Walking on the University of Wisconsin's Madison campus as a kid, Tom Srnak always felt like it was the place for him. His father is an alumnus, and he planned on becoming a Badger, too.
Then the financial aid packages arrived, forcing Srnak, a Rolling Meadows High School senior, to make a difficult decision: pick the college he wanted versus the college that was more affordable.
"I always assumed I'd go to Madison eventually, so when I found out they weren't going to give me any money and that it would be way more expensive than U of I, I was kind of disappointed," he said. "If they'd have given me enough to even it out with U of I, then I probably would've gone there."
Srnak decided to go to the University of Illinois this fall.
As the May 1 deadline for committing to a college approaches, it's a "high anxiety" time for some students and their families, says Jeffery Farson, director of student services at Naperville North High School.
That's because there's so much to consider in the decision-making process -- including cost, location, reputation and academic offerings.
"Now you have to pick, and you have to live with that pick," Farson said. "Yes, you can always transfer. But transferring can mean losing time, credits and money."
With so many opportunities available to students today, the decision is as hard as ever. As in Srnak's case, it often boils down to money.
One Naperville North senior had her heart set on going to Georgetown University and got accepted. But the University of Miami in Florida offered her four years of paid tuition, plus room and board. She's choosing Miami.
The national average cost for a four-year school, including room and board, ranges from $18,391 to $40,917 a year, according to the The College Board. That's 2.9 percent higher than last year, but the smallest percentage increase in tuition in 30 years, according to the report.
As a result, families are looking to get the most bang for their buck.
Vernon Hills High School college counselor Scott Birtman said his advice often focuses more on money than it has in the past. He tells students to weigh their likely future income against college costs and consider how much debt they could reasonably pay off.
"Having more debt in a high-paying career is less daunting than if you plan on going into social work," Birtman said.
State schools are not necessarily cheaper than out-of-state schools anymore, if a student can even get in. Farson says he's seen the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reject high-performing students with 34s on their ACTs, especially those applying to its nationally ranked engineering school.
Often, actual costs can't be compared until after students have received all their acceptances and accompanying financial aid offers, with some arriving as late as April 1.
For students and families still struggling to make their decision, Farson offered these tips:
• Free is hard to beat.
• If you're a smart kid, you can be smart anywhere.
• You have to be in love with the choice that you make.
People sometimes get wrapped up in a school's reputation, but the best choice is a place that "feels right" for a student, where he or she can imagine staying and excelling.
"Kids work very, very hard in preparing for the college application process," Farson said. "They're looking deeper than, just, 'Oh, they have a great football team.'"
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Zachary White contributed to this report.