Mom Shares Lessons Learned From Son’s College Search

Mom Shares Lessons Learned From Son’s College Search

We recently asked a member of our Paying for College 101 Facebook group to share her approach to finding the right college for her son, and the resulting lessons she learned.

Here’s what she said (edited for clarity and length): 


The Biggest Surprise?

How fungible the sticker price of college is: I now have a dense Excel sheet comparing all the details of dozens of colleges, most of which I had not heard of two years ago. 


The Main Points We Learned

  1. We needed an idea of what we could and would contribute towards my son’s undergraduate costs
  2. We needed a good sense of my son’s academic stats and then we could use them to narrow the list of schools he would apply to. 

Unfortunately, none of our financial information was straightforward enough to estimate our contribution, since my income at the time was based on commission and fluctuated wildly.

We did have a property in lieu of a 529 plan that we planned to sell, but couldn’t be sure how much we would get for it.

We knew we would likely qualify for any loans we required, so it was going to be up to us to make a choice.

After seeing what was possible, we put a limit of about $10,000 for our EFC (estimated family contribution) or $10,000 over the full cost of our state’s flagship school and didn’t have our son apply to schools that were not likely to be at or below that price.  


Student Stats and College Rank

My son attends a highly competitive public high school in New Jersey where the top ten percent of graduates go off to Ivies or the equivalent every year, but he has attention deficit disorder (ADD), which has negatively affected his grade point average (GPA) relative to his intellectual ability and curiosity.

Also, his school heavily weights GPA, and since he took mostly honors courses with some Advanced Placement (AP) classes, depending on how the university recalculated, it could be a target, safety, or reach school based on the same stats.

He earned a 3.7 cumulative weighted and 3.3 cumulative unweighted GPA. 

We knew his class rank was below the 50th percentile and was reported on his transcript.

I could see how that stat could hurt my son. I gathered a group of parents, including admissions professionals, to petition the school to remove class rank from transcripts, which we’ve now done.

I’m convinced this made a world of difference for my son and his classmates. 


Where Did He Want to Go, and What Did He Want to Study?

As for location, he wanted a school that was outside of New Jersey, if possible, and he didn’t have a clue what to major in except that it was not likely to be business, or a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  

Consequently, based on his stats, we were off to find an intellectually rigorous, supportive, liberal arts college that would give enough merit aid to come in at our price tag.

Two reach schools he loved fell off immediately because they were unaffordable.

He’s been accepted to every school so far with one left to hear from.

Nine out of the ten financial aid offers he’s received hit or exceeded our family’s original financial target. 


Estimating the Cost of Loans 

I sat down with my son and showed him how long it would take to pay the $40,000 in loans he would probably need at one of the more expensive schools he got into.

It would take over 20 years at $300 per month at current rates.

We compared that to a $15,000 loan which would take less than five years to repay with the same payment terms and interest. 


My Family’s Education Differs From What’s Available to My Son 

My father went to Swarthmore, my mother to Mount Holyoke and they met in the early ‘60s at Yale Law school.

I went to Yale, my brother to Williams.

I was only familiar with schools that have gargantuan-sized endowments and international reputations.

My husband, though, was on his own when it came to paying for college.

He failed out of a state school in North Carolina, spent two years at a community college on a basketball scholarship, and lived with six students in a trailer, before graduating at last from a third-tier Pennsylvania state school. 

We know from our experiences that successes and failures can happen almost anywhere, but we also understand that the culture of learning surrounding the student is almost as important as the professors in the classroom. 

I disagree with a subset of members in the Paying for College 101 group who insist that “it doesn’t matter where you go,” but I absolutely agree that the most important thing is what your child does when they get there.

It’s been an adventure and a huge learning experience.