When you’re sitting down with your student for that difficult discussion, it can be hard to figure out what your priorities as a parent should be in guiding your student’s college choice. After looking through considerable research and talking to college parents, we believe three things should matter most to parents in choosing a school:

1)   Where will my college student be most successful?

The most important thing a parent can do in helping their student choose a school is guide them toward the best situation for degree completion. Many students don’t graduate–nearly 4 in 10, according to Department of Education statistics. College degrees, it has been proven, pay off financially, as well as in social measures like health and happiness. Students who don’t graduate are four times more likely to default on loans, which can be a horrible stumbling block for children striding into adulthood. Focusing on which quality colleges and universities sport the best four-year graduation rates, along with determining the healthiest social and academic situation for your student, is the best first step in choosing a college.

2)   Of the schools where I think my college student will be successful, which have strong academic reputations and outcomes?

This may seem like a subjective measure, but there are some key factors in helping determine the best outcomes for students in a given academic field or college. Use the following links to guide you:

Academic Rankings: Rakings by US News, Princeton Review, and Forbes are held in high regard.

Program Outcomes: Payscale’s Return on Investment includes a section on majors. This data is extremely useful for seeing which schools fare best by field.

Graduation rates: Compare schools using College-Insight.org

3)   Of the schools that boast strong outcomes for students and where my college student will be successful, which are affordable?

College is likely to be one of the largest short-term investments in a person’s lifetime. With college costs rising precipitously and wages flat for many graduates over the past 50 years, it’s important to make smart decisions about college and debt. Current graduates who borrow are borrowing an average of nearly $30,000, according to the Project on Student Debt, and parent borrowing is rising, too. In general, students should limit loan repayment to under ten percent of projected monthly earnings. Any more than that can be a difficult amount for any student or family to handle.

While it’s likely worth the debt to go to an Ivy League school over a local school with poor career outcomes, choosing a significantly cheaper school that is slightly less prestigious school but has strong graduation rates must be a real consideration for parents and students. However, there are additional considerations. For instance, graduating from a more expensive school in 4-years may be cheaper than finishing a less expensive school in five or six. And, certain degrees are worth more debt than others; upon graduation, engineers project to make far more than most humanities majors. You can project post-graduation salaries by using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Handbook, which might make the discussion of affordability easier to comprehend.  Payscale’s Return on Investment can help in this process, as well.

In all, this is a major discussion with many fine points. On this page is a guide to some of those tougher, more detailed questions. However, the priorities for parents should remain the same: plan to enroll your student in the college of best academic and social fit, provided it also projects to a future of career success and limited debt baggage. Such a decision may be difficult now, but your student will thank you when they don’t have to move back in after college.