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Hidden College Costs: The Transfer Tax

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Home buyers are known to spend months, maybe an entire year, searching for the perfect home.  They’ll compare costs, neighborhoods, taxes, schools, etc. After all, it’s likely going to be their biggest purchase ever. Buyer’s remorse is not something many can afford in this case.

A college education should require a similar approach. While not the most expensive purchase, it’s often a close second, rounding out to about $140,000 or more if you attend a private 4-year college, according to the College Board. Yet, close to a third of college students at two-year and four-year colleges make the choice to transfer to a different academic institution. Some are, of course, community college students aiming to graduate with a full bachelor’s degree. In that case, they need to transfer. Still others simply made the wrong choice and want to find a school that better meets their needs.

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Take my brother, Todd. He’s now an incoming junior at the University of Arizona, but started at the University of California at Irvine. After his first quarter at UCI he realized he was unhappy and chose to transfer to a school with a larger campus community and more active social life. He’s thrilled with his college now, but he definitely paid a price for happiness. Not all of his credits transferred because he went from a school with a quarter system to one with a semester system. He had to retake some classes, a loss of about $5,000, he figures. Todd’s also on track to graduate in five years, instead of four, a move that’ll cost an extra $25,000.

All this to say that it’s so important to take your time choosing a college. Many parents and high school students will be visiting campuses across the country this summer. Admission officers will, of course, have their sales pitches ready. They’ll tell you how many famous people attended. They’ll show off the school’s amazing new gym facility, and brag about the school’s Division I football team. You’ll hear about 98% graduation rates and other amazing qualities and features schools have to offer.

But your review process shouldn’t stop there. Here are six more questions to help find the best school for you.

  • What do students have to say? If you have the chance to stay overnight on campus with students, definitely schedule it. Ask them to be brutally honest about their experience. How do they like their classes? Are there enough resources?
  • How are professors rated? At RateMyProfessor.com you can get a snapshot into the classroom experience at various colleges. Last fall the Web site released the list of schools with what students believed to be the best and worst teachers. Check out the list here.
  • Does the school offer a broad variety of majors? You may not know what you want to major in, but take 4 or 5 guesses and make sure your college or university offers those areas of study. Better yet-can you develop your own major at the school? If you have your eyes set on a liberal arts college but then decide to major in mechanical engineering, you may need to transfer.
  • What’s campus life like? While my brother sought a more vibrant campus, I had friends at Penn State who transferred because they just couldn’t stand being amongst 50,000 other students. They also didn’t like football or frats. Um? Hello? Didn’t you read the brochure? This is the sort of inside scoop current students can help you with.
  • Will you be able to graduate in 4 years? Most students don’t, and not just because they chose a difficult and demanding major. Sometimes a lack of funding at schools causes a shortage of class offerings, which can lead to students falling behind. Find out what budgetary constraints schools on your list may be facing and how that may affect the ratio of professors to students and course offerings.
  • How many freshman drop out? This is information schools must provide and it’s important to know.  While many students need to drop out due to personal financial hardships, drop out rates may also have to do with the overall quality of the school.

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Image: Will Folsom, via Flickr.com

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