s data on faculty caseloads and accessibility, which account for 5% of our rankings, confirm that this is crucial. The public colleges on our list with the least accessible faculty have graduation rates of 48%, 15 percentage points below the rates for schools with student-to-faculty ratios of no more than 15 to 1.

What’s more, recent graduates of the 100 private schools on our list with the largest class sizes reported earning about $42,000 a year. That’s about $6,000 less than what fresh grads of the 100 private schools with the best student-to-faculty ratios earn.

The school in our rankings where undergrads get the most attention—the California Institute of Technology (No. 5), which has an average of three students per professor—also happens to produce among the highest earners in the country (more than $72,000 a year).

Customize your own Best Colleges rankings

You don’t have to be a young Einstein to find small classes. The average student at Molloy College on Long Island, N.Y. (No. 105), scored at about the 60th percentile on the SAT or ACT. Yet the school reports one faculty member for every 10 students, vs. an average of nearly 12 for private colleges on our list. Schools that don’t make our rankings average a ratio of 22 to 1. Molloy graduates report earning an above-average $55,000 within five years, vs. $44,500 for all schools on our list.

How to spot value: For starters, zero in on class size. Lanier Mason, who graduated from Molloy in May, says he chose the school over better-known rivals after he saw that almost all the ­classes he’d take would have fewer than 30 students. “You get a lot of face time with professors. And being in a smaller group, you wouldn’t be so afraid to ask questions,” he says. Now a freshly minted accounting major, he credits attention from professors as the key reason he and his identical twin (also a Molloy accounting major) are both interning at accounting firm EY this summer.

Ask students about the faculty culture, such as how often professors see students outside the classroom, says Busteed. ­Cindy Ann Kilgo, a University of Iowa education researcher, suggests looking for opportunities to help professors with research.

5. Innovative Teaching Methods

While graduation rates say a lot about quality, what happens before you leave campus matters too. At some colleges professors don’t seem to light the fire of learning. In a longitudinal study of 2,300 members of the class of 2009 at 24 colleges titled “Academically Adrift,” 36% of seniors showed no real improvement in skills like critical thinking. Those who learned the least were twice as likely to be unemployed and living with their parents as the best learners were.

A value college will be one that both prods and inspires your student to learn. The best way to do that, a growing body of research shows, is to replace traditional lectures with “active” or “collaborative” learning. Especially powerful are classes in which professors give short presentations, assign small groups in-class problems, and offer immediate feedback. Students in such classes showed 10% greater growth in critical-thinking skills than those in traditional lectures did, a study by Kilgo of over 6,000 students at 47 institutions found.

That kind of teaching is the reason MONEY’s top value college—­Stanford—is home to this year’s “professor of the year.” Sheri Sheppard was named the top professor at research universities by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for her transformation of her engineering class.

Lectures in which the professor “opens up the lid of the student’s brain and pours stuff in,” says Sheppard, “don’t lead to deep learning as effectively as integrating what they are studying with action and feedback.” Sophomores in her Introduction to Solid Mechanics class bring their bikes in on the day she teaches how loads are transferred and design the gearing for a bike-share program. “It is somewhat chaotic,” she says. But it reflects the kinds of tasks the students will face at a job.

How to spot value: Classrooms can tell you a lot, says Kilgo. A good sign: Instead of lecture halls, you see rooms with movable chairs and tables and whiteboards. And ask what incentives professors have to improve their teaching. Remember: A school that gets your student enthusiastic about a lifetime of learning is an investment that will pay dividends for decades to come.

See the full Best Colleges rankings

Update: This story was updated from the August 2015 print edition of Money magazine to reflect new information about one of the students profiled.

MONEY

How MONEY Ranked Colleges: An In-Depth Look at Our Methodology

College is now the second-largest financial expenditure for many families, exceeded only by buying a home. So it isn’t surprising that parents and students are taking a harder look at the costs and payoffs of any college they consider.

To help, MONEY has drawn on the research and advice of dozens of the nation’s top experts on education quality, financing, and value, to develop a new, uniquely practical analysis of more than 700 of the nation’s best-performing colleges.

MONEY’s Best Colleges for Your Money rankings are the first to combine the most accurate pricing estimates available with students’ likely earnings after graduation and a unique analysis of how much “value” a college adds.

We estimate a college’s “value add” by calculating its performance on important measures such as graduation rates, student loan default rates, and post-graduation earnings, after adjusting for the types of students it admits. We believe this analysis gives students and parents a much better indication of which colleges will provide real value for their tuition dollars.

We developed our ratings in partnership with one of the nation’s leading experts on higher education data and accountability metrics, Mark Schneider. The former commissioner of the National Center of Educational Statistics, he is currently a vice president at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and president of College Measures, a for-profit partnership of AIR and Optimity Advisors, which collects and publishes public data comparing a student’s educational record and later earnings.

The final methodology decisions were made by the MONEY editorial team, in consultation with Schneider and College Measures.

In building our rankings, MONEY focused on the three basic factors that surveys show are the most important to parents and students:

  • Quality of education
  • Affordability
  • Outcomes

Because these three factors are so interrelated and crucial to families, we gave them equal weights in our ranking.

In each of these three major categories, we consulted with our advisers to identify the most reliable and useful data to assess a school’s performance. We also balanced the basic data in each category with at least one “value-added” measure.

To gauge how well a college is performing relative to its peers, we gathered federal and college data on the average test scores and grade point averages of students at each college, the percentage of each graduating class receiving degrees in each major, and the percentage of students with incomes low enough to qualify for Pell Grants (about 90% of which go to families with incomes below $50,000). We then used the statistical technique of regression analysis to determine the impact of a student’s test scores, economic background, and college major on key factors, such as graduation rates and future earnings. That enables us to see how much better or worse a particular college performed than would be expected given the characteristics of its student body.

We used this estimate of relative performance by the college as an important part of the ranking, as you’ll see below.

MONEY assigned each indicator a weight based on our analysis of the importance of the factor to families, the reliability of the data, and our view of the value of the information the data provided.

To avoid overloading readers with too many choices or too much data, and to ensure that we fairly compared apples with apples, we decided to analyze only those colleges that, in our view, passed these minimal quality and data tests. We decided that to be included in our rankings, a college must meet these four criteria:

  1. Be a public or not-for-profit four-year college or university.
  2. Have enough cost, quality, and outcomes data available to provide at least moderate confidence in our assessment.
  3. Not be financial trouble, as indicated by a below-investment grade rating for its bonds by Moody’s, or by inclusion on the U.S. Department of Education’s list of schools under the strictest level of “Heightened Cash Monitoring” because of indications of low “financial responsibility.”
  4. Have a graduation rate at or above the median for its type of school (public or private), or if the rate is below the median, have a graduation rate at least 25% above what would be expected given the incomes and test scores of its students.

This eliminated some colleges that may be good values, but might be facing temporary financial difficulties or have too few alumni reporting their incomes to PayScale, our salary data source, for us to evaluate them. But it left us with a robust universe of more than 700 colleges. In our view, even the lowest-ranked of the schools on our list demonstrate that they provide at least some value for your tuition dollars.

We then used the following data and methodologies in our three basic categories to create our rankings:

QUALITY OF EDUCATION: 33.3% weighting

For this factor, we used six indicators that provide meaningful information about the quality of a school’s instruction, weighted as shown:

(1) Graduation rates: 35%. Education experts and college officials generally agree that one of the most important reflections of a college’s quality is its graduation rate. (The American Association of State Colleges and Universities calls it “a legitimate indicator” of college quality.) Many rankings use this commonly cited federal statistic on the percentage of freshmen that graduate within six years. Because of its importance and wide acceptance, we assigned this measure a comparatively heavy weight.

(2) Value-added graduation rate: 35%. Many education experts and college officials point out that the basic graduation rate number, while useful, is an insufficient indicator of a college’s value because research shows that wealthier students and students who got good grades in high school are more likely to finish whatever college they attend. So elite, expensive schools such as, say, Harvard, would be expected to have high graduation rates. For that reason, we also calculated each school’s relative performance after accounting for the economic background and academic preparation of its students. The higher a school’s graduation rate was above the rate that would predicted for a school with that particular mix of students, the more value that particular college is assumed to have added. This “value-added” graduation rate analysis is widely accepted. (A 2013 OCED paper that such “value- added measurement provides a ‘fairer’ estimate of the contribution educational institutions.”) Because of its reliability and acceptance, we weighed this factor heavily.

(3 & 4) Peer quality: 15%. Decades of research have shown that undergraduates have a major impact on their peers. Students who room with better students get better grades, for example. By contrast, students surrounded by less conscientious peers—for example, heavy drinkers—study less and get worse grades. And students who room or socialize with more successful students tend to get better jobs upon graduation.

Our peer quality measure consists of these two indicators:

  • Academic preparation of students (10%). We gathered the federal data on accepted students’ high school grade point averages and their scores on the ACT and SAT. We analyzed the overall relationship between test scores and grade point averages for all colleges that reported both data points, and then used those averages to fill in an estimated test score for schools that don’t make their students’ test scores public. This is an imperfect measure, and there is controversy over the usefulness and validity of standardized tests to begin with. However, the SAT and ACT tests currently provide the only nationally comparable data on student abilities. In addition, many studies have found a high correlation between test scores and academic success.
  • Yield (5%). The federally reported “yield” is the percentage of accepted students who enroll in a given college. The higher the yield, the more likely it is that the school was the student’s first choice, or best option, and that applicants have perceive the college’s quality as high.

(5 & 6) Faculty quality: 15%. Research shows that students who get more individual attention from faculty tend to achieve more, both in college and after graduation. (See, for example, the recent Gallup-Purdue Index.) While there are no nationally comparable data on the number and quality of student interactions with faculty, we believe these two data points are useful indicators:

  • Studentfaculty ratio (10%). This is a standard, federally published metric used by many ranking organizations.
  • Quality of professors (5%). MONEY asked the nation’s largest independent source of student ratings of professors, RateMyProfessors.com, to calculate the average overall rating for all professors at each school for helpfulness, clarity, and quality. We did not include students’ ratings of the professors’ “hotness” or “easiness,” which are also collected by the site. Although research has found that students do tend to give higher marks to easier professors, independent investigators have also found that Ratemyprofessor quality ratings are generally reliable and provide students “with useful information about quality of instruction.” (http://pareonline.net/pdf/v16n18.pdf)

Change from our 2014 rankings: For 2015, we shifted a small amount of weight from the other measures to graduation rates because of the declining reliability of data such as test scores and GPA. As more colleges go “test optional,” for example, only students with high test scores will submit them, making a school’s average test score appear artificially high. Graduation rates, on the other hand, reflect many aspects of a school’s quality, since students who are unhappy with their experience will vote with their feet and drop or transfer out.

AFFORDABILITY: 33.3% weighting

For this factor we also used six indicators, weighted as shown:

(1) Net Price of a degree: 30%. MONEY has developed a unique, and many experts tell us, more accurate estimate, of college prices. We started with the “sticker” price provided by the college to the federal government. The full cost of attendance includes tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous costs. For public colleges, we used the in-state tuition and fees.

We then subtracted the average amount of institutional aid provided per student by the college, including need-based grants, merit aid, and athletic scholarships. (The aid data are provided by colleges on the Common Data Set, which we accessed through Peterson’s.) That gave us an estimate of the net price the college charged an average student for the most recent academic year.

Next, we used federal data on the percentage of students who graduate from that college in four, five, and six years to calculate an average time to degree, which for the vast majority of schools is now more than 4 years.

Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University, for example, has found that the average college graduate pays for 4.5 years of college, not just 4.However, because MONEY’s 2015 ranking includes only those schools with the best graduation rates, the average time to degree for all of the schools on our list is just 4.3 years.

We multiplied the net price of a single year by the average number of years it typically takes students to finish at that school (which ranges from four to six years, depending on the school) and added in an inflation factor (since tuition prices typically rise every year) to estimate the total net price of a degree for freshmen entering that school in the fall of 2015.

College counselors and financial aid experts have told us that the MONEY calculation is more realistic and helpful to parents and students than other popular price estimates, most of which use the cost of a single year, not the full degree. Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and one of the nation’s leading researchers on college costs and aid, says our estimates of the net prices of individual institutions “provide good benchmarks.” She added an important caveat, however: “Students at each institution face a wide range of net prices, so no individual student should assume that the schools on this list with highest net prices would end up being most expensive for them.”

The federal net price estimate for a year’s costs is lower than MONEY’s estimate because the Department of Education subtracts almost all grants—federal, state and institutional—while we only subtract aid provided by the school, for reasons described below.

MONEY gives the net price sub-factor a very heavy weighting because surveys show that the cost of college is now one of families’ biggest worries. A 2013 Harvard Institute of Politics survey reported, for example, that 70% of young adults say finances were a major factor in their college decision.

(2 & 3) Educational debt: 30%. Surveys show debt to be another of most families’ biggest worries. We weighed this factor equally with net price because of those concerns and because we believe it is an indicator of how fairly colleges distribute their grants and scholarships. Schools with comparatively low net prices but high borrowing are likely giving grant aid to wealthier students but shorting the packages of needier students, thus forcing them to borrow more. The higher the debt factor, the lower the school ranked.

Our educational debt assessment is based on these two indicators:

  • Student borrowing (20%). The federal government reports the percentage of freshmen who borrow, as well as their total average amount of federal and private student loans. We combined these data to estimate the average debt per student. We then multiplied that number by the average number of years it takes students at that college to earn a bachelor’s degree. The result is our estimate of total indebtedness for graduating seniors.
  • Parent borrowing (10%). The federal government reports the total amount of parent PLUS loans awarded to parents at each college each year. We divided this number by the school’s enrollment to calculate an average parent PLUS debt per student. While other organizations generally don’t include parental debt in their rankings, MONEY believes parent educational borrowing is a financial burden, and should be an important consideration.

(4 & 5) Ability to repay: 30%. The ability to repay loans taken out to finance a college education is another indication of a school’s affordability for its students.

We evaluated ability to repay using these two indicators:

  • Student loan default risk index (15%). Each year, the federal government publishes the number of former students who left college three years ago and have since defaulted on their federal student loans. Using a methodology proposed by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), MONEY adjusts these numbers for the share of students at the college who take out federal student loans. TICAS says this is a fairer and more accurate indicator of the odds that any particular student at the college will end up defaulting on a student loan.
  • Student loan default risk indexvalue added (15%). We calculated the relationship between schools’ SLDRI and average student test scores and the percentage of the student body from low-income households. Schools that had a lower default rate than would be expected given their student population were ranked more highly.

(6) Affordability for low- and moderate-income families: 10%. This year, MONEY added a new affordability factor to the rankings, using data colleges report to the federal government on the average net price paid in the 2012-13 academic year by students in families with annual incomes of $48,000 or less. We did this to reflect how affordable the college is for disadvantaged students and working class families (the median family income in the U.S. in 2013 was $52,000). Another reason for focusing on this data for this income group is that is it is far more reliable than the government’s net price data for higher income groups. The government’s net price data is only reported for students who receive federal aid, which means the data covers almost all students with incomes below $50,000, but only about half of students from families in the highest quartile.

Changes from our 2014 rankings: To make room for the new affordability indicator, we reduced the weighting of our net price indicator. In addition, because PLUS loans are an imperfect indicator of how much parents may be borrowing to fund their children’s tuition (there are no data on how much parents of students at each college are borrowing from private lenders, or against their retirement plans or home equity, for example), we slightly reduced our weight on the PLUS indicator and shifted it to the default indicator.

OUTCOMES: 33.3% weighting

For our third category, we used a total of nine indicators, weighted as shown below.

(One data point we could not use: the percentage of students who find jobs within a year of graduation. Although many colleges claim that a high percentage of their new grads are employed, the data are generally not considered reliable enough to compare one college against another. That’s because each college has a different method of surveying graduates, and unemployed grads may be less likely to answer such surveys, which would tend to make a college’s employment rate look better than it really is.)

(1 &2) College career services: 15%. We used one quantitative and one qualitative indicator to assess the value of a college’s career services:

  • Caseload of career services staffers (10%). Surveys show that the single most important reason students now give for attending college is to increase their odds of landing a good job and launching a career. Unfortunately, most colleges don’t provide much career coaching or job assistance. At the typical four-year college, there is only one professional career services staffer for every 1,000 undergraduates, which equates to an average availability of just one hour of personal attention per undergraduate per year. While we couldn’t get reliable data on the quality of the career services that schools provide, we could at least tell parents how overworked the staff is. So MONEY included in its ranking the number of full-time equivalent staffers in each college’s career services office as reported to Peterson’s. (We called several hundred schools that hadn’t reported the data to Peterson’s to fill in the missing numbers.) We then calculated a caseload per staffer, based on each school’s enrllment.) The lower the caseload, the higher the college is ranked.
  • Formal programs linking alumni with job-seeking students (5%). Personal referrals provide a huge advantage in the job market. (A 2010 Federal Reserve study found, for example, that job applicants who received a personal referral from an employee were more likely to get interviews, get hired, and be offered higher starting salaries (http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr568.pdf ). Colleges that help students make connections with their working alumni provide a valuable service.

(3, 4 & 5) Post-graduation earning power: 35%. We used three indicators to assess this factor:

  • Payscale.com earnings for students who graduated within the last five years (20%). We considered the salaries on PayScale.com reported by graduates of the class of 2009 and later. The typical person in this group has two years of work experience. PayScale provided MONEY with aggregated data on more than 1.4 million people who in the last three years have filled out an online form that asks what their job is, what their salary is, where they went to college, what they majored in, and when they graduated, the largest such database available. Matthew Chingos, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied the PayScale data notes that it is currently “the only game in town” for anyone who wants to compare colleges’ outcomes nationwide. (Find more details on PayScale’s data here.) We did not consider the earnings of anyone with a graduate degree, because there is no way to isolate the effect of the undergraduate degree on the eventual earnings of, say, a lawyer or doctor.
  • Payscale.com earnings for mid-career workers (5%). Here we used the average earnings reported by those who graduated before 2004. The typical worker in this group has 15 years of work experience. We weighted early earnings more heavily than mid-career earnings because Trey Miller, a RAND Corporation economist who has studied the relationship between college choice and earnings, noted that a college choice has a much stronger impact on the type and pay of a first job after graduation than it does on job type and pay for a person who has been in the workforce for, say, 10 years. By then, experience and skills acquired since graduation will also play an important role.
  • Estimated market value of alumni skills (10%). In April 2015, the Brookings Institution published an analysis of new data shedding light on the value added by each college. One of Brookings’ indicators was an estimate of the market value of the 25 most commonly cited skills listed by alumni of each college in their LinkedIn profiles. Jonathan Rothwell, the author of the Brookings study, said this new measure is based on millions of LinkedIn profiles and is a new and potentially better way to discover earning potential. In addition, the data is for all graduates, including those who have earned additional degrees, so it captures the earnings of some schools’ higher earners.

(6, 7, 8 & 9) Earnings value-add: 50%. We used four numbers to calculate how much more or less the graduates of each school are earning, compared with graduates of similar colleges.

  • Early-career PayScale earnings after adjusting for majors (20%). In other analyses of which colleges seem to produce the highest earners, engineering and tech-oriented colleges dominate because computer scientists and engineers tend to earn very high salaries. But what if your child isn’t fated to be an engineer? Which school produces the highest earners for other majors? MONEY used a regression analysis to estimate the average impact on reported earnings of each of three “buckets” of majors: Business, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and “everything else,” which is mostly made up of humanities, education, visual and performing arts, and behavioral and social sciences. We calculated the average earnings for each group of majors. Then, using federal data on the number of graduates in each major at a college, we calculated what the expected earnings would be for that school if each student earned an average salary for his or her field of study. Colleges where graduates earn more than the predicted salary are ranked more highly.
  • Mid-career PayScale earnings after adjusting for majors (5%). We weighed mid-career earnings less heavily because, as previously noted, where a person went to school generally has a greater impact on salary earlier in a
  • Value-added early-career PayScale earnings (20%). We also conducted the same kind of ”value-added“ analysis we did in the educational quality and affordability categories. To find colleges that accomplish what education is supposed to do—help hardworking students from any background get ahead—we calculated the impact of test scores and of coming from a low-income family on graduates’ earnings. Then, using federal data on the test scores and economic background of each school’s student body, we calculated what the expected earnings would be for each school. Colleges where graduates earned more than would be predicted, given their student body, are ranked more highly.
  • Value-added mid-career PayScale earnings (5%).

Changes from our 2014 rankings: To make room for the new indicators, we slightly reduced the weighting we had given to mid-career earnings, because, as cited above, a college typically has the largest impact on early-career earnings.

How we calculated these rankings: For each of our data points, for each college, we calculated a “Z-score”—a statistical technique that turns lots of seemingly different kinds of data into a standard set of numbers that are easily comparable. Each Z-score tells you how far any particular number—such as, say, a graduation rate of 75% —is from the average for the entire group under consideration. We added up each school’s Z-score for each of the factors we used, and normalized that score into an easily understandable five-point scale. We then ranked the schools according to their total score.

CAVEATS

While we believe our rankings are better than any others out there, we know they are not perfect. Here are some caveats that we are aware of, and hope to address in future rankings.

Data on student learning. What students actually learn is a big unanswered question in higher education. Very few colleges try to measure learning, and very few of the ones that do release the results publicly. In addition, we were not able to find good data on basic indicators of academic rigor, such as the number of pages of writing or reading required per assignment. We will continue to explore the data in hopes of finding useful indicators of student learning.

Geographical adjustment of wages. Some colleges in low-wage areas, such as parts of the South and Midwest, get lower rankings because we have not adjusted the PayScale data for cost of living. Wages are higher in New York, for example, because rents and other living costs are much higher, but that doesn’t mean the graduate’s lifestyle is better. We will consider making geographic adjustments of earnings data in the future.

Alumni satisfaction. The information that’s currently available on alumni satisfaction—based on surveys and donation rates—is incomplete for many of the colleges on our list, so we were unable to include it as a measure. We are looking for ways to improve the alumni data and make it part of future rankings.

Out-of-state-public college tuition. Many students are interested in attending public colleges out of state. But public colleges charge higher tuition to out-of-state students. We will consider developing a cost and value comparison for out-of-state students.

Graduate earnings. The PayScale data is admittedly imperfect. It does not reflect unemployed or part-time workers, which means that the numbers we see may be skewed higher than the real average for all graduates. Offsetting that, at least in part: We are using data only on those who stopped their education at a bachelor’s degree, thus excluding high earners such as doctors, lawyers, and MBAs.

Net prices. MONEY’s estimated net price is likely to be higher than the average price actually paid by most families. It is crucial to understand that while the MONEY net price estimate is the average price charged by the college, you and your family will pay less than that if your student receives any federal, state, or private scholarships. As an analogy, if you’re buying a can of soup, you have to pay what the grocery store charges, unless you have a coupon. Just as coupons can be used at competing supermarkets, most federal, state, and private scholarships can be used at many competing colleges. So we help you identify which college has the lowest net price at which you can apply any additional scholarships. In addition, our net price is based on the average student’s time-to-degree. Your student may finish in four years. And while many students take more than four years to finish a degree, they aren’t necessarily paying full tuition for the five or six years before they graduate, since they may, for example, take a year off to work. MONEY attempted to account for this by adjusting the estimated time to degree for all schools with large and established co-op work programs, such as Northeastern University. In addition, MONEY is not adding to the cost of a degree any amount for “opportunity cost,” which is the amount in earnings a student loses by not finishing a degree on time and delaying entry into the higher-paying job market of college graduates. So, while we may, in some cases, be overestimating the price of a degree, we are also underestimating the total economic expense to a student of schools that don’t speed them to graduation.

ACKNOWLEGDEMENTS

David Morton and Gareth Harper of College Measures collected and analyzed our data.

Katie Bardaro, the lead economist for Payscale.com, produced unique earnings reports and analyses for MONEY, and advised us on ways to account for the impact of majors on earnings.

Michael DeLeon, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, served as Money’s research assistant, analyzing data and conducting statistical tests.

Among the many experts who volunteered advice and suggestions:

  • Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
  • Trey Miller, associate economist, RAND Corporation
  • Jennifer Lewis Priestley, statistics professor, Kennesaw State University
  • Matt Reed, program director, The Institute for College Access and Success
  • Joseph Yeado higher education research and policy analyst, The Education Trust

Among the dozens of experts we interviewed or consulted:

  • Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos, Brookings Institution education researchers
  • Robert Archibald, economics professor, William & Mary
  • Jeffrey Arnett, research psychology professor, Clark University
  • Sandy Baum, senior fellow, Urban Institute
  • Douglas Bennett, former president, Earlham College
  • Charles Blaich, director, Center of Inquiries at Wabash College. Also at the Center, Kathleen Wise, assistant director.
  • Brandon Busteed, executive director, Gallup Education
  • Corbin Martin Campbell, associate professor, Columbia University’s Teachers College
  • Jesse Cunha, assistant professor, Graduate School of Business and Public Policy Naval Postgraduate School
  • John Curtis, director of research and public policy, American Association of University Professors
  • William Destler, president, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Marilyn Emerson, past president, Independent Educational Consultants Association
  • Greg Fenves, provost, University of Texas
  • David Figlio, director, Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research
  • Douglas Harris, associate economics professor, Tulane University
  • Terry Hartle associate vice president of the American Council on Education. Also at ACE: senior vice president Dan Madzelan
  • David Hawkins, director of public policy and research, National Association for College Admission Counseling. Also at NACAC: president Kay Murphy and president-elect Jeffrey Fuller
  • Kerry Healy, president, Babson College
  • Lisa Heffernan, author, GrownandFlown.com
  • Bradon Hosch, assistant vice president for institutional research, planning & effectiveness, Stony Brook University
  • Mark Kantrowitz, publisher, Edvisors.com
  • Michael McPherson, president, Spencer Foundation
  • Ben Miller, senior policy analyst, New America Foundation
  • National College Advising Corps (several staffers)
  • Josipa Roksa, associate director, Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, University of Virginia
  • Joyce Serido, research professor, University of Arizona
  • Michael Violtt, president, Robert Morris University Illinois
  • Carl Wieman, professor in the physics and in the education departments at Stanford University, Nobel Prize-winner, and former associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

 

TIME

Martin O’Malley Unveils Debt-Free College Plan

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley arrives for a campaign event at the Sanctuary Pub on June 11, 2015 in Iowa City, Iowa.
Scott Olson—Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley arrives for a campaign event at the Sanctuary Pub on June 11, 2015 in Iowa City, Iowa.

He criticized a rival plan from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley unveiled a plan on Wednesday to make an education at public universities debt-free in the next five years, then used it to attack a rival’s plan to make public college free.

The former Maryland governor’s plan would involve a series of steps, including lowering state university tuition rates, tying loan repayment to graduates’ incomes and increasing federal Pell Grants to low-income students.

“Unless we act now, more and more students will not be able to afford higher education at all, putting the American Dream even further out of reach,” O’Malley said in a statement.

He also on Wednesday criticized a plan set forth by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — though O’Malley avoided saying his name — to make public colleges tuition-free.

Introduced in the Senate in May, Sanders’ bill would require the federal government to cover two-thirds of the total $70 billion tuition paid at public colleges and states to cover the rest.

At St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, where O’Malley rolled out his plan, he said that plan wouldn’t address rising education costs.

“If you simply cut a check for tuition, you’re going to see tuitions go up and up and up, and eventually we all foot that bill. So we have to do two things at the same time,” O’Malley said. “We have to increase degree attainment and bring down costs.”

O’Malley’s multi-part plan calls for immediately freezing state tuition rates, then ultimately tying tuition to no more than 10 percent of state median income at four-year public universities. He would also allow students to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.

O’Malley’s announcement comes at a time when nearly 70% of college students graduate in debt and students collectively owe some $1.3 trillion in loans, a cost many economists say is a significant drain on the economy.

Progressives were quick to endorse O’Malley’s plan. “Martin O’Malley‘s belief that debt-free college must be accessible to all students, and must apply to all public colleges and universities, is spot on — and we look forward to seeing the plans of others,” said Adam Green, co-founder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Meantime, Jeb Bush, a Republican candidate for president, dismissed O’Malley’s plan as “more free stuff.”

MONEY College

This Is College Students’ Biggest Worry

20s woman pulling cash out of wallet
Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Here’s what really keeps the kids up at night.

It’s not frat parties or fear of flunking. The biggest worry college kids have today is money, a new survey reports. According to Ohio State University, 70% of nearly 19,000 students surveyed said they’re stressed about their finances. Six in 10 were worried about tuition costs, and half stressed about having enough to cover day-to-day expenses.

Feeling cash-strapped has real-world consequences for these kids: About a third said money worries led them to neglect their schoolwork, and nearly the same number cut back on their class load because they were worried about their debts. The survey finds that 16% actually suspended their studies for financial reasons, and nearly as many had to transfer to a cheaper school.

Rising student debt is a big culprit behind all this stress, with just under two thirds of students carrying student loans. One in five students surveyed owed more than $30,000 in student debt at the time of the survey, and the same number expect to owe $50,000 or more by the time they graduate.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the average student borrower who graduated from a public or nonprofit college in 2013 (the most recent year available) owed $28,400 in student loan debt.

And it’s not just students feeling the anxiety. Another recent survey, this one conducted by CreditCards.com, finds that money worries keep nearly two-thirds of Americans up at night, a higher percentage than the 56% who suffered from finance-related insomnia before the recession. Although saving for retirement was the top worry across all age brackets in the CreditCards.com study, the second-biggest monster in the closet was the cost of education. About a third of all respondents — and half of those in the 18-to-29 age bracket — say they wind up counting tuition bills instead of sheep.

Despite students’ money worries, about three-quarters still believe that college is a good investment. They’re correct to think so: Research continues to show a significant wage premium for degree-holders over the lifespan of their career, and job seekers with college degrees also find jobs faster than those without, but how quickly a degree pays off increasingly depends on a new grad’s choice of major.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, students who graduate with STEM or business degrees earn an average $3.4 million more in lifetime wages than those with degrees in the fields of childhood education, social work, and art.

TIME Education

Here’s What I Learned From the Near-Death of a Small College

It's not just this school

If there is one thing I learned during my two years as vice president at the American Council on Education, it’s this: US higher education is truly blessed with a huge diversity of institutions, large, small, public, private, urban, rural, specialized, liberal arts, comprehensive and research-intensive.

If there’s one thing I learned during my two years on the faculty at Mills College in Oakland, California, it’s this: women’s colleges are unique, they are empowering, and we need them in our higher education ecosystem.

If there’s one thing I learned while earning an MBA, it’s this: numbers usually don’t lie and there comes a time when you need to face reality. (Well, that’s two things.)

So it’s from this context I observe the near death experience of Sweet Briar College. I appreciate the value of small liberal arts institutions and note with sadness the decline in number of women’s colleges for decades.

I also know that, from a purely financial and marketing perspective, it will be difficult for Sweet Briar to increase enrollment and manage expenses, essentially reversing direction after announcing closure. I also know that Sweet Briar is not the only one, and many other colleges are likely to confront challenges similar to Sweet Briar’s.

Tough road ahead

Sweet Briar in Virginia was founded as a women’s college in 1901 with a mission to “unite classical and modern ideals of education and, in the words of its founder, prepare young women ‘to be useful members of society.’”

However, hit hard by enrollment declines beginning with the 2008 economic downturn, in March 2015, Sweet Briar’s board voted to close the college at the end of the 2015 academic year. A group of alumnae mounted an effort to save the institution. Earlier this month, a court agreed to a negotiated settlement that would keep Sweet Briar open another year.

I — and so many others — wish them well. However, based on their numbers as described by past board members last month, the going will be tough.

Enrollment has declined from 611 in 2010 to 561 in 2015. Their four-year graduation rate slipped from 70% in 1996 to 54% in 2014.

At the same time, Sweet Briar’s average discounted tuition rate for first-year students increased from 48.9% in 2010 to 61.9% in 2015. And the spending of their endowment exceeded the recommended 5% per year.

I predict Sweet Briar will have an extremely difficult time coming back from the brink.

On top of their financial challenges, Sweet Briar will confront difficult morale issues as faculty and staff begin to look for other more secure positions elsewhere.

It’s not just Sweet Briar

Many other small institutions are confronting financial challenges not unlike Sweet Briar’s.

According to Bloomberg, Moody’s, which rates more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities for credit quality, “downgraded an average of 28 institutions annually in the five years through 2013. This is more than double the average of 12 in the prior five-year period.”

With heightened public scrutiny on the value of a college degree, greater consumerism on the part of students, and more downward pressure on tuition increases, US higher education confronts a major adjustment. It is likely we will see even more closures and mergers in the future.

Women’s colleges confront a double whammy: dealing with financial challenges as well as questions about the relevance of single-gender institutions. Women’s colleges are down from 230 in 1960 to 47 in 2015.

Given this environment, how difficult will it be for universities and colleges to attract students, especially in times of failing financial health? Will prospective students and families ask questions about the financial health of an institution before enrolling? Such information is now available to them from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources.

As it is, tuition costs are rising. Affordability is the number one issue we face in higher education today. There has been a 33% increase in tuition costs in the ten years from 2003 to 2013 across all institutions.

There are other issues as well: Currently only 59% of first-time full-time students who begin a four-year degree graduate within six years. And even those often carry a high burden of debt. As of 2013, 69% of students graduated with loan debt.

But, at the same time, universities are binging on expansion. Some of this may be strategically necessary (like replacing decrepit academic buildings or establishing new relevant degree programs), but much may not be.

In efforts to attract students with a broad program array and popular amenities, we may be sacrificing the one thing that helps students most: graduating on time affordably.

The way forward

Fortunately, boards and administrators have options as long as they face reality quickly. They need to gather the right data, act decisively, and confront difficult decisions to avoid closure.

We know that the four things that can lead to financial sustainability are clear focus on core mission; reducing administrative cost; selling non-core assets; and investing in innovative models.

Women’s colleges can adapt and are adapting to new realities, like Alverno College in Milwaukee, that converted a long-standing classroom-based weekend program for nontraditional working students to a blended hybrid format to meet today’s need for greater flexibility.

Based on my own experience leading major organizational transformations, Sweet Briar’s leadership will need to move quickly and decisively to forge their future. Gaining commitment from all stakeholders to work together to “row in the same direction” will be essential. Balancing the need to face reality and telling the truth about that reality while also painting a picture of a positive future will make the difference.

We can’t put our heads in the sand, ignore the numbers, maintain the status quo, and hope things will be fine. For those of us who care about higher education and our students, we need to step up.The Conversation

Cathy Sandeen is Chancellor at University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

Here’s the Best Time to Visit College Campuses

friends-studying-outdoor
Getty Images

Know what you want before the visit

There is no doubt that visiting a prospective college or university is one of the best ways to experience the culture of a particular school. By the end of their junior year of high school, most students have compiled a short list of colleges that interest them. The schools on that list will have a mixture of criteria that they do or do not meet: ideal location, reasonable cost, academic rigor, courses of study, etc. Choosing among these colleges often comes down to how a place “feels,” but if you cannot visit them during the school year, what can you do? Should you visit college campuses in the summer?

What can all campus visits teach you?

No matter the season in which you visit, a campus tour allows you to explore the buildings and grounds of a given school, as well as its surrounding community. Perhaps an urban college appeals to you in theory, but you realize on your campus tour that you miss the open green spaces and quiet of a rural setting. Conversely, your claustrophobia may worsen when you see that your prospective home for the next four years consists of the campus, one or two restaurants, and endless miles of farm and forest.

Even if you are comparing colleges in similar settings, you may find that the neighborhoods near each campus significantly impact the atmosphere of a school. For example, I attended the University of Washington and Ohio State University. Both are large state schools located in mid-sized cities. Both have beautiful campuses. But the University of Washington is surrounded by independent coffee shops, ethnic restaurants, and used book stores. Ohio State University, in contrast, is bordered primarily by chain restaurants. This was an obvious difference to me, but other students may not have noticed. If you plan to live off-campus, a campus tour – at any time of year – can help you gauge a city or town’s student neighborhoods.

A campus tour will also include visits to campus buildings. Are these buildings well maintained? Do you like the feeling of ancient wisdom that seeps from the stones of 19th century construction, or are you more at home with modern buildings? This is a small but crucial consideration, as the buildings you live among can have an impact on how you experience your community.

What are the disadvantages of touring during the summer?

The answer to this question will vary from college to college. Some schools may seem abandoned during the summer months, while others may be quite busy. In both cases, you will not glimpse the campus at its liveliest times. You may not realize that you will be swimming through throngs of students during class breaks at a large college, or that you will continually see the same dozen people at a small school. You also may not be able to sit in on a college class or two.

In addition, you may struggle to assess how students truly treat one another. Are people on campus friendly and welcoming during the winter months too? Do they seem disinterested in strangers only because it is oppressively humid out? The student ambassadors and tour guides that you meet during a campus visit are typically hired because they are friendly and outgoing – which means they may or may not be representative of the student body as a whole. The summer student population may be equally as unrepresentative due to its smaller sample size.

So what should you do?

Whenever possible, visit prospective schools during the academic year. Remember that an in-person assessment of a campus can be invaluable to your final decision. If you are only able to visit colleges in the summer, you will need to consider the goals you would like each campus tour to achieve.

If visiting all the schools on your list is prohibitively expensive, do not immediately discount the possibility of a campus tour. You may be able to prioritize which colleges to go to – for example, say you have five schools on your short list. One of them seems ideal for you academically, and its rural location differentiates it from the other colleges. Visiting that one outlier will help you learn whether the setting is a positive or negative factor. Or perhaps you would like to major in a field like life sciences or visual art, where laboratory quality or studio space can have a profound impact on your education. Several of your target schools may make virtual tours available online, but one or two may not. Investigating the colleges or universities without online tours can be a very good use of your visitation budget.

Ultimately, visiting campuses during the traditional academic school year or during the summer is a highly personal decision. It will depend on cost and your overall touring goals. If summer is the best or only time that you can visit colleges and universities, there is truly no substitute for walking across campus and imagining yourself coming back next fall – and happily belonging there.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.

More from Varsity Tutors:

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com