If you’re just beginning the college search and application process, the number of things to consider can seem overwhelming: Big school or small? Research university or liberal arts college? Urban or rural? Close to home or far away? As costs have skyrocketed over the past few years, however, college admissions have increasingly come to revolve around one major question: is it affordable?

For students whose families can easily afford a quarter-of-a-million dollars worth of tuition, or for very high achievers whose family incomes are low enough that they qualify for full financial aid at a handful of selective schools, the process is at least somewhat predictable.

However, for families that fall into the infamous “doughnut hole” — ones that make too much to qualify for significant need-based financial aid but too little to comfortably afford full freight at most private schools or out-of-state public schools — things can easily get complicated, and a lot more factors come into play.

If that describes your situation, then this post is for you.

I understand that talking frankly about what is and is not affordable is probably among the least pleasant aspects of the admissions process. But unfortunately, it’s a conversation that is better had earlier in the process than later. There is no sense in touring a dozen schools that are unlikely to offer sufficient aid, and it is not a good idea for a student to risk falling in love with a school that he or she cannot afford to attend.

The first thing you should do is run the Net Price Calculators for the schools you’re interested in. Although some schools may ultimately offer more/less than what is estimated, they should give you a solid sense of how much aid you’re likely to be offered at various places. 

As you get a better sense of the financials, there are some key questions you need to start thinking about:

How do you balance reputation/prestige and affordability?

What sort of merit aid might you/your child qualify for? Do schools have specific score requirements, and how likely are they to be met?

What are your geographical restrictions, and what sort of travel costs can you manage?

There are two things I’d like to point out here: first, it is possible to receive a full-tuition scholarship and still be on the hook for thousands of dollars in fees; and second, any money received from scholarship programs such as National Merit will be factored into your Expected Family Contribution — that is, it will be deducted from your college-provided financial aid (so if a school determines you can pay $25K, and you receive a $2K National Merit Scholarship, your award will be reduced by that amount.)

Beyond this, you need to ask yourself what a school needs to provide in order to justify a particular price tag. There’s really no reason to pay $70K/year to attend NYU just because you’d like to to to school in a big city, when you can easily get just as good an academic experience as, say, an in-state student at UCLA or UT Austin for half that price. If your goal is really to live in New York, that’s something you can do after college, when you’re making your own money. It’s probably not worth taking out six figures in loans just for the sake of getting to live in Greenwich Village. (I’m using NYU as an example because it’s notorious for being stingy with financial aid: the $70K price tag often means just that.)

On the other hand, if a dream school is only a moderate financial reach, things can get a lot fuzzier. At that point, you need to consider the trade-offs. Is attending a matter of sacrificing a couple of vacations? A car? Retirement savings? Are there siblings whose college tuition will need to be paid for in a couple of years as well? Is graduate/professional school a likely possibility, and what sort of costs will that likely entail? What are the job prospects for your intended major? What sort of job placement records do the schools you’re considering have, and how well known are they in various industries?

If you want to major in something like Engineering or Compute Science, the program will probably count more than the school itself. Provided you do well, you’ll probably have pretty decent prospects, regardless of whether you go to MIT or Purdue or the University of Illinois.

For a Humanities or Social Science major, on the other hand, shelling out a little more to attend a top-flight school might paradoxically be worth it. Despite all the rhetoric about English majors only being qualified to serve coffee at Starbucks, the reality is that an English major from Princeton has a realistic chance of getting recruited by Wall Street out of college, whereas an English major from Rutgers does not. But if you’re deciding between, say, Pitt and Northwestern, the difference isn’t so clear.

Obviously, there are a lot of factors to consider. But you have to figure out what’s affordable, what’s a financial stretch worth making, and where the line gets drawn — and it is much, much easier to draw lines before all of the school tours and applications, when the possibilities are only theoretical, than when you or your child is actually sitting with an acceptance to a dream school in hand, so caught up in the excitement of getting in, that the consequences of paying $15K-20/year beyond what’s really affordable or of taking out an extra $50K in loans don’t fully register. 

Besides, allowing your child to apply to schools you know are likely to be unaffordable is unfair to many people, on multiple levels:

It is unfair dangle the possibility of something so desirable, knowing that it will probably end up being off-limits.

It is unfair to admissions committees, who must then spend time reading — and perhaps debating — the application of someone who has no intention of enrolling, when they are already stretched so thin.

It is unfair to students who may be passed over, but who would actually attend if accepted.

In addition, application inflation bloats the system and only increases the hysteria surrounding the admissions process, driving down acceptance numbers, making yield rates less predictable, and prompting more students to submit even more applications to more schools during the next round.

So for the sake of everyone involved, please, take the time to think things through, have a serious discussion about what you can and cannot manage, and consider what the long-term consequences of your decisions might be. When I signed my own loan notices during the first week of college, I had only the faintest understanding of what they meant. I was lucky enough to be receiving mostly grants, but at 18, I didn’t really grasp what it meant to graduate with debt or how that could affect things down the road. That’s not a situation I would wish on anyone else. Even if heading it off might cause some short-term friction, it’s more than worth it in the long run.