This story was first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. It’s been edited for clarity and flow.
I’m the mom of a high school senior headed to nursing school in the fall. About one year ago, I saw posts and comments about how important it is to love the school that loves you when figuring out how to pick a college. I didn’t understand what that meant then, but boy, do I get it now. This is my advice to share with your high school junior just starting the college journey.
1. Pay Attention to the Interest a College Shows in You
Sure, it’s important for kids to show a demonstrated interest in the school, but pay attention to the colleges’ interest level, too. Do they reply to emails? Do they seem interested in your child as a person? Is there an egotistical vibe about the place when you visit, or does it feel warm and welcoming? Whatever you do, don’t discount gut reactions.
2. Ignore the Name Brand
Your child’s value is not attached to the college they attend. I know some will argue with me on this, but this is my take. The schools with gazillions of dollars to spend on marketing and sending you mail nonstop aren’t any better than the lesser-known spots that invest their money in student aid and campus improvements. The publicity alone doesn’t make a college better.
Use sites like Paying for College 101 to inquire about programs, the size of the school, and whatever else matters to your child to narrow down a list. Don’t just default to the household names believing they are inherently better. I went to a name-brand school for my master’s degree because it was one of only two in the nation that offered that program at the time, and I went for free. But I would have gone there if the College of No Name had had that program, too. Go for the program offered and the value to you, not for the brand name.
3. Talk to Financial Aid Early
A net price calculator is fine to use but a real conversation with a human being gives you a feel for what that office will be like to deal with if that’s where your child decides to attend. The schools that have loved my child back are the ones that offered communication with financial aid early on and haven’t seemed at all put-out, which is not true everywhere.
Find out what the maximum merit is that’s awarded. The narrative we all know by now is to chase merit, but merit doesn’t mean a full ride. About $30,000 in merit, which seems to be the max at a lot of schools, means you’ll need deep pockets to pay the difference at a college that is $68,0000.
Some colleges will try and sell you on parent loans but understand that means you are taking on the debt, not your student. This will impact your ability to make purchases that require credit checks. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with parent loans, it’s just important to know what you’re getting into.
4. Create a Resume as Soon as You Can
When emailing admissions with questions, include them and find out if your student is a good fit for the college. Admissions at the schools that will love you back seem to appreciate this and want to get to know you. If a college can’t be bothered to show interest or answer your questions as you’re applying or after admittance, that may be an indication of what will happen once your student is there.
5. Know That Schools Are a Business
You’re the consumer, so make sure you’re getting what’s best for you when deciding how to pick a college. That looks different for everyone. You’ll have many options; it’s OK to be picky. Ask for what is best for you. It helps if your child’s stats, extracurriculars, and efforts to show interest in the college put them above the average kid who applies. But today with so many kids having high stats and so many schools being test-optional, most kids have a shot at a lot of schools.
6. Be Aware: Having Money Helps You Go Where You Want
If you don’t have lots of money, choose places that are known for awarding merit and need-based aid. Find out what GPA is required to retain merit and which grants are and aren’t renewable. You don’t want to go somewhere that gives a good amount of aid freshman year and then find yourself unable to return due to cost. Don’t be afraid to ask all these questions even before being admitted.
Again, you’re a consumer. Do your research to make an educated decision. Dependent, undergraduate students can only borrow $5,500 in federal loans during freshman year. Be aware of that before thinking your child can borrow as much as they want to cover the cost.
7. Ignore the Competition
If you do, it will help your child do the same. Senior year can be brutal. My daughter has been admitted to amazing schools and has many great options, but we are solidly working class, which means that even with tons of merit and need-based aid, many places are prohibitively expensive. The net price calculator (NPC) doesn’t factor everything into the equation, and some schools have offered far less than the NPC estimated, and some far more.
I keep telling her that many other kids are waiting to commit because finances matter, but it’s hard for teens as social media makes it seem like “everyone” is going to their dream school. It can be soul-crushing at times. Remind your child that, “you’ll land where you’re meant to be.” For us, it’s become apparent that going to the place that loves you as much, if not more, than you love them is likely the best bet.
8. Join Paying for College (PFC101)
Parents, this one’s for you! Chances are that there are 100 other parents worried or wondering about the same things you are. While college advising businesses are awesome for those who can afford them, these sites are a goldmine for the masses who can’t. Use them to your advantage and search by topic!
Good luck to everyone just starting this journey. I know I’m eager to breathe a sigh of relief in the coming months, and you will, too.
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