It doesn't take long to form a pretty good idea of whether your child's college choices are financially realistic. In fact, you'll be amazed at how much you can learn in the time it would take to eat a bowl of ice cream. So start the timer and let's begin.
1. Check the four-year graduation rate. Parents assume that their children will graduate in eight semesters, but most kids linger much longer. The grad numbers are all over the board: While 83% of students graduate on time at the University of Virginia, only 25% make it at Texas Tech. You can find four-, five- and six-year grad rates for any school at CollegeResults.org. Even better, the software will also provide the grad rates of comparable colleges and universities.
2. Examine the loan/grant breakdown. Check whether a school doles out more grants (free money) or loans. The breakdown for any school is available in its annual Common Data Set. To find this valuable report Google the name of the school and Common Data Set. In the document's financial aid section you'll see what the average financial aid package is and how it's split between grants and loans.
3. Measure a school's generosity. Believe it or not, at some colleges nearly everybody gets a discounted price. For instance, at the College of Wooster, which is a wonderful liberal arts college in Ohio, 97% of students receive something and the average institutional grant is close to $17,000. You can find out the percentage of students receiving merit or need-based aid at any school by visiting the federal College Navigator.
Hour glass image by justmakeit.