25 tips for choosing a college

Iowa State University

(CBS MoneyWatch) Although finding a college can be intimidating, being a savvy consumer will ease your stress and reduce the chances of overpaying for a bachelor's degree.

Here are 25 tips for making a wise college choice:

1. Don't eliminate any colleges from your list just because of its price tag. Published prices are meaningless.

2. Never assume that you must pay full price for college -- two-thirds of students don't.

3. If you are affluent, look for schools that provide merit scholarships to rich students. Nearly all schools do.

4. Use a college's net price calculator to get a personalized estimate of what that school will cost your family. 

5. Don't assume that only "A" students earn merit scholarships. At private schools, 85 percent of freshmen have earned grants and scholarships from their institutions.

6. Encourage your child to take college-prep classes and earn good grades. Those are the two admission factors that schools typically value the most.

7. Teenagers will increase their chances of getting accepted to a school and winning a merit scholarship if they look at colleges outside their region.

8. Use an Expected Family Contribution calculator to determine the minimum amount you will have to pay for one year of college.

9. Don't automatically assume that a student won't qualify for financial aid.

10. If you are seeking financial aid, look for generous colleges that provide mostly need-based grants rather than loans. 

11. Double check financial aid applications for mistakes.

12. If you're disappointed with a financial aid offer, you can negotiate. But be nice when you try this approach.

13. Don't get hung up on college rankings. US News & World Report's rankings are terribly flawed.

14. When visiting schools, use the list of questions assembled by the National Survey for Student Engagement.

15. Don't stress out about getting into college. Three out of four freshman get into their No. 1 choice.

16. If your child does poorly on the SAT or ACT exams, consider applying to test-optional schools. You'll find the list of roughly 850 schools at FairTest.org.

17. Look for schools that have high four-year graduation rates. You don't want your child stuck in college for five or six years.

18. It's easier to get regional or local private scholarships than the ones with national reputations.

19. Check out what other students are saying about individual schools at Unigo and College Prowler.

20. If you're still saving for college, avoid expensive 529 plans and stick with low-cost plans that you can buy directly.

21. When borrowing for college, pick federal student loans first.

22. If you must borrow through private loans, check out college loans offered by credit unions

23. Research potential majors before shopping for schools.

24. Never assume that an academic department is strong just because the school's overall reputation is sterling.

25. Consider looking beyond brand names to find hidden college gems.

Image courtesy of Iowa State University

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