Education beyond high school is a significant decision that undoubtedly has HUGE implications on the rest of a student’s life. Financial and otherwise.
As parents, we should be doing what we can to guide our kids. At the same time, we want them to be involved and vested in the process. College is not for everyone – but if it’s the mutually decided career path – you have one opportunity to make it’s the right path.
To that end, I think there are 5 main things we should have our kids do while in high school…to ensure they are making the most ideal choice for themselves:
1. Do your homework. I’m not just referring to high school homework, rather doing research on the various colleges across the country (or world!). Narrow the search to schools that have the programs you are targeting, as well as other things that may matter such as Greek life, volunteer groups, study abroad programs, and average class size. Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or big fish in a small pond? Many times there is a certain geographical location that makes sense or a certain proximity to family. Consider it all.
I’d also talk to people about the school. The internet makes it much easier to reach out to current and former students of that university, so reach out and find out what their experience is – positive or negative. Get an idea of what the job prospects will be upon graduating, as well as expected average salaries.
2. Make your list. Students should come up with a list, perhaps a dozen, that they’d be willing to attend if they got accepted. I’d encourage a diverse list that includes a wide range of admission rates. Unless your child has a perfect SAT score, identify schools that have a greater chance of accepting you as well as those that might be more difficult to get in to.
Consider this too: studies have shown that students may not necessarily be better off by choosing the more prestigious universities. Whether someone wants to study engineering or science, they may not benefit from going to Harvard any more than they would with a lower-ranked state school.
3. Go visiting. There is nothing quite like experiencing a college campus with your own eyes. Get a feel for the culture, the excitement, the amenities. Make it a family occasion if possible, so you can get multiple opinions and discuss what everyone liked – or didn’t. You may have to start these visits as a high school sophomore or junior to you aren’t stretched too thin as a senior.
A student may have made visits to see an older friend or a boyfriend, but I’d consider a separate and more family-oriented visit. After all, going to see a buddy during a weekend of partying may not be the best way to see all there is to see.
4. Crunch the numbers. At some point, parents should be having open discussions about the financial aspect of college. They should discuss any parental support that will be provided, as well as what to expect if the student does not get scholarships or loans. Come up with the anticipated cost associated with each school you are applying to.
Keep in mind that an institution may appear to have a higher cost upfront (many private schools may, for example) but cost less in the end. This could happen if the school offers more merit-based aid. And if you have to consider loans, don’t forget to factor that in when determining the longer-term ROI of the education cost.
5. Work within the system. This undertaking is a significant investment, so be deliberate about doing everything you can to get the cost down. Negotiate (a great skill to have, by the way!) with the financial aid office. Apply for merit-based and affinity group scholarships. Know what 529 funds or family support is possible.
If student loans are in play, my rule of thumb for students is to NOT take any more loans that would exceed your first year of post-college salary. In other words, if you expect to make $50k in your first year in the working world, make sure your total loans do not exceed that $50k…and ideally are much less. If this doesn’t look to be an option, I’d steer you towards a more affordable college – and ideally, with a major that will prove to be lucrative enough to get you out of debt in short order. Otherwise you need to be aware of the consequences, or be very confident in your future money-making abilities!
At the end of the day, you should be diligent about your decision while at the same time enjoying the process. But don’t delay. Do not wait until it’s late in the game and you feel scrambling to make a decision. For all the high school underclassmen out there – the time to start planning is…now!