Author Topic: Adding to "Should cost affect where our daughter goes to college"?  (Read 2019 times)


  • Magnum Stache
  • ******
  • Posts: 3513
I tried to post to that thread, and somehow it keeps giving me an error message, so I'm replying here: 

Okay, having taught high school seniors for years and having a college child myself, I've got this one: 

First, YES, cost should affect this huge financial decision.  Aside from the obvious, this is an opportunity to help your daughter learn how to make a major decision within her financial constraints.  Helping her learn this now will prevent her from treating house-hunting or car-shopping as a blank-check expedition once she's out on her own. 

The tough thing about choosing a college is that you're forced to make a decision without knowing all the facts.  You cannot know them all:  Will I win a scholarship?  Will I receive any financial aid?  How much will I get from those sources?  How much will the cost of this school increase over the next four years?  Aside from tuition, what are the "extra" costs associated with each school?   With all these moving pieces, this is a major decision, even for an adult, and it's crazy to think that an 18-year old whose biggest previous financial choice was the restaurant to which he'd take his prom date. 

And this decision has an emotional component too: How far away from home should I go?  I think such-and-such school will probably reject me -- should I try anyway?  I don't want to go to the school 20 minutes down the road!  I'd miss out on the college experience.  But, on the other hand, I want to go to school with at least a couple of my friends -- and definitely my boyfriend.   It's easy to say, "This should be about academics!"  but, realistically, the student has to be happy too. 

Every year I'm amazed at how students reach these decisions.  Almost none of them make lists and compare each college's pros /cons /costs.  One of my students actually chose his college because he loved the pool tables in the student union.  Some of my students choose schools they've never visited in person!  Really, if you can't afford a road trip to see that college two states away, can you afford to attend that school?  It seems so obvious to me, but MOST of my students just assume that the money will all work out somehow. 

Every year I see more than a few students leave college two weeks in, at Thanksgiving, after their first semester.  And almost always it's because the student chose poorly:  The student wasn't ready academically or emotionally, or the school was too much of a stretch financially.  It's VERY expensive for your student to leave school:  A friend of mine paid about $8000 for a semester of college for her daughter, and when she bailed out mid-semester, she got about $200 back (uneaten meal plan).  Everything else was a loss.  Not even considering the emotional effect on the student, it was a disaster. 

How to do it better?  Instead of approaching college as most people do, a smart senior (and his parents) will consider it a three-tiered decision.  This is what I tell my students every year, and most of them shake their heads, say it's wise advice . . . and then choose the college with the nicest dorms:

Pre-application groundwork -- never, never skip these steps.  While the student is a freshman /sophomore in high school, begin to talk about these things:

- Big school?  Little school?  Rural or urban?  How far away?
- How competative?
- What to study?  What is the difference between a BA and a BS?  An AA vs. an AS? 
- What's the difference between a state school and a private school?  What's a community college? 
- What's the difference between living in a dorm vs. in an apartment vs. at home with Mom and Dad?
- What can Mom and Dad pay for college?  What do they expect the student to pay for himself? 
- What are college loans, and how would they affect life after college? 

You should brutally attack a few college myths as you're teaching your child about college:

- Private schools are better than state schools.  WRONG.  In my state we have a great public college system with very reasonable prices.  In contrast, we have a slew of small private schools with lackluster academic records -- at 3Xs the price!  Who attends these small private colleges?  Kids who goofed off in high school but whose parents have deep pockets (or good credit ratings and no qualms about letting their children start life in debt).  Yes, we have some excellent private schools too, but not all our students will be admitted to them. 
- College debt is good debt because it helps you build a credit score.  WRONG.  You can build a credit score in other, less-debilitating ways, and anything you have to pay back is bad.  If this were the only way, it might be acceptable . . . but so many people don't even look at their options; rather, they go straight to borrowing money. 
- You'll be a number at a big school.  WRONG.  You may have to work a little harder at a big school to make connections with your professors, etc., but you can find plenty of ways to find your spot in a big school.
- A Dream School exists for you, and if you choose anything "lesser", you will be miserable.  WRONG on so many levels.  College is a wonderful growth experience, but its primary goal is to prepare you for a professional job that'll pay well.  Any number of schools, at any number of price points could provide you with these services. 
- Private schools have loads of money sitting around, and they offer way more in scholarships than public schools -- you can actually attend a private school for less than a state school.  Yeah, that happens for about 1% of the students at the private schools, and they're the students who could've attended the most prestigious public schools but who settled for a big scholarship at a lesser school.  My daughter is a more typical story:  She was offered 16K to attend a small, private school.  Sounds great, right?  Only an idiot would turn down a 16K scholarship.  But do the math:  35K for the private school - 16K in scholarships = 19K/year.  The state school she really wanted to attend, which is leaps and bounds better academically is roughly 14K/year.  We can math in this house. 

The idea here is to help the student begin to form an idea of what college is really like, what it costs, and to help him begin to form ideas about what kind of college would be right for him.  Students who have good information can make better decisions. 

Go see your child's guidance counselor and teachers.  An astounding majority (something like 95%) of our high school students parents NEVER come to anything at school -- Open Houses, Financial Aid workshops, etc.  They have no one to blame but themselves if they don't know how the school organizes scholarship information, or how many science credits it takes to graduate!  Choose a good time (i.e., not the first day of school or exam week) and visit your child's guidance counselor.  Come with a list of questions, and be prepared to learn things!

When the student is a junior, it's time to begin visiting schools.  Visit all kinds of schools.  I was SURE my daughter, a top student, would choose our state's very competative flagship university.  I was so sure I would've put down a deposit (if it would've locked us in to lower tuition).  Nope -- she hated it.  So did I.  Instead, she fell in love with a medium-sized state school.  Though I had never considered this school for her, it is a PERFECT FIT.  I could not be happier with her choice. 

By the time the student returns to school for his senior year in high school, he should have his choices narrowed down to 3-4 schools.  Application fees are now $50-60 per school, so it makes little sense to apply to a dozen places. 

The student should apply to THREE TIERS of schools:

1.  Apply to the dream school, even if it looks unrealistic.  For someone, the planets will align and the unforseen scholarship will appear at the last minute.  It's worth the application fee to see IF your child can be the golden child who will get everything he wants handed to him on a silver platter.  Emphasize, however, that this is a reach-school, and it probably won't happen.  I have seen this happen -- more than once or twice. 

2.  Apply to 2-3 realistic schools -- always more than one -- don't play it that close to the edge.  Schools where you think the student will really be accepted, schools you can really afford (even if no scholarship or financial aid comes your way).  Put the majority of your efforts into these schools, realizing that the student will probably attend one of these. 

3.  Have in mind a safety net plan, even if you don't put it into place.  A safety net plan might be starting at community college or attending a local university part-time.  This is the plan that the student could manage ALL ON HIS OWN, if everything in his life went wrong:  That is, if none of the scholarships come through, no financial aid appears, and his parents suddenly are unable to provide the aforepromised financial help.  I have know MANY students who've experienced big problems during their senior years, who've been unable to follow through with their first-string college plans . . . and those who had a "back up plan" were better off, less set back than those who never considered anything but the Dream Plan.  For example, I remember one student who developed cancer as a high school senior.  Life changed drastically.  The guidance office gave her an abbreviated schedule, she gave up the idea of attending a prestigious university several hours away . . . BUT she did begin taking classes part-time at a local college after graduation.  How much better for her to do something to begin her education rather than to say, "Woe is me." 

If you follow this three-tier plan, your student will be ready for whatever happens when all the pieces of the college decision come together:  The scholarships, the financial aid, the friends, and more.  It'll keep options open for your student. 

I'll end with two stories: 

My daughter followed this three-tier plan, though in the end she chose not to file the application for her dream school (actually, having realized it wasn't a good fit for her, I gave her the choice of putting the $50 application fee in her pocket or in an envelope for the school, and she's not a stupid child).  After realistic consideration, she realized that it wasn't all that dreamy in the end.  She is now at a mid-sized, mid-tier state school -- her #1 choice -- and she was very mature about the money.  She realized that a degree from the out-of-state dream school would not have made her one bit more employable in the end.  One of the unexpected positives about her school:  They do not sell books.  They have a mandatory student rental program, which is included in her tuition.  She is doing very well academically and is blissfully happy.  She had choices, she worked through them with my help, and she is very satisfied.  She fully appreciates the value of graduating debt-free in a couple years.  I am also satisfied.  We can easily afford this school -- in fact, we haven't even dipped into savings to pay the bill. 

A friend of hers didn't choose so wisely.  Though her grades were lower than my daughter's, she considered all mid-tier, realistic schools "beneath her".  She commented several times that such-and-such school was okay for so-and-so, but SHE had worked very hard in high school and had earned the right to attend a top-notch university.  She applied to only three schools:  Our state's flagship public university (17K, an excellent bargain), the most prestigious private school in our state (60Kish?), and an equally prestigious out-of-school private school ($40K + travel expenses).  She bought into the "follow your dream" garbage hook, line and sinker.  In the long run, she was rejected by the two in-state schools, leaving her with only one option:  The 40K out-of-state school.  She counted on financial and aid scholarships appearing in droves.  She does have financial need, and she was offered a Pell grant . . . and loans.  But she can't borrow enough to attend the out-of-state school, and her parents don't have the credit rating to borrow on her behalf or to co-sign for her.  She was well and truly screwed.  The upshot:  She didn't go to school anywhere last fall.  Instead, while her friends went away to school, she (being "too good" for community college) stayed at her minimum-wage job and took up drinking.  Personally, I think she's depressed.  I might be too, if I were in her shoes.  But it all comes down to poor choices.  She could've attended the same school my daughter chose -- her Pell grant would've covered 2/3 of the cost, and she could've finished with small loans. 


  • Handlebar Stache
  • *****
  • Posts: 1156
Excellent reply! I love the stories and the advice, but I would throw in one caveat.

Choose a good time (i.e., not the first day of school or exam week) and visit your child's guidance counselor.  Come with a list of questions, and be prepared to learn things!

This is not a guarantee. Not all counselors are created equal. After years of working in schools, most of the counselors I have worked with seem to be the bastard children of HR Reps and Time Warner Cable Reps when i comes to helpfulness.