In an effort to share my 20 years of experience working in higher education, specifically in the area of financial aid with the hundreds of people wandering here from other places in the blogosphere, I will write my timely recommendations for picking a college and trying to pay for it.
First of all, should everyone go to college? No. My boss, sitting in her senior management team meeting probably just had a cold shiver run down her spine as I wrote that. I feel there are people who will most certainly benefit from college, and then there are people who simply won't. Those people could be like Bill Gates, who had a vision and motivation and drive to create something that made things like writing this blog possible, but they may also be people like the people who prepare my food at my favorite local restaurant. A traditional college education is not necessary to be a good cook or chef. Experience is critical, but college not so much. So step one: have a basic understanding of yourself as a student, as a person, and while there is no telling what you may do with your life, having a basic goal isn't a bad idea. I knew before college I wanted work with people. I thought I wanted to be a therapist. I was WRONG. But I did end up in a career where I counsel people regularly, just not about their mommy issues.
Secondly, should you apply to more than one college for admission: YES. I can't recommend appling to 12 colleges, but 3 is a good start.
Don't limit your applications because of price. If the school offers the program you want, or has the reputation you like, whatever catches your attention, apply.
That being said, once you apply for admission, apply for financial aid. Pay attention to all deadlines, read EVERYTHING they have to say about how to get scholarships, grants and other aid. DO the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I don't care if your dad is Daddy Warbucks. Do the FAFSA. If the school requires it, do their institutional aid application or the CSS Profile form. Pay attention to everything they mail to you or email to you.
Quick hint: If you do the FAFSA online, and pretty much everyone does, and you put your email address on it, they will email the results to you. For reasons I cannot fathom, many email services dump emails from the department of education into the junk or spam mail boxes. They also do it with mail from .edu accounts, which is what most colleges' email addresses end with. Check your spam or junk mail regularly.
Another quick hint: If your email address is something like email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org create a new account for purposes of emailing colleges. One that has your name in it is GREAT, like email@example.com. You really don't get a second chance to make a first impression. And those other email accounts, well, we MOCK them. Think about who is reading your applications, who is evaluating you for admission to the college and what impression you would like them to have of you. Party animal and sex god/goddess is NOT the impression you want them to have. I guarantee it. And when you email the admissons office or financial aid office, don't write the email like you are chatting or IMing with your buds. Write Dear so and so...my name is ____ and thank you for your time. Sincerely, so and so. Especially if your email address does not in any way identify who you are. We are NOT psychic, and we are not going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who firstname.lastname@example.org is.
Once you have completed your applications for admission and financial aid, you will begin receiving acceptance/denial letters and aid packages. If you get accepted, HUZZAH. If you get denied, it is not the end of the world. That is why you should apply to more than one college. You are able to be happy and succeed at a number of colleges.
When you begin getting aid packages, don't be afraid to ask questions. Be polite, but don't hesitate to call. Do your research. Use sites like www.finaid.org and www.fastweb.com to do scholarship searches.
When it comes time to make a choice as to where you will go, you should consider these things: Size - do you like that it is small, large, medium sized. Location: close to or far from home, near a city, in the country. Program: does it offer what you want to study? If you want biology go to a school that offers biology. Don't go to an art school. Socio/economic fit: are you going to be comfortable with the students who attend there. Do they have the extracurricular activities you like, or new ones you might try? Cost: ultimately, you need to be able to pay for college. You need to know what your family can afford to pay, or can finance. You need to know if you are going to borrow on loans how much that will mean you will have in debt when you are done. You need to be realistic. Maybe going to your dream college isn't the right thing to do right away. Is the local 2 year or state college a better choice for a year or two, then you can transfer?
This is your education, your life. You need to be responsible for the choices you make. Don't set yourself up for failure, and be willing to do the work to make it work.