College Rankings: What They Really Mean

From US News to the Princeton Review, there are hundreds of different college rankings based on hundreds of different factors. They all seek to answer the age-old question: is one college better than another? It seems like a clear cut question, but what does it even mean for one school to be better than the next? How do you know what components they use in their rankings and if they line up with your preferences? And how can you even compare a small, private liberal arts college in a rural area, to a big public university in the middle of a city? Here, we will unpack what actually goes into college rankings, what they mean, and how they can guide your college decisions.

How do they work?

To make a college ranking, organizations assemble data on the many different aspects of each school. These facets may include average class size, average GPA, graduation rate, or financial resources. All of these data are then fed into a weighing system that averages the score of each category (Academic Reputation, Financial Resources, etc), and analyzes the importance of each division. For example, US News weights Academic Reputation at 22.5%.

The most important thing to remember is that each college ranking uses a different rating system. For example, US News does not take the cost of tuition into its ranking at all, which may not be very helpful if you’re looking for more affordable college options. Each ranking uses different data and weighs things differently, so it’s important to know what goes into a college ranking when you use one.

One more thing to remember: college rankings try to compare colleges that may be extremely different from one another. Two similarly ranked colleges provide different experiences, and it’s important to remember this when examining them. Also, remember that a higher college ranking does not mean a college is better. It just means that a college scores higher in that particular rating system.

Tips for Using College Rankings

Don’t rely on the rankings

No college ranking should determine your college decisions. They serve as a useful tool, but your final decision should come down to reasons beyond the rating, such as campus life, location, and academic profile. Be careful of relying too much on the rankings!

Use them as a starting point

While college rankings shouldn’t have the final say in your decision, they can be a great starting point in finding the school that’s right for you. If you already have some schools you like, you can look at rankings to find similarly ranked schools that may interest you. Also, many ranking websites have tons of helpful information on all the universities, such as average class size, student population, and average salary after graduation.

Don’t try to compare extremely different colleges

College rankings can give the illusion of being able to compare very different college experiences. For example, a small private liberal arts school may rank similarly to a large public university. Though they are ranked the same, the colleges offer contrasting experiences. You should look carefully at the type of college experience offered, rather than just its rating.

Look at specific rankings

By looking at rankings based on a specific major or certain type of school, you can compare colleges in areas that matter to you. If you know which factors that are most important in your college decision, you can look for rankings based on those. Some examples: rankings by major, by type of institution (public, private), and by affordability.

Be aware of the rating system

Finally, make sure you look at how each agency creates its rankings. The data should be listed on its website, including the process and how the rankings are weighed. This will help you better understand what the rankings actually reflect, and whether they measure the things that matter to you.

Rankings are a good place to start your college exploration journey, but be sure to focus on fit when searching for your dream college. We can help! Download Encourage to get your college matches today!

Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)

What are Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI)?

Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) are colleges with greater than 25% of their undergraduate enrollment identifying as Hispanic or Latinx. This designation makes HSIs eligible for government funding which provides students with resources for student success.

Dating back to the 1980’s, Hispanic Serving Institutions have a long history in educational achievement. The effort was first recognized when institutions in Texas and New Mexico started enrolling a large number of students who identify as Hispanic or Latinx. In 1986, the foundation, (HACU) Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, led the movement to coin the term HSI as an institution accredited to helping achieve higher education for Hispanic and Latinx students. Congress finally recognized the efforts in 1992 and created federal operations to instill funding for universities that serve this purpose.

What do Hispanic Serving Institutions offer?

A Diverse Environment

HSI provides an environment where students from all backgrounds can thrive. HSI communities are determined to protect the rights and ensure that all students receive the same quality education.

Student Support Services

HSI implement an array of services related to financial and career development, academic help, and personal support to help their students succeed and prosper in an academic environment.

Faculty and Curriculum Development

Hispanic serving institutions distribute support in areas of curriculum development to improve the learning environment for Hispanic and Latinx students.

Which HSI is right for you?

According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, an HSI receives federal funding if it fulfills certain qualifications. It as to be a non-profit university and offer a degree program that consists of at-least two years. It must be an accredited institution by the Department of Education, account for students that need assistance through HSI programs, and have an enrollment of at least 25% Hispanic and Latinx population.

Since students might also apply to a HSI based off available assistance resources, it’s important to note that not all HSI’s have the same offerings. A Hispanic Serving Institution receives federal funding by applying for certain grants that serve the student population best. Since there are quite a few of federal grant opportunities, universities usually only apply for two or three to help in the specific areas of interest that need assistance. It’s important to research which programs at the university are available for the students before making a final decision.

Where to find a HSI?

There are currently over 250 accredited schools in 20 different states that have been designated as an HSI. The trick is to find one that’s right for you in a location that you desire. For more information, check out this list of Hispanic Serving Institutions.

What You Should Know About the ACT

Knowing what to expect on the ACT can do wonders for your  focus on the day of the exam. Read on to learn more about the ACT test, and how you can best prepare.

How do I register for the ACT?

You can register on First, create a free online account. Regular registration typically ends 5 weeks before a test date, so be sure to register well in advance to avoid late fees!

What do I need to register?

  • 40ish minutes
  • Desktop or laptop computer, mobile devices not recommended
  • Credit card or fee waiver
  • Information on your high school courses
  • Headshot photo

When should I take the ACT?

To find the ideal time frame for you, plan ahead and assess your unique situation. The estimated time you should spend studying for your first ACT is around 100 hours. You also want to allow yourself the possibility for 2-4 attempts before submitting your applications.

Have you taken Algebra II, Geometry, or Trigonometry? Have you taken three years of science with one of those being physical science? These are concepts tested on the ACT, so it’s helpful to have exposure to them.

What else do you have going on in your life? If possible, schedule your ACT when your course load is lighter. There are 7 test dates per school year, so you have some options!

How many times should I take the ACT?

ACT limits the fun to 12 attempts within your lifetime. If you are part of a program that takes the ACT in middle school this is included in that count as well. You should plan to take the test at least twice with the ability to take it a 3rd of 4th time if absolutely necessary to maximize your chance at earning a high score. Some schools will accept your “super score” which is your best score in each section across test dates. Others may require you to send all scores from all dates, so make the most of each test date.

How much does the ACT cost?

The cost for taking the ACT changes year to year, so visit their website for updated information on pricing. Take a look at the fee waiver requirements here to see if you qualify.

What is on the ACT?


The English portion of the exam tests grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and rhetorical skills.


The math section tests aptitude in Algebra II, Geometry, and some Trigonometry.


The reading section focuses on comprehension. You may find yourself reading passages in the following subject areas: social studies, natural sciences, literary narrative or prose fiction, and humanities.


The science section measures your interpretation, analysis, evaluation, reasoning, and problem-solving skills required in biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics.


This section is optional, and if you do decide to take it, note that there is an additional cost. Although it is optional, some colleges require to it. For this reason, it’s important to check the requirements of the schools you wish to attend. We recommend registering for this section just to be safe.

What is the ACT score range?

The ACT scores range from 1-36. For each section, the number of correct answers will be converted to a score within that range. The composite score for the ACT is an average of your scores on the four required subjects. The writing test is scored by two graders on a scale of 1-6, for a maximum possible score of 12.

How can I prep for the ACT?

ACT offers free test prep via ACT Academy. On ACT Academy, you will find ACT practice tests, educational games, videos, and personalized study plans. These plans are based on your results from the PreACT, past ACT scores, and ACT practice tests and exercises you’ve completed.

For the most up-to-date ACT information, please visit the ACT website. Good luck!

What is in a College Financial Aid Package?

Unsurprising for many students, the financial aid package is a huge factor in determining which college they’ll attend. Every college creates their financial aid packages differently, but the types of awards you see are similar. Understanding the awards is crucial to evaluating who is providing the best aid.

Let’s start with a quick vocab lesson. The three important terms to know: the Cost of Attendance (COA), Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and need.

The Cost of Attendance typically includes your estimated tuition and fees (generally based on full-time enrollment). It also estimates the following: room and board, transportation, books, and other miscellaneous costs. Pay close attention to each college’s estimated COA because some may include more factors than others.  

Your Expected Family Contribution is the number your FAFSA application generates based on the info you input. This is the amount that the government believes you/your family can contribute towards your college education per academic year. You have to renew your FAFSA each year, so your EFC can change throughout your time in college.

If there is a difference between your cost of attendance and your EFC, that is known as need. Financial aid offices do their best to cover your need by providing various forms of financial aid. Simply stated: cost of attendance – expected family contribution = need

Grants and Scholarships

You want your financial aid to consist of grants and scholarships because this is “free money” that you don’t have to pay back. Grants and scholarships come from colleges, the government, the state, and from outside sources. It is important to let your college know about any outside scholarships you earn because they can impact your financial aid package. Some grants, such as the TEACH grant, convert to student loans if you do not fulfill the associated service obligation post-graduation. Make sure to read the fine print!

Direct Stafford Loans

Direct Stafford loans are available for eligible students at colleges to help fund their education. Backed by the federal government, these loans typically have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than most private loans. Students are capped on the amount they can take per year. For example, a first-time college freshman classified as a dependent can only utilize $5,500 per academic year. The amount increases per year in college, up to $7,500 per academic year. There are two kinds of Direct Stafford Loans you may see: subsidized and unsubsidized.

Subsidized loans DO NOT accrue interest while you are in-school (enrolled at least half-time) or during the grace period of the loan. The grace period is for the 6 months after you leave school or drop below half-time status. A portion of your direct loans may be in the form of subsidized loans if you have a high financial need. 

You will also see unsubsidized loans; these loans begin accruing interest as soon as they disburse (are applied to your bill or direct deposited to your bank account). All of the interest accrued while you are in school capitalizes (aka it will be added to your principal balance). If you can, it’s super beneficial to start making interest-only payments while still in school, so that amount does not continue to grow. 

For Direct Stafford loans, you complete a master promissory note (loan contract) and entrance loan counseling (covers terms of loan, repayment etc.). These are really important so definitely pay close attention and take notes.


The acronym PLUS means “Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students.” You may see a PLUS loan estimate on your financial aid package. This means your parents have the opportunity to apply for the PLUS loan to cover your remaining cost of attendance. The PLUS loan is solely in the name of the parent, and approval is based on a satisfactory credit check. If your parents are denied the PLUS loan, they may request an endorser, or you have the option to receive additional Direct Stafford unsubsidized loans. Repayment for PLUS loans typically begins upon disbursement unless your parent applies and is granted deferment.


The Federal work-study program provides part-time jobs for students with financial need. These jobs are typically on-campus. If you are interested in being considered for work-study opportunities, be sure to indicate this on your FAFSA application. Your work-study opportunity will have a certain amount of money you are eligible to earn through this program; therefore, your hours will be capped once this amount is reached. The school will pay you directly either via direct deposit to your bank account or you can choose to have this payment applied to your student account for tuition and fees.

Understanding the different award types will provide you a solid foundation to evaluate your options. It is always beneficial to have the Financial Aid office explain your package to you and answer any questions that you have. Always remember, you can pick and choose what aid to accept, and even reduce amounts. For loans, it is wise to take only what you absolutely need and be sure to ask about payment deadlines and payment plan options. Being in the know of all things financial aid definitely pays off!

A FAFSA Guide for the First-Time Applicant

You’ve probably heard about the FAFSA…but what exactly is it? Our guide for the first-time FAFSA applicant will break it down for you. First things first, the acronym FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” This application considers you for need-based scholarships and grants for college. It’s also necessary if you wish to use federal student loans to fund your college education. The FAFSA will be your friend when it comes to paying for college!

Each year, the FAFSA opens on October 1st for the following school year, so mark your calendars or set a reminder in your phone. Some states and colleges have priority deadlines and some funds do run out. The earlier you complete this, the better! If you’re feeling ambitious, you can complete steps 1 and 2 BEFORE October 1st!

Step 1: Create Your FSA ID

Your FSA ID is the username and password that will grant access to certain Department of Education websites. It will also help verify your identity and serve as your digital signature for your FAFSA. If you are a dependent student (more on that here), then your parent will need to create an FSA ID as well.

Step 2: Gather important documents

It may seem like the FAFSA is super nosy with all of the information they request from you, but it’s crucial in determining the aid you are eligible for. You’ll need to dig in the archives for the items below.

  • Social Security Number (check and double check this information)
  • Parents’ Social Security Numbers (if you’re a dependent student)
  • Driver’s License Number (if applicable)
  • Alien Registration Number (if you are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal Tax Information/Tax Returns including W-2 information for you, your spouse (if applicable) and your parents (if you’re a dependent) from two years prior (i.e. 2022-2023 school year will use 2020 tax info)
  • Records of Untaxed Income (i.e. interest income, child support, Veteran non-education benefits, if applicable)
  • Financial information including cash, savings and checking account balances, investments, i.e. stocks, bonds and real estate (excluding your primary residence), business and farm assets for you or your parents (if you’re a dependent)

Once you’ve input all of this information, be sure to keep these documents in a safe, but accessible location. There’s about a 20% chance your application will be chosen for verification. You will then have to provide your college with certain documentation to ensure all information you reported is correct. You can be selected for verification randomly or because something doesn’t quite match up. For the 2021-2022 year, the Department of Education has put a temporary change to the verification process, allowing colleges to waive verification requirements. If you are still selected for the verification process, your college will notify you and let you know of the next steps required.

Step 3: Start the FAFSA

You created your FSA ID, you tracked down all of your documents, and October 1st is here! It’s now time to start your FAFSA! Head on over to and click “Start Here.” Be sure to use ONLY From there, you can also use the myStudentAid mobile app. Unfortunately, there are scammy websites out there that are named and look very similar to the real website that will charge for filing your FAFSA. You should NEVER pay to file your FAFSA! Once you start a new application, you have the opportunity to create a save key. Make sure you don’t skip this step. You probably won’t complete your FAFSA in one sitting, so this allows you to save your work and return where you left off, even across devices.

Step 4: Evaluate your dependency status

There is a laundry list of questions the FAFSA will ask to determine dependency status. You can read more about those questions here. Generally speaking, if you are under the age of 24, unmarried, and not a member of the military, you are considered a dependent student for FAFSA purposes. If you are classified as a dependent and feel you have an extenuating circumstance, we’d recommend connecting with your college financial aid office regarding your individual situation.

Step 5: Input financial information

This section is where you input all of your tax and financial information. If you are considered a dependent, you will input your parents’ information as well. Pro tip: if you have the option to use the “IRS data retrieval tool,” do it! This allows your tax return to automatically sync with your FAFSA. This makes your life way easier and decreases your likelihood of being selected for verification.

Step 6: Select FAFSA recipients

Colleges need your FAFSA information to be able to award financial aid. You are required to list one school, but you can add up to 10. Some states require in-state schools to be listed first for state aid, so check if your state has this requirement! These colleges will then use your FAFSA to determine both the type and amount of aid they’ll offer you upon acceptance. You can always add schools later, but some schools do create financial aid packages on a rolling basis. It’s better to have your FAFSA on file sooner rather than later. (Some financial aid award types do run out).

Step 7: Sign and submit the FAFSA

One last thing: you must sign your FAFSA application using your FSA ID and hit “submit.” You’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA once you’ve seen the confirmation page. You will also get an email confirmation of your submission. If you happen to have a sibling in college who is also a dependent, this confirmation page will allow you to transfer your parents’ info to their FAFSA as well. Be sure that your parent(s) sign your FAFSA, too! 

If you’re ever stuck on anything FAFSA related, you are not alone! Be sure to seek help from your high school counselor, college admissions counselor, or your prospective college’s financial aid office. Good luck!

3 Key Questions On The Role of FAFSA® In Making College Affordable

As you finalize your college applications, gather resources, and complete those last checklist items, don’t let the important topic of affordability and how it impacts your life beyond college take a backseat.

As the nation’s largest free college and career planning service, we are dedicated to ensuring all students have access to the resources and tools needed to be successful as they plan for college and their future. That’s why we’re excited to introduce a new resource available for all students, Frank was created in 2017 by 28-year-old female founder Charlie Javice to make college more affordable for millions of Americans. Over 4 million students have benefited from Frank’s financial aid services and advice on their post-secondary path to higher education. 

Financial aid plays a cornerstone role in the whole college-going, college application process for around 80% of students today. The FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the key to unlocking affordability opportunities. But, you likely have questions: 

1. Do I need grants, loans, or both—and what do those even mean?
2. What do I feel is a reasonable amount of student loan debt for me?
3. Does my planned major and the potential economic opportunities make it realistic to take this debt on?

Let’s tackle this…

Do I need grants, loans, or both? What do these even mean?

First things first; grants are monies awarded to you, specifically for education that you do not have to pay back—provided by your state and/or the federal government.  They generally come in semester “award” amounts paid directly to your school.  Depending on your personal details and where you attend, you could have a considerable amount of tuition covered by just grants. You need the FAFSA® to determine eligibility.  

Before we get into loans, know that scholarships are a wonderful way to help pay for college. Annually over $6 Billion in scholarships are awarded to around 1.5 million eligible students based on everything from academics, sports, socioeconomics, cultural background, personal interests, and even creative writing contests. 

Now, let’s talk about loans.

Loans are broken into two different categories (Federal and private). If you have the choice and need loans, federal loans are the way to go. They have the most flexibility in repayment, oftentimes the lowest interest rate (interest rate is basically an annual “tax” that adds to your repayment amount when you graduate), and are more flexible to accommodate unforeseen economic hardships. Yep, you guessed it—you need the FAFSA® to determine eligibility here, too. Private loans are education loans serviced (provided) by private banks. These generally have higher interest rates and are less flexible in repayment. 

What do I feel is a reasonable amount of student loan debt for me?

Understanding your future earning potential relative to your desired area of study can offer some guidance. Family finances play a role, too. The general rule of thumb is your total loans borrowed should not exceed your first year’s expected annual salary upon graduation.  For example, if you are studying to be a teacher, shoot for borrowing no more than $40-45k in total.  Repayment of federal loans is always deferred for 6 months post-graduation or when you leave the school and can be put off (deferred) if you go back to school. Private loans scarcely offer this flexibility.

Does my planned major and the potential economic opportunities make it realistic to take this debt on?

This is a really important question that comes down to your school choice and major. You may start to hear this referred to as “ROE” or Return on Education.  This is basically how much economic opportunity comes to you based on the money you spend on your education or your “investment” in education. When considering your school choice; are you paying for the experience or are you paying for the academics? Make sure you’re considering all types of schools that could grant you the degree you’re looking for—state schools and community colleges may offer you the ability to pay a fraction for the same education courses. Always have your end goal in mind. is a great resource that can help you apply for the FAFSA® and educate you about college affordability. Over the coming months, we’ll hear from team members at Frank and offer more resources to help you make informed decisions about the FAFSA®

Types of Scholarships

Scholarships are a great way to cut down or eliminate your out-of-pocket college costs. There are lots of scholarship money available, the trick is knowing where to look. The two main types of scholarship are college specific scholarships and non-college specific scholarships. We will give you more information about each type to help you narrow down your search!

College Specific Scholarships

College specific scholarships are offered directly by the college and can only be used for admitted students at that particular college. Be sure to ask every college you apply to whether or not you are considered for all available institutional scholarships based on your admissions application. If the answer is “no,” then be sure to ask where to find their scholarship application(s). Here are the most common types of college-specific scholarships you will find.

Academic scholarships

Academic scholarships are based on the academic credentials within your admissions application. For example, GPA or ACT/SAT scores.

Athletic scholarships

Athletic scholarships are available at Division I and Division II schools and are determined by your athletic ability and your prospective college’s athletic needs. If you are interested in becoming a student-athlete, here is more information about athletic recruiting.

Merit-based scholarships

Merit scholarships are awarded to the strongest candidates in the applicant pool and typically consider a wide range of criteria/requirements like your grades, rigor of high school coursework, ACT/SAT scores, class rank, personal statements, leadership, and community service. Admissions will also closely evaluate your letters of recommendation.

Non-College Specific Scholarships

You can start searching for non-college specific scholarships before your final college list is solidified because these scholarships can be used at the college of your choice. These types of scholarships are going to be more time consuming to find since there are lots of different places you can look. Be sure if you are awarded a non-college specific scholarship you communicate with your college’s financial aid office and the scholarship organization to coordinate the logistics of how the scholarship funds will be sent to your school. Here are some suggestions of sources for non-college specific scholarships.

Organizational scholarships

Organizations such as places of worship, school districts, chambers of commerce, and charities sponsor a number of scholarships for incoming college students. Once you are in college, there may be other organizations that open the door for more scholarship opportunities, so keep your eyes open for these opportunities. If you are involved in any of these types of organizations, it never hurts to ask around. The answer will always be “no” if you don’t ask.

Corporate scholarships

Corporate scholarships are awarded by companies to support employees and their families. These are more common in larger companies. It’s always a good idea to ask your parents if their employers offer scholarships to children of employees. If you work as well and want to continue with the same company while you are in college, it is smart to check with your employer to see if they offer any sort of tuition reimbursement or scholarship programs.

Some scholarships you earn may be renewable for a certain amount of semesters, or they may be one-time only. It’s important to understand the duration and renewal requirements for your scholarships so you don’t encounter any unpleasant surprises down the road. Remember that your scholarship search shouldn’t just be limited to your first year in college. As you continue in college, your network and understanding of the scholarship game will expand, so keep up that scholarship hunting!

Schools for Student Parents

The thought of simultaneously raising children and earning a college degree may seem like an impossible undertaking. With the pandemic shifting the way colleges and universities are approaching the balance between work, life, and education, there are tons of schools with programs dedicated to student parent success. If attending college is a dream of yours, check out these colleges with services to support you and your little ones!

Wilson College

At Wilson College, the Single Parent Scholar Program offers on-campus housing to single parents with children (between 20 months and 12 years of age). Since the Fall 2020 semester, students accepted to the Single Parent Scholar Program will no longer pay for on-campus housing. While parents are studying and taking classes, the school also has an on-campus childcare center offered to children 20 months to 5 years old. This environment allows student parents to care for their children and pursue their academic dreams at the same time.

St. Catherine’s University

The Access and Success program at St. Catherine’s University connects student parents to the resources they need. From grants and scholarships to on-campus babysitters to child friendly study spaces, St. Catherine’s campus is equipped for students raising children of all ages

Endicott College

At Endicott College, the Keys to Degrees program is intended for young single parents ages 18 to 24. Their prime goal is to help single parents thrive in their studies and provide a full array of services from family friendly housing on-campus to scholarship support. 

College of Saint Mary

College of Saint Mary makes it a priority to make campus life easy for student parents through their Single Parent Success Program. They offer suite style living for families in Madonna Hall complete with complimentary laundry services, kitchens, and lounge areas. Conveniently, this college also has the Spellman Child Development Center right on campus.

Texas Woman’s University

The SPARK (Student Pioneers Also Raising Kids) program at Texas Woman’s University offers all kinds of options to parents pursuing their education. This school offers lactation rooms, Child Care Assistance (CCA), and an after school program for kids 5 and up known as the Club House.

University of Massachusetts

The University Without Walls (UWW) program is meant for non-traditional students, including families. This program is offered at a reduced rate on-campus, off-campus, and online to maintain a level of flexibility for the students.

Misericordia University

At Misericordia University, they offer the Women With Children Program (WWC). Specifically, this program aims to empower economically disadvantaged single mothers by offering financial aid, housing, and childcare. 

As you can see, there are plenty of schools out there with support for student parents. For more information, here is a resource listing even more schools dedicated to nontraditional students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earning a degree while raising children isn’t easy, and you will serve as an inspiration to the students around you. Know that you are not alone, and seeking a college degree is completely within your reach.