A Prioritized Pursuit

A Prioritized Pursuit


Rank: Priority of Priorities 

In another posting related to a Chart, I encouraged you to look into colleges with monetary costs as a secondary consideration. That might sound funny coming from a blog dealing with keeping college affordable.

But remember, while you can get anything in life you want, you can’t have it all. Prioritization must be your first priority. Before we get into the actual dollar cost aspects of affordology, let’s firstly address the opportunity cost considerations. Even a cheap experience (money-wise) at the wrong place may prove unaffordable (opportunity-wise). Besides, as we’ve noted, costs are highly negotiable while the other aspects of an experience at a particular college are relatively fixed.

Before you explore the monetary costs of college, you have to know what it is you want to buy. In other words, what do you hope to gain in return for the expenditure of your time, effort and money over the next three to six years? Then, with this answer in mind, it would make sense to look for colleges that fit the bill. Here’s how:

Exercise #1: Make a List 

First, list all of the experiences, offerings, or accomplishments you want your dollars to provide you wherever you land. Brainstorm and generate a list of at least 10 items, not judging for relative merit at this point. There’s no wrong answers. We just want material to work with. Here are some ideas to get you started:


  • education    •    knowledge    •    networking    •    real world skills    •    a degree    •   resumé padding    •    career specialization    •    qualification for jobs in general    •    access to facilities    •  participation in athletics    •    ability to watch athletics    •    prominent faculty    •    student/faculty interaction    •    co-ed interactions •    lifelong friendships    •    participation in a specialized program of interest    •    fun times    •    cultural experiences    •    increased earnings power    •    alleviation of peer/parental pressure    •    well-roundedness    • time to think  •    exposure to the wide world of ideas    •    a place to land when I leave home •    ways to “find myself”    •    confidence boost    •    particular spiritual environment •   status    •    socialization    •    spacious dorms    •    good cafeteria food

Exercise #2: Explain Yourself 

Now look at your list. See any generalities? If so, break them down more specifically. For instance, if you said socialization, write a one- or two-word explanation of what you mean. If your idea of quality interaction involves donning a frock and a doily hat, going to the college chapel, plopping down in a pew on the guys or gals side of the aisle, and chanting 16th century eulogies with other students, write next to the word socialization “chapels and chanting”. On the other hand, if it is café-hopping in an urban environment to discuss existential philosophies with the dreadlock and patchouli crowd while cranked up on lattes, put down on your paper “caffeinated trustafarians”. Likewise, if you said facilities, specify: are we talking athletic, laboratory, recreational, library, technical, fine arts, or ________?

Then find a supply of sticky notes, index cards, or paper strips. Write one item from your master list onto each, bullet-point style.

Exercise #3: Stick and Sort 

Now it’s time to filter your values by Rank. No single institution or program will possibly meet all of your criteria to your complete satisfaction. So you need to rank your options from what you will not give up for anything to what you wouldn’t miss if you missed it.

When I work with clients on the prioritization of multiple items, I like to make use of a blank wall or whiteboard. Using a bare space on a floor can work just fine, too, if you can do so undisturbed for a time. Just find someplace where you can spread out a bit.

Now hang up or spread out your notes. Next, sort and re-sort the mess until you have everything ordered, left to right, from most important to least. It should look something like this:

Sticky note sort

Lastly, take a picture of or write down your sequence, making particular note of your top 10 criterion. You have now some criteria to judge potential schools (and alternatives to school) by. With this in mind you can make judicious use of the various online filters and ratings services to winnow away 90% of the institutions that shouldn’t demand your attention, while simultaneously gaining exposure to those that would tickle your fancy. Now, as a secondary consideration you can comparison shop by price and/or employ various strategies to bring the costs into bearable territory.