Magazine Feature

Toolkit for Drowning in Debt

This toolkit provides a College/University Affordability Audit to help counselors, teachers, families and students evaluate the financial and academic supports and graduation outcomes offered by higher education institutions.

Studies have shown that college graduates earn more over a lifetime and are less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school diploma. While pursuing higher education has projected financial advantage, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically, and the amount of aid available for low-income students has decreased. These two facts together underscore the importance of helping students make a strong college match by supporting their ability to evaluate higher education institutions and make informed decisions about the financial, academic and social fit each can offer.


Essential Question

  1. What questions should my family and I ask about colleges and universities prior to applying?

Counselors, teachers, families and students can use this toolkit to guide their research on the financial and academic supports and graduation outcomes offered by the colleges and universities students are considering. The College/University Affordability Audit can be used in a variety of ways:

  • As a joint professional development project with teachers and counselors to investigate and compare local colleges and universities. The group could present their findings to the wider school community and guide a discussion on how their findings can help students make smart choices about higher education.
  • As an assignment given to students and families during the research and application process to guide decision-making.
  • As a classroom research project for middle or high school students asking them to compare institution types across all consideration points. For instance, how do the graduation rates at for-profit institutions compare to nonprofit schools? How does the total cost of attendance at state university flagship campuses compare to the regional campuses? How do financial aid packages at highly-selective colleges compare to less-selective schools?


College/University Affordability Audit 

  • What is the institution’s six-year graduation rate? 
  • How does its six-year graduation rate break down by racial and socio-economic demographics?
  • How does its six-year graduation rate compare to similar colleges and universities (i.e., schools of similar selectivity levels, student body sizes and admission rates).
  • What is the total cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board and fees?
  • What is the average “net price” (average price that students pay after grants or scholarships) of attendance?
  • How much institutional scholarship money does the college or university award? What percent goes to need-based aid? What percent goes to merit-based aid?
  • What is the average financial aid package awarded by the institution?
  • Do the college’s or university’s financial aid packages completely cover student need? 
  • If not, what is the average gap in students’ financial aid funding (i.e., money a student owes over the Estimated Family Contribution [EFC] that is not covered by federal loans, grants and scholarships)?
  • What percentage of students enrolled in the institution receive Pell grants? 
  • What is the graduation rate for Pell grant recipients?
  • What is the average amount of debt students carry upon graduation?
  • What percentage of graduates are employed within one year of graduation?
  • What percentage of graduates are accepted into graduate school?


Where to Begin

Look up graduation rates broken down by different demographics, average financial aid awarded, total cost of attendance and comparison to similar institutions in the same state. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Completion website 

The Education Trust’s College Results website

Students can also look at the websites of each college and university to find answers to the above questions.

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