Use a Decision Matrix to Compare Admissions Offers

on March 20, 2017

Choosing among two or more colleges can be challenging. You might find yourself flipping from one college to the next because each is the best college according to different criteria. A decision matrix is a useful tool for comparing colleges. It can clarify your thinking by presenting all of the important criteria on a single page.


Create a decision matrix by listing each college across the top of the decision matrix with one column per college and by listing the criteria in the rows.


The criteria can include reasons to attend each college as well as reasons to not attend each college. Use criteria that are important to you. Include at least one row for college affordability, such as the net price. The net price is the discounted sticker price, after subtracting grants, scholarships and other forms of gift aid. Also include rows that focus on outcomes, such as graduation rates, average debt at graduation, student loan default rates and average income after graduation. Some of this information is available from the College Scorecard.


If money is a big factor in your decision making, then you should eliminate any college which you can’t afford. If one college has a much lower net price than the others, but you prefer a different college based on the non-financial criteria, ask the college for more financial aid. Tell them they are your first choice, but you can’t afford them with the current financial aid offer. Tell them about any special circumstances that affect your ability to pay. Ask them if there's anything they can do to bridge the difference in cost. They might not match the cheaper college’s offer, but what do you have to lose?


Even if your first-choice college is more expensive, consider also your income after graduation. If your first-choice college also yields a higher after-tax income, calculate the payback period. How long will it take for the increase in income to cover the difference in student loan debt?


For each criterion, identify just one college as the winner. If a criterion does not distinguish the colleges, remove the row from the decision matrix, as it does not affect your decision. Count the number of wins and losses for each college.


If two colleges are tied for first with the same number of wins and losses, it doesn’t matter much how you break the tie. It could be with a coin toss. Or choose the college with the lower net price or better location or climate. You also could identify the most important criteria on focus on them for breaking any ties.


A decision matrix fits the most important information that will influence your decision on a single sheet of paper.  It helps you see all the differences at a glance, so you don't go round and round in circles. It should help you crystallize your decision. If it doesn't, then it probably doesn't matter where you go. 

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