Most college searches begin with a dream.
It might be a red-brick, green-ivy dream. It might be a bright-lights, big-city dream. Your high-schooler might dream of going to a college in a scenic New England town, in the mountains of North Carolina, or in sunny SoCal.
The problem with dreams, however, is that they often smack hard into reality. It’s a parent’s job to steer the college search in a practical direction and manage a child’s expectations. Start the process early — 10th grade is not too soon to have conversations with your child about college planning. Here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Begin the college search process by talking about finances.
Experts say you should begin having college-cost conversations as early as ninth grade, so your child has a clear-eyed view of what it will take for them to attend school. Don’t be vague; show your kid hard numbers so they understand your family’s finances. “Tell the truth,” author Ron Lieber urges parents. “Kids should know what it takes to provide the lifestyle they enjoy, so they can make informed choices about school and a career that will allow them to replicate that lifestyle, or exceed it, or live smaller — whatever their goal is.”
This talk shouldn’t be a lecture, but a two-way conversation. Listen to your child. Talk about how loans and financial aid work, and how the sticker price on a year of college probably isn’t the net price your family will pay. Ask your child how they think they can contribute to their education costs.
Step 2: Make a wish list together. Then, broaden it.
You don’t want to squash your child’s dreams — but you do want to encourage them to consider a range of options. First, ask your child to write down what they’re looking for, in terms of:
- Location: Big city or small town? How far from home?
- Type: Two-year or four-year? Public or private?
- Size: Tiny, medium or enormous?
- Majors: What specific programs might interest your student? Are there non-traditional majors offered?
- Academics: Competitive or less so? Specialty programs or honors programs?
- Student Culture: Innovative or traditional? Social or sedate?
Ask her to rank these qualities by how important they are. Then, explore her thought process. For instance: Why does she want to go to a private school? What does she think the advantages are? If it’s too expensive, would she consider attending community college for two years and then transferring?
Your high-schooler might resist doing all this work. “I already know where I want to go,” your daughter may say. “UNC-Chapel Hill, just like all my friends.” But this exercise works! Scientists who study decision making have found “a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself.”[i] This means the best way to avoid buyer’s remorse is to turn an “A or B” decision into an “A, B, C, D or E” decision.
Step 3: Develop a list of college prospects.
Using the criteria on the wish list, your high-schooler can come up with a list of schools to consider. There are a ton of online college search apps and resources that can help, such as:
- BigFuture by College Board, which makes it easy to search and sort colleges using filters like location, selectivity, sports and diversity. Each filter can be set to “don’t care,” “want,” or “must have.”
- Cappex, a college matchmaking site that offers to assess how well a student will fit at a particular school. The “What Are My Chances?” feature can calculate a student’s approximate odds of getting into a specific school, based on GPA, SAT scores and other factors.
- College Navigator, from the National Center for Education Statistics, is the place to drill down for specific details on a school. You can look at important stats like net price, retention and graduation rates, and the percentage of applicants admitted.
Step 4: Plan your college visits.
This is the fun part! It’s also the most important part of the college search process, because no amount of research can replace an actual, in-person visit. Schedule your campus visit for a time when school in in session, if possible. Take the tour and arrange for your child to spend the night in a dorm room, if the college offers that option.
Encourage your student to ask questions about safety, class size, financial aid, campus culture, dining-hall food, etc. It’s helpful to take notes — not about the stats (you can always look that up) but about memorable moments and what makes each college special. If you visit a dozen or more over spring break, as many families do, it can be easy to confuse one school with another. Remind your child, too, that there’s no such thing as the One Perfect College. Once your student finds friends and an academic major they’re passionate about, they’ll be happy wherever they end up.
As you move from the college search process into the college financing process, consider protecting your investment in your child’s education with tuition insurance. Many parents don’t realize that colleges won’t refund their tuition money if a student must leave school mid-semester. Tuition insurance can save families from a major financial loss by reimbursing tuition and other college costs when a student withdraws for a covered reason. Learn more about how tuition insurance works.