College Choices: How to Decide What’s Right for You

Did you know McLennan County has more college choices than any other county in the state? We are home to both McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical School-Waco, both of which rank nationally among community and technical colleges respectively. We also have a top of the line research university in Baylor as well as access to four-year degrees from other major universities through the University Center on MCC campus. There are plenty of choices out there, now it’s just a matter of choosing one to attend! To help you out with your decision, here are some things to consider.

What costs can I expect?

1. Traditional Four-Year College or University

You can look up the cost of attendance at a school you are considering at CollegeForAllTexans.  However, while the average cost of tuition at a state school is between $7,000 and $10,000 each year, the average total cost of attendance, which includes things like books and living expenses, is around $20,000-$25,000 per year. Private universities vary, so you will need to consult the state website or the college website for the exact cost of any specific private university.

2. Community College (Two-Year)

Again, exact costs for a specific community college are available at CollegeForAllTexans. However, the average cost of tuition is around $2,000-$3,500 each year and the average total cost of attendance is around $12,000-$15,000 each year.

3. State Technical College (Two-Year)

The average cost of tuition is $4,000 each year and the average total cost of attendance is around $15,000.  Remember: state technical colleges (TSTC) are considered year round with three semesters included in the cost.

Now how can you pay for it?

1. Grants

If your annual family income is under $50,000, you can expect to be eligible for some federal or state grants. The amount of your federal Pell Grant may range anywhere from about $900 to $5,645 each year and the state TEXAS Grant is close to the average tuition at a state college or community college (keep in mind that the availability of state grants varies from year to year). Check with your college to see if you need to complete other forms for State grants.

2. Scholarships

Most colleges have a scholarship application you should submit to determine your eligibility and you should sign up for at least one free online scholarship search like FastWeb, Cappex, or Scholarships.com. Always apply for any scholarships you may be eligible to receive, no matter what other funding you may be receiving. Full scholarships are rare and usually only cover tuition not dorm costs etc. Complete scholarship applications for all colleges where you have applied for admission.  You can always turn down the scholarship if you decide on another college, but you can’t go back and fill one out.

3. Student Loans

The maximum Federal student loan amount available to dependent freshman students is $5,500. You should also inquire about state loan possibilities. (See here for more information about state loans)

4. Parent Loans

These are usually offered by colleges to cover the balance of the costs, so check with the Financial Aid department at the colleges you are considering.

5. Work Study

There is also the option of working at least part time while in college, either through the college work-study program or an off campus job.  About 80% of college students work at least part time, so it’s not unreasonable to plan on working to pay some of your living expenses.

If you’ve been comparing the amount of financial aid available to the average costs of attendance, then you know at this point how important it is to apply for private scholarships. Federal and state aid can offer you some help, but you’ll probably have to look for more opportunities to attend the college of your choice.

How does this help me to make my decision?

If cost of attendance and taking out student loans are a strong concern of yours, then you can see that the local community college or technical college are your most cost effective choices. Most students that live at home can finish their two year degree with no student loan debt, or at least very minimal debt. Having completed your basics and earning your Associate degree, you can always transfer to another university to complete your four-year degree to cut the amount of student loans you take out in half.  If you live at home and attend the University Center on the MCC campus, you may even earn your four-year degree with no loans. The University Center allows students to attend classes on the MCC Campus and receive a degree from a four-year university, such as Tarleton State or Texas Tech.

If cost isn’t necessarily your first concern or you are set on attending a four-year university then experts agree you should go for it, but make sure to keep plenty of options.  Don’t automatically assume that you can’t afford to attend your first choice for college, but don’t ignore other possibilities either.  You should apply to several colleges and include one or two colleges that you consider “stretch” colleges.  In other words, colleges you would like to attend but don’t really think you will be able either to be admitted or afford. Also include a local choice just in case the cost of living on-campus turns out to be more than you want to spend. Then submit your scholarship applications to every school where you’ve applied for admission. Make sure to list all these choices on your FAFSA so you can compare your award package options for each one later.

When making your choice and looking at possible student loans, don’t forget to look at your career options and future earnings.  There are several good sources for career information available online and at some college websites.  MCC offers a Career Coach that can help you find out what kind of jobs you can get with a degree, the availability of those jobs, where they are available, as well as the starting salary. This will give you an idea of what you will be able to afford after graduation as far as loan repayment.  Keep in mind that repayment options for federal student loans are good, offering low interest with a 10 year payout, and there are even some jobs that will enable you to enroll in loan cancellation programs. However, you still want to be careful with your borrowing.

So compare all your options and try to visit the colleges you are considering, and then choose the one that is the right fit for you.  Remember, the goal is for you to be successful in college, no matter what you want to study or where you want to go!

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