Oh, the many joys of picking out a college with your child. If you thought the teen years were rough, you’re really going to enjoy the college angst years. Your student may get caught up in the idea of a “name” school, a beautiful campus, a place that “everyone” is going to or even, heaven forbid, a “party” school. While those might all seem like great reasons for selecting a particular college, as a parent you obviously have a different “school” of thought.
Parents want their children to attend a college that will challenge them academically, enrich them personally, and set a solid foundation for a future of success – all without putting too much of a dent in the family’s finances. Although it seems like you and your child are coming at this from the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, there are many ways you can find common ground. Here are some tips to help you put together a realistic college list:
• Lay the groundwork early and often: Don’t wait until September of the senior year to start discussing the cost of college with children. Start when they are young, and impart plenty of smart money management skills along the way. By the beginning of their junior year at least, you should be having an honest and open discussion about how much college really costs and how much you can afford to spend. You want to give your student plenty of time in the junior year to conduct college research, and maybe even bump up the grades a bit in an effort to win more scholarships. And, no, once is not enough for this type of discussion.
• Discuss finances together: As your student begins to prepare a college list, discuss the cost of each college together. Look at the net price calculator to get a general idea of how much the typical student pays to attend and how much the typical student receives in financial aid. Look at graduation percentages, post-graduation employment rates and earnings potential to determine a rough return on investment for each college.
• Hear them out: If your student has his or her heart set on a particular college, ask them to explain what they find so appealing. If it is something that makes sense, take the time to review the costs of that particular college and then discuss actions you can take together to help pay tuition and other expenses for four years.
• Really teach them about borrowing: Most students really don’t have a good understanding of how to use credit and debt wisely. They see their parents using credit to make purchases and might not make the connection to paying for it later. The same can be said with using student loans unwisely to pay for college expenses. Since loan payments do not usually begin until after graduation, few students think about the consequences of borrowing money during the college years. When they graduate they are surprised to find out how much they have borrowed, and what their monthly payments will be. Give your child a solid fundamental understanding of what it means to borrow money, and the long-term consequences loans can have on a financial future.
• Come to a mutual agreement: Make sure each of you understands the other’s point of view, and then decide on a list of possible colleges together. Have some that are affordable, and some that are a reach. You never really know how much financial aid you will receive until you complete the FAFSA and compare financial aid award letters. Once those letters are in, you can review the out-of-pocket costs for each college and make a decision based on facts and feelings.
Deciding which college to attend could be one of the biggest decisions your child will ever make, so it is wise to make sure there is plenty of information on which to base a decision. Don’t keep the financial details to yourself; share them with your student. Plan road trips to a few potential colleges and have pertinent questions for the financial aid representatives. Discuss the merits of each college together.