There are over 1,600 four-year public and private colleges in the United States. And guess what, they don’t all cost an arm and a leg to attend. With this many colleges, there have to be quality, affordable options available for families who look for them. And there are students attending college without facing the prospect of years of debilitating debt. Yet, attending affordable colleges comes with some trade-offs that not all families are willing to make.
1. No one will have heard of it
Probably the most significant problem that students attending an affordable college will have is that no one will have heard of the school. Families need to seriously consider the ramifications of the following conversation:
Person of some status: what school do you go to?
Student: school X
Person of some status: never heard of it
What happens next? Does the student spend time explaining where the school is located and how great it is? Do the parents feel the need to say it’s just until darling daughter or son can transfer? How important is it to put a name brand bumper sticker on the car? Is it worth $5,000 a year? Maybe $10,000 or $20,000? Will it be possible to somehow “buy” the status with the money your saving by attending an affordable college? This issue is something you need to be prepared for because most affordable colleges lack national name recognition.
2. Affordable colleges tend to be small
The next biggest problem for students is that chances are the college will be on the small side. This is just simply a matter of numbers–there are more small colleges than larger ones. Nearly three quarters of all colleges have fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates. Over half are under 2,000. Unfortunately, most students seem to have preferences for larger colleges.
This means two things. The first is that there will be fewer colleges to choose from. The second is that since larger colleges know they are more in demand; they have less reason to lower tuition. It’s called supply and demand.
3. Locations aren’t ideal
Another issue with affordable colleges is that they tend to be location challenged. You won’t find many on the coasts. They also don’t tend to be in the popular major metro areas which is also part of the reason why people have never heard of them. Students attending affordable colleges may find travelling between campus and home involving multiple modes of transportation such as buses to the regional airports. They may also be living in different cultural and climate environments than they prefer. Affordable colleges can often require students to live outside their comfort zone.
4. They don’t make the first page of rankings
Perhaps the most important issue with attending an affordable college is that it’s not likely to be in the top 50 of US News College Rankings. Of course, that’s probably the principle reason why most families have never heard of it. Students selecting affordable colleges will have to make sure the college meets their academic and social requirements which are not the same thing as national rankings. The fact is that it’s a lot easier to just look at a number on a rankings as a way to decide which college is better. Students at affordable colleges generally have to do more research to figure out what works for them. The question is if the savings of $10,000 or $15,000 worth the extra time and effort?
The value of trade-offs
Ultimately, students attending affordable colleges are making trade-offs. Unlike colleges that do their best to convince students that their school’s reputation is priceless, students researching affordable colleges have decided otherwise. Be sure to notice that none of the four issues say anything about quality. Reputation and rankings have to do with perceived quality.
Think about this, if it was so easy to prove that students that attend more expensive schools with brand name recognition made more money or got better jobs, wouldn’t they have done so already? After all, that’s what a lot of these schools do–research. Yet, all you’ll encounter in view books and campus tours is anecdotal evidence.
One thing that helps some people survive the affordable college issues is thinking about the things that their savings are going to. For parents it can be about having a comfortable retirement. For students it can be about using the money for graduate school, study abroad, paying for moving costs after graduation, weddings, or a down payment on a house. Of course, for any of these things to have appeal requires students doing the research of how much money they will have after graduation from an affordable college compared to one that isn’t. And if you aren’t willing to do something so basic when so much money is on the line, then you probably really aren’t the affordable college type.