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When you are looking at different colleges, spend some time enjoying college statistics before you visit. Little numbers on a page can indicate HUGE differences between colleges - and can explain how some colleges are "cheap" while others are a good investment.
First, look at college statistics that can indicate if your child will be accepted into that school. Test Score Range
Does your child's SAT or ACT score meet or exceed expectations? If your child's test score is below the range listed, the chance of being admitted is very slim. It may still be possible, but unlikely. If you don't meet the test score range, this is a "reach" school. Admission Rate
How many applicants are accepted? If they only accept 20% of applicants each year, that's on par with Harvard and Yale. Most applicants will be rejected - even if they are highly qualified. If they have a low acceptance rate, the school is a "reach" school for everyone. There are no exceptions for these schools, even students with high test scores.
Second, look at the college statistics that can tell you if your child will be successful at that school. Financial Aid
Look at the percent of students who receive financial aid. If most students receive financial aid, then it's likely that you will get aid if you meet their expectations. Happiness Factor
Look at the percentage of students who return to the university after Freshman year. Colleges WANT students to attend for all four years. Returning students mean they are generally happy with the college overall.
Third, look at college statistics that will show if that university will be worth it in the long run. Graduation Rate
What percent of students actually graduate in 4 years? Parents often assume their children will graduate in 4 years, but that's harder at some schools than it is at others. If many students take 6 years to graduate, you will be paying 50% more for that college. Success Rate
Find out what percentage of students are employed when they graduate. Look at what percentage of graduates are accepted into graduate programs too. If a large percentage are accepted into law school or medical school, that can indicate success for other students as well. Read more about college statistics
Look at these books and more to read details about each college. You do NOT need to read these books from cover to cover! (That's totally NOT recommended!) But for each college you are considering, though, read every single word about that university. Some of the details of college statistics are tiny but hugely important.
Profiles of American Colleges
Fiske Guide to Colleges
U.S. News Ultimate College Guide