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Everyone knows that finances are a big concern when applying to college. Many students struggle to find the best scholarship or grant option and dread taking out loans that will just burden them with debt later on. However, for some, college financial decisions end up being made not out of necessity, but out of practicality. This article will hopefully provide some advice to those who are not necessarily struggling for money but still want to make smart college decisions.

Of course, this is a fortunate situation to be in. I myself worried little about money during the college application process, for which I am very grateful. I realize completely that with a twist of fate a family can go from the upper middle class to struggling to make ends meet and that mine has just been very lucky over the years. During my college application process, I skipped over information about financial aid rightly thinking that I wouldn’t be eligible for any need-based scholarships or grants that are so helpful to many students. I was able to focus completely on just applying to schools, thinking very little about how much they cost. I did, however, investigate several programs that gave out merit aid and ended up seriously considering some of those schools.

Except for the very wealthy, forking over $240,000 over four years to go to a private or out-of-state school isn’t easy. As my senior year progressed I found that my family was in a very awkward middle ground. Yes, my parents said, we could pay that much money, if it was really necessary, but we would really prefer not to. I knew that I wasn’t going to get any need-based money, but I also knew that paying full tuition for an expensive school wouldn’t be especially pleasing for my parents.

With this in mind, I only applied to out-of-state schools that I thought could possibly merit the $240,000 dollars in the long run. My out-of-state schools were mostly reach schools as my home state, Virginia, provides some very excellent options that can’t be beat for the price of only about $80,000 over four years, without any financial aid. I chose to not apply to some more expensive schools that I viewed as very similar to those in-state options, which both cut down my college list and kept the application process more practical. I applied to some schools that I knew would give me merit aid and labeled those as my safety schools. But still, when college acceptances came out I faced some tough choices.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t make it into my top reach school, which was an Ivy League. I did, though, encounter some difficult decisions as the nature of my college choice became clear as I eventually turned down a prestigious out-of-state school to attend an in-state option. I ended up making the decision based on both my family’s finances and the distance of the out-of-state option. (I didn’t particularly want to fly back and forth to college every five or six months.)

Financially, we simply decided that in the long run I wouldn’t get anything huge out of attending the out-of-state school and that the money my parents had saved would be best used for graduate school or for study abroad and other academic programs. For my family, the sticker price of the two colleges was the real price—it just wasn’t a price that we felt comfortable paying.

So, for those in similar situations I say simply this: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Think about what you will really get out of attending an expensive private or out-of-state school that gives you no financial aid, and look at attending your state school or a school that provides merit aid. Looking back on it, I believe that my family would only have been comfortable paying full tuition for the Ivy League school that rejected me or for a similar school, as in our eyes the benefits would have outweighed the cost. Now, I love my college and the opportunities that it provides—especially at such a low sticker price.

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