Another year is here, and it brings with it the hopes of a bright future for so many young high school students. The added imagery of being the year 2020 makes us think of bringing things into sharp focus as we make plans for moving ahead. Great planning is extremely important for the high school class of 2021, as these now-high school juniors begin to travel down the path toward college.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to begin this process as early as possible, and to carefully plan the rest of your calendar year for 2020. Decisions you make, and actions you take this year, could well affect your ability to start attending the college of your dreams in the fall of 2021.
While the goal seems so very far in the future, the reality is that there really is not that much time to accomplish all that needs to be done this year. I tell my students they need to start thinking about financial aid as early as May of their junior year. They need to sit down with their parents and a college financial aid advisor to think about what colleges are really within financial reach, talk about what family monetary resources are available, and discuss the student loan burden parents and student are willing to take on for the privilege of attending a certain college.
You must be prepared to file the FAFSA as early as possible after it comes online October 1. Many colleges and states have financial aid deadlines that are much earlier than most families realize, and this is one area where you definitely do not want to be rushing to take action at the last minute. Here are some steps families need to take to get their financial aid action plan into place:
• Narrow Down the College List: High school juniors should actually have a general idea of what kind of college they would like to attend by now. If you don’t, start thinking about what you would like to experience in a college: close to home or far away, small or large, available fields of study, and internship possibilities.
• Learn About General Costs: Each college will provide a general idea of costs of attendance on their website. These cost calculators are very helpful in providing a basic idea of what the typical student might pay, but there are other factors which must be taken into consideration. Think about travel expenses either in terms of a daily commute, or back and forth several times a year. Calculate living expenses if the student will not be in a dorm. And look at possible expenses for the major such as lab fees, special project costs, or semester abroad study opportunities.
• Visit Some Colleges: It is very helpful to get an in-person feel for the top colleges the student is considering. This gives everyone a chance to talk to administrators, professors, and students, but it is also the perfect time to visit the financial aid office. Ask pertinent questions about how many students graduate in four years, availability of financial aid throughout the entire attendance period, average graduation and job placement rates, and anticipated income from the student’s area of study.
• Talk About Money: Parents and student need to have a deep conversation about how much they can really afford to spend. It is possible the student may receive a generous financial aid package, but most families rely on a combination of savings, out-of-pocket earnings and borrowing to cover the total costs. Look at ways everyone can pitch in to keep borrowing to a minimum, so there is less of a financial burden after graduation.
And finally, DEADLINES, DEADLINES, DEADLINES! There is certainly a lot to do, but it definitely can all be done if planned for properly. Know what your colleges’ early decision and early action application deadlines are, are be aware of separate college and state financial aid deadlines. Check out potential college scholarships, and include those deadlines into your planning schedule as well. The New Year is here, so let’s get planning!