THE BLOG

Choosing the Right Path to College

03/30/2015 08:23 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

While the notification date for college applicants varies dramatically depending upon the path selected for admission consideration, the notifications will largely be complete by April 1, even at the most selective schools.

It's at this point that the ball shifts to the applicant's court.

Until the notification, most of the applicant's time, and corresponding anxieties, centered on the process of applying to college. Once the applicant hit the "send" button, however, the wait began. It can be painful and excruciating, depending upon admission notification deadlines; the maturity of the applicant; peer, social and cultural pressures; and the lines of communication with the colleges and universities to which the applicant applied.

But now it's over.

What's the first word of post-selection advice to applicants? Congratulations. You likely got in -- somewhere. Put the rejection letters behind you and move ahead. You may not have been a good fit at a few places, but in the end your own sense of self should overcome the sting of a rejection letter. It's a good early lesson in life.

In fact, it's a particularly good year to apply to college. Last November, Moody's Investors Service forecast that "37 percent of public and 45 percent of private universities are indicating enrollment declines." As Eva Bogarty, a Moody's vice president and senior analyst, suggested, the weakening enrollment numbers are "forcing already-struggling schools to offer deeper discounts to potential students."

With discount rates -- the amount actually paid by families after financial aid is discounted from the advertised tuition sticker price -- approaching 50 percent at private colleges and universities, a weak enrollment market at many colleges and universities, including any number of so-called "name" schools, is good news for this year's crop of incoming freshman and their families.

After congratulating yourself, take a long, hard look at the financial aid package, for which most families will qualify. You may not have a problem if the number is attractive. Higher education institutions are typically very accommodating when asked financial aid questions by students and families, especially after April 1. Most will reexamine the offer if the request to reconsider is reasonable. It's the financial "bottom line" part of your decision.

Together with where to go and how to pay for college, there is an even more pragmatic, philosophical and important question. Within the available options, what is the best route to a four-year college degree?

The first decision is whether or not to attend college. In a recovering economy, there are many well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. Students should think about what they value. Unless they simply need more time, students should not use the availability of work in a slowly improving economy to postpone life's decisions.

Whether college is the right choice is a matter of personal decision, informed in the early years by a thoughtful conversation among family members. Certificate programs can advance job standing once high school graduates translate into the workforce. A basic consideration emerges from that critical internal dialogue that asks, "Where do I see myself 20 years into the workforce and beyond?"

If college is the choice, there are a variety of options, including online learning, for-profit degrees, and non-profit public and private colleges, among others. Whatever the tuition sticker price, some combination of grants, loans/debt and student/family contributions should make college possible.

With average four-year indebtedness now at $28,400, students should think carefully about debt levels, especially if they expect to go on to earn a graduate and professional degree when most debt occurs, depending upon the program. But it remains fair to ask if financing the equivalent of a fully loaded mid-sized car at favorable long-term rates is worth the earnings power of a college degree. Numerous studies suggest that the investment is a good one.

For almost 50 percent of first-time college students, the answer is to enroll in a community college. It's an attractive option, both for 18-year-olds and older students, albeit for many different reasons. Community colleges open first-time students to a college experience, are typically located close to home, and offer a cheaper way to finance four years of higher education. While they do not provide the residential learning package touted by four-year colleges, they do offer an efficient, cheaper alternative.

The biggest problem that students will face is to design a pathway into a four-year college where staff and faculty may not accept all the student's credits, do not have a "safety net" of counseling and student service support in place specifically for them, and may view students as "fillers" to meet an enrollment target rather than as integral to their enrollment profile.

The decision about whether to go to college and where to attend is the first adult decision most high school seniors will make. It will affect subsequent choices and determine future direction, earnings, and productivity. The successful applicant should think carefully about what admission means. It's so much more than a letter with bragging rights.

In the end it may be far less important to receive the acceptance letter than to know why you applied in the first place.