It used to be that picking a college was as simple as enrolling in the best school that you could get into and afford.
But in recent years "best" and "afford" have become increasingly subjective terms. While many still use a school's reputation to figure out which school is best, a growing number of prospective students want numbers in the form of potential future earnings to back up those claims. Meanwhile, student loans have made almost any school "affordable" for almost any student, at least up front. The problem is that students are often ending up in jobs that make paying back those loans impossible.
In other words, more students and parents are starting to view college as an investment, and not just a rite of passage for the typical American 18-year-old with average or better high school grades. But comparing one school to another isn't always easy, given the discrepancies between "sticker price," which is reported to the Department of Education and what students end up paying after grants and reductions.