PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 178 | The 6 Categories Of Colleges

Learn about the 6 types of colleges and universities, how much they cost, who gets in, and how to prepare yourself to get to the one of your choice

Show Notes:

In this episode, I walk through the 6 most common categories of undergraduate colleges and universities. Here they are:

  1. community college
  2. average, state college/university
  3. highly-acclaimed state college/university
  4. average, private, liberal arts college/university
  5. highly-acclaimed private, liberal arts college/university
  6. most prestigious private, liberal arts college/university

I address the types of schools that fall into each category, how much they cost, who gets in, how they get in, and general pros and cons.

If you are curious about where your child might fit in on this continuum, give this episode a listen.

Show Transcript:

[00:00:25] Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. In today's episode, I want to walk through the six categories of colleges out there, starting from the public community colleges all the way through the ultra selective private liberal arts colleges. And I want to touch on how much they each cost. What types of students typically end up in each category, and why? How preparation or lack thereof may influence which category you may end up in or your son or daughter may end up in, and some of the pros and cons along the way. So it might be interesting to see which of these categories you see yourself falling into or which of these categories you see your child falling into. The goal is to give you a macro level understanding of the options out there. So you go into this process with eyes wide open. Most parents and students don't fully appreciate these distinctions, whether admissions related or finance related, until early in their senior year, which, as you can imagine, is a bit too late. You want to be aware of this overview while your child is in eighth or ninth grade. Let's start with category one. Local community colleges. This would be a school like Miramar College here in San Diego. The cost somewhere between ten and $20,000 a year. Community colleges are one of the most affordable options. You can save a ton of money going to a community college over a four year college, especially if you live at home.

[00:02:09] The costs at a community college are going to vary based on your housing, essentially. Now, sometimes, unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to going to a community college, as if you weren't somehow good enough to go to a quote unquote, real four year college. Thankfully, this notion has been changing over the last few years and will hopefully go away entirely sometime very soon. Because right off the bat, who cares about what they think? The amorphous all knowing they. Is it really worth pushing yourself into a four year college and force feeding yourself tens of thousands of dollars in student debt? Just so that quote unquote, they don't look down their nose at you? I don't think so. And by the way, your friends will still be your friends no matter where you go to school. So who cares about the nameless, faceless people who think community college is not the move? And also anyone shallow enough not to appreciate the value of community college today will have already forgotten about where you're going within 48 hours of hearing about it. And by the way, just as a general rule, no one really cares all that much about where you going to college. I know it might feel that way for a few months in your senior year, but they really don't care that much. They're much more worried about themselves. Community college might be the best way to ease into the college scene. If you didn't take the college admissions process all that seriously over the last few years, it can be a great entry point. While you're at community college, you can take the general ed credits just as you would at nearly every other college. And oftentimes after two years, there's a direct pathway to a four year college.

[00:04:04] If you're interested in finishing out a four year college community, college might be good for students who haven't taken high school as seriously as their peers. Maybe they've underperformed compared to their potential. Maybe they still have a lot of gas in the tank, but they need a little more time to get their lives organized. And while this might not match every single student's dream of what college life might be like right out of high school, it does serve a strategic purpose. And a lot more students should be considering it. With all of that said, does the community college path seem fitting for you or for your child? Category number two your average state or public college or university? Penn State might be a good example of this. These types of colleges are going to cost between 30 and $50,000 a year. And much of that difference is based on whether or not you live in the state where the school is. So the interstate in would typically be on the lower end, the $30,000 a year. The out-of-state cost of attendance would be more on the $50,000 side a year. So at the upper end, that's almost $6,000 a month during the school year to go to an out-of-state public college or university. Now, parents out there might be scratching their head trying to figure out where that $8,000 a month of pretax income is coming from to pay for that type of college. We'll leave that for a different a different episode. This is the path for your typical high school student who did slightly above average in high school. I'm talking a few A's, mostly B's, maybe a C or two. But never took it seriously enough to really reach their potential. Most of these students had a lot more gas in their tank.

[00:06:02] But between their phones and video games and girlfriends and boyfriends and their part time job. College was almost an afterthought, or the admissions process was way more competitive than they thought. They were relatively active in sports during high school clubs. Yearbook. They did a few volunteer activities, but they never really took the bull by the horns and took leadership roles. They would reliably be found at pep rallies, football games, school dances. But they never really took the college prep routine all that seriously. They never really took the S.A.T. or the ACT test seriously. Either they didn't study for it or they said they would study for it, but they didn't or they didn't take it at all because they heard it was test optional three years ago. Many of these students assumed that they would go to college, and they were probably shocked when they realized how competitive it was. And they decided to just ride it out as your average Joe. Your average Jane. These are students who go to the rah rah sports oriented 40,000 student undergraduate school like Penn State. They find a group of friends and they're off to the races. They didn't put much thought, or if they did, it was very late in the game into where they might want to go to college, where they might get in, what to major in, what their long term career interest may lead them. None of that was a big priority during their high school. But they did do well enough to avoid having to go to community college as if there's something wrong with that. And they did do well enough to get into a state college or university and earn the right to pay 30 to $50000 per year, where many of them would go and blend into the surroundings.

[00:08:01] So do you or does your child fit the mold of these types of students who go to big state colleges? Category number three, highly acclaimed state or public college or universities. We often call these flagship colleges. This is would be a place like Berkeley or UVA. University of Virginia. These schools will cost. Between 50,000 and $70,000 a year. Again, based on where you live, the in-state cost of attendance would be on the $50,000 a year side. If you're coming from out of state to go to UVA, it's going to be about $70,000 a year. That's about $8,000 a month during the school year. These schools are for students who knew relatively early that the college admissions process was a thing and they tried to perform well. They actually did well in school. They got mostly A's, probably a few B's, no C's. And most parents would assume that their child was absolutely crushing high school, so they didn't care to ask a lot of questions. The students took some rigorous classes, a few AP classes, maybe an honors class here. There not as many as some. But they were really proud of the fact that they took a few AP classes and a few honors classes. As were their parents. But they never really knew how competitive it would be in the end. Most of these students don't have anything like PrepWell Academy to teach them along the way what the expectations would be like in the future, and what other highly motivated teams were doing out there to position themselves for success. They just bobbed along on their merry way, hoping for the best. In fact, many of them thought that they were at the top of the food chain academically until the SAT or ACT scores came back and they didn't quite match up with their super motivated and hardworking peers who had prepared for this test for months.

[00:10:16] And had worked with PrepWell Academy to come up with a plan to figure out which test was better for them and a study strategy to maximize their preparation. They just didn't have PrepWell Academy or they had it and chose to ignore it. And that was quite an eye opener for them. And a gut check, these satna differentials. And it generates questions like, Holy crap, what have I done? Or more likely, what have I not done? How am I already so far behind these other kids? And of course, that never feels good. This comparison. They probably had dreams of going to a private liberal arts college, ideally an Ivy League school, but in their heart of hearts they knew that they wouldn't be quite competitive enough and or they didn't want to put in the work to be competitive at the most selective schools and or they had no idea about how competitive it would be because they had no one to guide them. And or to be generous. They wanted to stay close to home and they knew they'd have a better chance of getting into a state school. And they had a sneaking suspicion that a state school would be cheaper than a private liberal arts school or an out of state public school. So they ended up at their local state school. Does this describe you or your child? All right. Now we're going to move on to Category four. Average private. Liberal arts schools. I'm thinking Pepperdine and Santa Clara here in California. These types of colleges cost 50 to $80000 a year. And unlike state schools, this cost of attendance has nothing to do with what state you come from, but rather how much prestige and leverage these schools have in charging what some consider exorbitant prices.

[00:12:18] Or in Pepper Dean's case, being located on the cliffs of Malibu. That gives them the ability to charge a premium of 20 or $30,000 a year. These schools are for students who probably think of themselves as quote unquote, better than someone who just goes to a state school, even a flagship state school. Not in a mean way, but just in the way that they imagine their college experience. They probably come from a slightly more affluent area of the country. Their parents probably went to similar types of schools. And they've envisioned themselves in this type of milieu. They consider these schools ivy adjacent and they like the fact that it feels a little bit more exclusive compared to their public school counterparts. They don't have any idea how much a college like this costs, especially compared to the state equivalent college. They never asked and their parents don't want to make them feel bad about the difference in cost so they don't bring it up. They typically did above average in high school compared to their peers, probably mostly A's, but nowhere near what the top performers do who are really going for it. They took a handful of AP classes. They worked really hard. Relatively speaking. They studied for an AP exam or two for a few weeks. And they probably got a three or four on them out of a scale of five, which is passing. They started their SAT and ACT prep a little bit late. But they typically make up for it by taking practice exams on the weekends a few weeks before the real thing. They realized that this was an important exam and they began to take steps to perform well on them. But given their latest to the game, they will probably be capped on how well they would do on these exams.

[00:14:18] These students are not quite sure what they want to study because they haven't thought much about it. They haven't been prompted by PrepWell Academy or me to think about such things. But my guess is that it will be something like STEM psychology, criminal justice or marine biology. Just a hunch. Does this describe you or your child? Category number five Highly acclaimed private liberal arts colleges. Here. I'm talking about places like University of Chicago or Bowdoin up in Maine. These schools cost between 80 and $90,000 a year. All in. That's $10,000 a month for the time they're in school. This is for the student who was really going for it right out of the gate. They have their eyes on the prize, which is probably an Ivy League school. Whether it's justified or not. Most motivated high school students use the Ivy League as their starting point for where they want to go. Now they can probably only name three or four of the Ivies and they couldn't name what states they were in, but they know enough to know that this is what they should be shooting for. So they think. For this reason, they are academically motivated from a young age. They take the most rigorous classes and they perform well on them. They get all A's and they assume that this is going to put them on the Harvard track. Some might even be on track for valedictorian status. They don't need their parents breathing down their necks every minute of the day. Most of them are self-motivated and do hard work without the threat of taking away their phones or their video games. They take leadership roles in clubs, they start student activist organizations, they coordinate Earth Day walkouts, they show up to student government policy debates with the faculty.

[00:16:26] They're very engaged in what's going on. Many of them will also find time to play the piano, work a part time job, play club soccer, write code for the robotics club, sing in the church choir, build their own computers. You name it, and they do it. By all accounts, these students are crushing it. They are devoted PrepWellers who actually watch and listen to my advice every week. They have on the ball parents who are involved in the process. They often set up one on one sessions with me to ensure that they're on track. And some of them even become my private students. They've been academically inclined for many years. And the idea of studying early for the SAT or ACT doesn't make them recoil in horror at the very suggestion. Rather, they're quite open to early study and preparation, and many think that they're behind the eight ball when they start studying for these tests as sophomores. They don't shy away from AP exams. They realize that they need these objective measures to make their case with the admissions officers. In the big scheme of things, these students have done everything right. Except for the fact that they didn't get into their Ivy League school that they wanted to. And they were hoping for planning for praying for. Other than that small detail which we as parents know won't be the be all and end all. They have essentially run the table and they will be great successes in college and their careers and beyond. The reason they didn't get into an Ivy League school or their top choice if they had to settle for their second choice is probably because they were in an overrepresented group, meaning they came from a group that included lots of other highly qualified students in the same boat.

[00:18:23] This includes students who can't claim to bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the campus. Students who come from fancy private schools where 80% of the senior class applies to the same school. Students who come from cities overflowing with qualified applicants like Massachusetts, New York. New Jersey. California. Northern Virginia, D.C.. They include students who are great athletes but not recruited athletes. They include girls who wanted to study psychology. Take a number. Boys who wanted to study economics. Get in line. And the list goes on and on and on. They were exceptional students, citizens and scholars. But there were just too many students that looked too similar to them. Or they didn't submit an application that highlighted well. The few distinctions that really matter to the school. Maybe their essays weren't exceptional or their letters of recommendation were so-so, or they bombed an alumni interview. The stakes at these schools are very high, and the differentials among students are razor thin. And if the student didn't have something like PrepWell Academy or someone like me to walk them through in detail how to master each of these tasks. They may have left something on the table. Does this describe you or your child? Category number six, the final category. The most prestigious private liberal arts colleges we're talking to Yale's the Princeton's the MIT ts of the world. Here, the total cost of attendance is roughly 90 to $100000 a year. That's $12,000 a month that they're in school. These students have profiles similar to the Category five students that I just talked about who went to the highly acclaimed private liberal arts colleges who took high school very seriously. They put in the work, they crushed the S.A.T., they maxed out their AP exams. They did interesting work over the summer.

[00:20:45] They thought about what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had compelling stories about why they wanted to major in religious studies. But who did get into the Ivies, in the near Ivies and who were fulfilling their destiny, if you will. These are the students who came up with a plan in eighth grade, ninth grade, 10th grade, as is laid out in detail in prep academy, that put them on the path to be just that little bit different. They thought ahead of time about what they should do for their extra curricular activities, what they should do over the summer, which test to take S.A.T. or A.C.T.. Which classes to take and in what order. And what they could do to position themselves to cut through the clutter. They were exceptional students. Leaders. Citizens. Test takers. Athletes. They became the supposed movers and shakers of their generation, and they got one of the few hundred spots available at the most prestigious schools out there. So how did they get in? More than likely they had one or more of these traits going for them. Number one, they could claim that they bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the school. Probably the most potent weapon to wield in admissions these days. This includes underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ plus I a first gen students Pell Grant recipients underrepresented geographic areas. Maybe they were recruited athletes, another straight shot through admissions if a coach really wants you. Maybe they were a development case because they had a parent who donated $30 million to erect a new STEM building. Maybe they were a child of a faculty member that the school didn't want to lose. Maybe they expressed interest in a major that had to be filled in a certain year.

[00:22:49] Or maybe they were the child of an influential alum, a movie star, a head of state. Or other politically powerful person who would bring some attention to the school. With only maybe a thousand or 2000 spots per school per year at the most selective schools and 2 million high school graduates every year. The odds are not good by the numbers alone. But then you add all these other factors and institutional priorities and stakeholders and politics. And students who take courses like PrepWell Academy seriously. And the competition is rough. Does this sound like you or does this sound like your child? Well, that wraps up the six standard categories of colleges and universities. I'd like to touch on the two other nonstandard paths just to make sure that you're aware of all the things that are out there, all the opportunities that are out there. Those would be service academies and ROTC scholarships. There are five service academies. You probably know them as the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, West Point Coast Guard Academy, and the Merchant Marine Academy. Cost $0. Everyone who attends a service academy is on a full scholarship that covers everything. In fact, midshipmen and cadets actually get paid a few hundred dollars a month while they attend their service academies. Students who are attracted to these opportunities and present well for these opportunities and have the best chances of getting admitted are again D-I applicants. Recruited athletes. As well as students who can show across the board excellence in academics, athletics and leadership. And the same goes for Navy, Army and Air Force ROTC scholarships. The total cost of attendance with an ROTC scholarship to a wide range of traditional colleges will probably range between $5,000 and $15,000 a year, depending on the type of ROTC scholarship you get.

[00:25:01] The Navy happens to be the most generous. They pay for 100% of tuition, which can be $80,000 a year at some colleges, like at Yale, where two of my sons go, the Air Force can be less generous. One of their scholarships is capped at $18,000 a year. So it depends on the type of scholarship. It depends on on the branch of military where you get that ROTC scholarship. Obviously, both of these programs can save a family hundreds of thousands of dollars. In my case, our family is saving over $1,000,000 in tuition, room, board, etc. across 12 years of college. Now. With respect to the range of the costs of attendance that I offered in those top six categories, let me offer a few caveats. These were all approximations of total cost of attendance. That's all in tuition, room, board, travel, books with no financial aid and no merit aid of any kind. This is what we call full payer status. And colleges love full pares. That means they pay the full freight with no discounts at all. If you receive need based financial aid or merit money, also known as academic aid, some of these costs may go down. That's why people say be careful of the sticker shock. It's never going to be that much money. Well, it depends. I always like starting at the worst case scenario, especially since so few people I work with are eligible for appreciable need based financial aid or the schools that they're applying to. Don't offer that much need based financial aid and or many of the schools don't offer any merit aid at all. So why not start with the worst case scenario and then look for ways to get the cost down? Just as a reminder, merit aid usually comes in the form of a tuition rebate.

[00:27:08] For example, a $20,000 rebate on tuition. So now tuition is $40,000 instead of $60,000. These merit scholarships usually come from schools slightly below the highest tier schools academically, and they're used to lure you away from the top tier schools. For example, Fordham might offer a student a $25,000 tuition rebate to try to lure them away from Cornell, where they would pay full freight. So who has the best chances and the worse chances of getting into the most selective colleges these days? I've said it many times the applicants with the best chances of getting admitted to the most selective colleges and universities are. D-I students, diversity, equity and inclusion applicants. We all know who they are and recruited athletes. For these groups. It's a one way ticket. Students with the worst. Chances are those who are overrepresented in their race, ethnicity, geography, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation intended major. Or career interest. If you look like a lot of other people, it will be harder to differentiate yourself and it will be harder for the schools to justify bringing you on to their campus. I spend a lot of time inside PrepWell Academy doling out this information at just the right times because so many students and parents are not engaged at all until junior or senior year, at which point their options dry up quickly. And with the cost of college the way it is, no matter which way you turn, it's a tough pill to swallow when you feel like you're backing into a state school without a lot of momentum or enthusiasm and paying $60,000 a year for the privilege. So the moral of the story is start paying attention. One way to pay attention is to stay informed as early as possible.

[00:29:21] That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. Case you didn't know this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges and service academies and for ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in Prep Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or a sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind. Go to and enroll today. If you know a parent with a middle schooler or high schooler that might find this helpful, please share the episode with them and give us a rating. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a much wider audience. If you have questions, comments or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email, DM or Instagram. Check out our blog or our Facebook page. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I would love to hear from you. Until next week, Goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing. This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your ninth or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact, where I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game to get these valuable lessons into your child's hands.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.

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