Researchers are working to understand why people land at one college over another. Not too many people, it turns out, make their decision based on price.
Just 7.5 percent selected a school because it was affordable, according to the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey. (Last year, more than 85,000 people ages 18 to 65 were interviewed.)
Location is the most common major reason students choose a school, with 28 percent of respondents listing it as such. School reputation and fit was a deciding factor for another 20 percent, while 19 percent said they landed at their school because they believed it would lead to a good job or career. Another 5 percent chose their college because they received financial aid or scholarships.
Affordability, experts say, deserves more attention.
A college education is among the biggest financial investments a person will make in his or her lifetime, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup's education division.
The payments also are likely to follow students after graduation. Today, more than half of young adults with a bachelor's degree are saddled with student loans. Just 18 percent of people with more than $50,000 in student debt "strongly agree" that their education was worth the cost.
And so, here are a few ways to factor some financial considerations into your college selection process.
Focus less on prestige and more on what you hope to get out of college, said David Montesano, founder of the consulting company College Match.
Ask yourself: Will this school help me get into the graduate school I want? Will it lead to the type of job I'd like?
People make irrational decisions, he said, when it comes to picking a college.
For example, Montesano said some of his clients will overlook colleges that are "top feeders" into the country's best law, business and medical schools as well as Ph.D. programs, just because they don't boast a well-known or Ivy League title.
"How low the admit rate is doesn't really equal outcome," Montesano said. "We look at something and say, 'Oh, that's expensive, therefore it must be better.'
"That's pretty misguided."
Instead, research schools for what you'd like to experience or gain there, he said. Then compare them with other schools and look for one that fits both you and your budget.
For example, to see what schools produce the greatest percentage of doctorate degrees, Montesano recommends doing research on the National Science Foundation's website (look at Table 4, which shows the schools that generate the most Ph.D.'s per capita, he says).
Many college websites feature calculators (here's New York University's, for example) that will estimate how much relief — usually in the form of grants or loans — you'll receive. The Department of Education's website also has a calculator that can predict your aid.
Some schools will offer merit-based aid. If they do, and if you have the grades and test scores that that college wants, "you have a pretty good chance of getting merit aid," said Jane Klemmer, an educational consultant in Briarcliff Manor, New York.
Students shouldn't borrow more in loans than they'll make in their first year of employment, said Jeff Selingo, author of "There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow."
If you think you'll make $45,000 your first year out of school, for instance, make that figure your borrowing cap. You can check a college's early career and mid-career average salaries at Payscale.com. It also has a list of salaries by major.
If you go to a less expensive college, get excited about "the opportunities a school will give you beyond college because you're not going to be burdened by debt," said education consultant Klemmer.
And it's less about where you go to college, and more about how you go, said author Selingo. Focus on getting good grades and taking advantage of the school's resources and opportunities.
"Go to a place that has a lower price and knock it out of the park," Selingo said.