Step 5: Review School Selection Factors, Including Financial Considerations


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Go back to Our 7-Step Approach

By Rajkamal Rao 

If you have completed Steps 1 - 4 correctly, you would, by now, have:
  1. Defined your brand & decided what you want to do in your career.
  2. Genuinely abandoned the madness that comes with school rankings.
  3. Chosen your target states by better understanding current trends in the US economy. 
  4. Identified occupations in demand and industries that are trending upward - so that you can go back, refine Step 1 and be better ready to market yourself.

5a.  Identify a potential target list of schools

Image courtesy: clipartheaven.com
The first task now is to identify a potential target list of schools based on Step 3 and Step 4.  We recommend that you have a universe of schools that is about three times larger than the number of schools you intend to apply to.   Suppose you want to apply to 7 schools.  Your initial universe of schools should be at least 20.

There are many ways to search for schools and obtain information but we believe the best database of schools is maintained by the US Department of Education.  This free tool is called the College Navigator and is a superb way to initially identify schools.  Within a few clicks you can set up your own custom searches and look for schools (both undergraduate and graduate) based on whether they are private or public; estimated tuition costs; and the campus location/setting.  You can pinpoint school locations with an interactive map, export search results into a spreadsheet and save your session including search options and favorites.

Another good site is Collegeconfidential.com - this too has features similar to the College Navigator.  But we like the College Navigator better because it is maintained by the US government.


5b. Assess Each School in 5a Against our Master School Selection Factor list 

Image courtesy: wikis.lib.ncsu.edu

Step 5b is to research and assemble raw data across our full list of school selection factors for each school in Step 5a above.  For now, you are not making judgments about any school.  Or about how important one factor in our list is against another.  This comes later - in Step 6: Finalize the List of Schools.

Our master list of selection criteria includes 15 important factors and is based upon our years of experience in the field (and, of course, research).  We believe that the list is exhaustive for most students, but we admit that you may have a few more that you would like to add to create your own private list.  This is fine.  Since we are a community website, we would thank you if you can share those items with us.  If we believe that our master list has to be expanded after getting your feedback, we will update our list - and acknowledge the source so that you can get credit!
  1. Public or Private school?
    There are two types of universities in the US - public and private.  Public schools receive substantial funding from the state; private schools receive funding from their endowments.  Both public and private schools charge tuition and other fees to make up the difference.  [See also a great free website called OnlineCollegesDatabase.org which provides helpful information about colleges, universities, community colleges and vocational schools at the local city and state level, including a Google Maps interactive feature].

    Public schools provide a discount in fees to state residents, sometimes of nearly 50%.  This is largely a way for state governments to give something back to residents who have been paying hefty taxes to the state.  Most public schools have extremely strict rules to determine if a student qualifies for the special discounted rate - but the intent is clear.  If a student is normally domiciled in the state and he or his parents have been paying taxes to the state, the student generally qualifies for the discounted rate. 

    As a rule, international students do not qualify for in-state tuition - even during the second year of study.  In fact, as we said in Facts about US Higher Education, US schools depend upon international students to pay full tuition to either help balance their budgets or offer subsidized tuition to state residents.  Remember that US Higher Education is big business and the business of America is business (as President Coolidge said).

    Some people mislead incoming students by insisting that if a person can work as a summer intern for three months, he can claim in-state tuition rates for the second year since the person paid taxes during employment.  This is wrong.  Most states require people to have paid taxes for at least one year before they can qualify for preferential treatment.

    Private schools do not discriminate in their fees - all students, resident, non-resident or international pay the same fees.
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  2. How much does it cost?  Include all costs - application fees, exam fees (TOEFL/GRE/GMAT for graduate studies; TOEFL/SAT/IELTS/ACT/Advance Placement exam fees for undergraduate studies); exam preparation fees; tuition, books, fees, housing, visa, food, health insurance, transportation - in your analysis.  Application fees are not trivial.  These are start up costs and no school refunds an application fee once paid.  It is best to build your own spreadsheet to track these costs. 

    For a primer on US college costs, click here.

    For a primer on health insurance for international students from a private insurer, click here.  We neither recommend nor condemn this company but are presenting general information about health insurance put out by the company.
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  3. What is the school's location?  Is it rural, urban or suburban?  How far is to visit family/relatives?  How close are you to companies in your chosen occupation/industry (as defined by you in Step 3)? 
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  4. Return on Investment (ROI) experience of others.  Do you know of other friends who have gone to this school?  How successful were they in their own ROI? [Simply selecting a school based on the blind recommendation/existence of friends is not advisable]. 
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  5. Does the school offer courses that you need to help you make the best of your 7 occupations/7 industry analysis in Step 4?
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  6. How helpful are seniors defined generally as students who joined the school a year earlier than your planned admission dates?  If you write to them through the school's admissions office, are they responsive?  Can they provide information about basic living choices - such as apartments in your price range, distance of the closest Indian grocery store/Indian restaurant/temple?
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  7. What kind of an alumni network does the school have?  Can you easily contact alumni?  Does the school have an alumni database that is open to incoming students?  Remember that alumni can be helpful in your internship/job search.
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  8. College Admission Requirements and how well you think you are qualified to get admission.  Most schools list minimum admission criteria on their websites - and if they don't, you can always call the school admissions office to find out.

    The most important criterion is the "Grade Point Average" (GPA) which is a universal American metric to judge performance in your undergraduate years.  Unfortunately, GPA translators don't work well in the Indian context and tend to assess the Indian student's performance as way too low.  For example, a score of 81 on an undergraduate engineering exam in India is considered excellent but translated into an American GPA, this reads a B-, a rather poor score.  One advice we have for students is to describe this anomaly in the Statement of Purpose and have your recommendation letters do this too.

    Others admission requirements include your performance on standardized tests - GMAT, GRE, TOEFL; recommendation letters; essays; statements of purpose; cover letter, extra curricular activities and the overall application.
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  9. How many international students were admitted in the prior year?  How many Indian students?  How many Asian students?  This is important because if you go to a school which admits 400-500 Indian students in your course of study alone, you will be competing with all of them for internships and jobs.  Unless you are confident of coming out at the very top of the class - and you exhibit outstanding marketing skills - you may find it difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition.

    US News reports that at the University of Bridgeport (CT), 94.4% of all engineering students in its Graduate School were international.  Click here for a list of 10 schools for the Fall 2012 semester with extremely high concentrations of international students.  We are not big fans of school rankings but note that four of these schools were ranked in the media outfit's bottom quarter as Rank Not Published (and so are listed alphabetically).  The best ranked school in this list is Northeastern University, ranked 57.  This proves our point that international students often flock to less reputed schools and thereby lower their ROI. 
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  10. Does the school have a career opportunity/placement center?  How much is the school willing to invest to market the school's students to prospective employers? 
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    For example, the University of Texas at Austin has a superb career center.  But the University of Texas at Arlington (also part of the UT system) does not even have a standout website for career opportunities.  The school, we know, has a career center - but the visibility is lacking.  In between these two extremes, Texas Tech's Career Center at Lubbock looks pretty decent.

    Even if you are comfortable with a school's career website, you should talk to the school's career counselor.  Ask the counselor for job placement statistics - how many international students in your field of study had jobs at graduation?  Two months after graduation?  4 months after graduation?  Which companies typically hire international students in your field of study?  Can the counselor reveal contact information of recent international students who obtained jobs through the career center?

    A word of caution here.  Federal law requires schools to offer this data to prospective students but many schools may not be compliant with the law.  Or some may deliberately exaggerate data to make their schools appear more attractive. 
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  11. Quality of education - what are the academic credentials of professors who teach?  What are the professional achievements of these professors?  What industry contacts do these professors have?  Does the school offer teaching assistants to help you complete your coursework? [Most Indian students are interested in asking about teaching/research assistance as a way to support them financially but good TAs can be very helpful if you are taking three tough subjects all at once].  Does the school offer clubs associated with your field so that you have a better chance to network?
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  12. Reputation of the institution.  This is different from school rankings.  Some schools are simply known for how famous they are.  Forbes magazine has attempted to measure reputation by using what it calls the "Postgraduate Success" metric.  While the methodology is used to evaluate 4-year colleges, you could extend this to graduate schools as well.  Forbes looks at the salary of alumni from Payscale.com; listings of alumni in Who's Who in America; and the number of Alumni in the Forbes/CCAP Corporate Officers list.  The idea is that if the school is generally good and reputable, all of these indicators are likely to trend high.
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  13. Local transportation - does the school offer transportation around campus?  This is particularly important for schools in colder regions because Indians will find winter to be extremely difficult to weather.  How difficult/expensive is to park a car on campus?
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  14. Financial Aid - what kind of aid is available to international students?  Tuition Waivers?  Teaching/Research Assistantships?  Campus jobs?  Off-campus employment?  How many hours/week is an international student permitted to work on campus/off-campus?  What about during school breaks (winter, spring, summer)?

    Not everyone is lucky enough to be awarded financial aid and most international graduate students will probably have to pay their own way at least for the first year of studies - in the hope that some form of aid materializes during their second year.  If this is the case, check with your desired college to see if you need to file a statement of financial support.  This may be buried in the forms section of the website.  For a good listing of scholarship opportunities, go to Goodcall.

    If you are self-sponsoring, sign and complete the form along with your bank statement.  If you are funded by multiple sponsors, each sponsor needs to provide this form along with his/her bank statement.  Private funds can be provided by individuals such as the student, friends, or family members. Financial support can come from inside or outside the United States.  US sponsors must be green card holders or US citizens, and must provide their support through form I-134, Affidavit of Support.  This form can be accessed from www.uscis.gov

    All bank statements should adhere to the following general rules:
    1. Be current
    2. Issued no more than 6 months prior to the start date of your college.
    3. Be official; original documents and signatures are required
    4. Be legible
    5. Clearly reflect the account holder’s name, type of account, bank name, branch, and balance.
    6. A statement regarding investments such as stocks, bonds, Provident Fund amounts, and current salary statements are not acceptable.

  15. Demographics - some schools have higher representations of certain ethnic groups - Latino, Black, Asian and other minorities.  This should not ordinarily be of concern to an international student because these ethnic groups increase student diversity and enhance your education experience.  However, if you are sensitive to a particular ethnic group, you could add this consideration to your list. 
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We suggest that you use a Google Spreadsheet to document all of the raw data from the different schools in your list - one tab for each school across the 15 selection factors.

Notice that both Steps 5a and 5b are likely to take a significant amount of time and effort - and requires you to be in the drivers seat.  These steps are not for you to delegate to someone else - even your best friend.  But we are confident that this investment is just a small down payment on your future payoff. 

Did you observe another important fact?  We did not use school rankings at all in Step 5b.  For our view on school rankings, please see Step 2: School Rankings Matter Less Than You Think, So Think Different

As always, we are glad you are here.  Where do you want to go next?
  1. Step 1: Prepare Better. Define Your Brand & Decide What You Want a t
  2. Step 2: School Rankings Matter Less Than You Imagine, So Think Different
  3. Step 3: Choose Your Target States by Better Understanding the US Economy
  4. Step 4: Identify Occupations in Demand and Industries that are Trending Upward
  5. Step 5: Review School Selection Factors, Including Financial Considerations
  6. Step 6: Finalize the List of Schools
  7. Step 7: Finalize your Application

Go back to "Rao Advisors - Home".

A Note About Premium Services

Our promise is to empower you with as much high-quality, ethical and free advice as is possible via this website.  But students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions to complete this and other steps.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors and involves a fee.   Even if you take advantage of our services, you are still ultimately in charge.  This principle is ground in our fundamental belief that you alone should be responsible for the career decisions you make.

We suggest that you review our Note on Premium Services for more information.  Or you may
contact us directly for more information about our Premium offering.

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