College admissions: it’s a maze out there!!
September brings that time of the year when millions of young children return to school in the United States. For many of us, this month marks the end of leisurely days and a return of the hustle and bustle of getting kids to school and after-school activities. If you are the parent of a high schooler, this is also a time when you start to think in earnest about colleges and how you are going to afford the cost of college.
While many think that paying for college is primarily a concern of lower- and middle-class families, I can tell you that this is a topic that affects affluent parents as well. The cost of attending college has sky rocketed since I went to college in the 90’s. Today the average cost of college is $20,000 for an in state public university or $47,000 for a private university, according to the College Boards. Keep in mind this is an average, some of the highly ranked schools can cost in excess of $70,000. Since these are “per year” figures, you could spend anywhere from $80,000 to $280,000 for 4 years.
This is where my husband and I found ourselves two years ago when our oldest, Madison, was a senior in high school. It was nerve racking to find our way through the maze that college admissions has become. While we had great college counselors to help with getting Madison into college, we were the ones left to navigate the finances by ourselves. We were fortunate enough to have grandparents who provided some college savings, yet we still had many things to figure out. Here are some of the things that we learned along the way.
Remember what happens when we assume:
I strongly suggest to everyone that they should approach the college admission process without preconceived notions. First, familiarize yourself with “net price calculators”. These can be found on many school websites and on the College Board website. It is important to have an idea of what the cost will be at the schools your child is applying to. Remember, this may not be what you finally end up paying, but it will give you a very good idea what the asking price will be.
Next, do not assume that you or your child will or will not receive aid or a scholarship. I strongly recommend that everyone fill out a FAFSA form and submit it as early as possible. This is the form that most colleges look at when assigning need-based aid and other funds such as work study and grants. Once colleges receive this, they can establish what your admitted child’s expected family contribution is and develop an aid package. Having this information early will allow you time to review different packages and possibly negotiate a better one.
No two colleges are the same, shop around:
I also discovered that not all colleges are created equal. We know that they differ in class offerings, price, size and ranking. They also differ in how much money they give out, or how aid is assessed. I strongly believe in finding the right fit for your child is not just about the best school your child can get into but I also think that price must be part of the fit test for the family. When you first start to look at colleges, parents should research the cost of those schools and the statistics on how much money they distribute. This is often called the “stinginess factor”. Look and see what percentage of the student body is currently receiving scholarship and aid. Remember, once your child has received all of their admissions and financial aid packages from various universities, you will need to review and compare each offer. One thing that I was shocked to discover is that offers can be “negotiated” and that you can ask the aid office to reassess the package that was presented.
The Finish Line
When we start this process with our kids, we look for an institution that will allow them to blossom and give them the education they need to reach their goals. Some of the figures we looked at was the graduation rates and job information for the schools we were considering. These figures helped us evaluate what the picture would look like for our daughter after graduation. We were able to consider how long it took the average student to graduate and what her employment picture would look like once she finished.
I can’t begin to tell you all the emotions we felt as we started the college search process with Madison. We discovered that while we had thought of college planning as part of our overall financial plan, early on, when the time came to look at colleges, apply and decided where she would finally go, we found ourselves navigating a maze.
I hope this blog gave you some tips that will help with the college finance questions you may have. If this has made you think about the college process, I strongly encourage you to sign up for our Empowered Worth College 101 seminar, October 19th. Our guest speaker Maite Halley, founder of Your College Connector, will have great information on the college admission process. I will be presenting on the financial part of the college process. This will be an informative morning that I am sure will help to give you the tools to navigate the process and reduce a lot of stress we as parents feel.