Your Child Needs to Understand the Financial Piece of College
Finding the right college can take a lot of research and time. The more collaborative the decision-making process between you and your child, the smoother the process will be and the higher the chances that your student ends up attending the right school.
No parent wants to be stuck in a situation where their child has a strong attachment to an unaffordable school. Choosing a school is often an emotional decision, especially from your teenager’s perspective. While there is a place for gut feeling in the discussion, you as the parent need to balance this out with a more holistic perspective that looks at social, academic, and financial fit.
The financial piece especially! Impress on your kids as early as possible just how expensive college is and what they are really getting into. Set ground rules for your child and be as transparent as you can with how you will assist financially. This cannot be stressed enough.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
Think of the student loan crisis, which has arguably cemented the stereotype of the “whiny millennial.” Imagine that you are a 17 or 18-year-old kid whose parents have both explicitly and implicitly touted college as the normal—or only—path forward. Many of your peers are going to college without a second thought because that’s just the “thing to do.” The most expensive things you’ve bought yourself are maybe, MAYBE, a phone or laptop or gaming system. Your parents pay for pretty much everything else.
At 17 or 18, do you really have any concept of how expensive college really is? Scratch that, do you have any concept of how money really works? Do you have the foresight to forgo a more expensive Ivy League school for another school that pays you to go there? Do you truly understand the risks of student loans? Of graduating from a high-cost university with a degree in a low-paying field and a disproportional amount of debt? Is college even right for you?
The point of this is not to rag on millennials, teenagers, or student loans. Rather, I’m calling out to the parents to make sure each of your children understands what they are facing when it comes to attending college.
Your Kid Needs Skin in the Game
What’s a great way to involve your student in the conversation? Give them ways to take the bull by horns and make an impact on their college funding and admissions processes.
The opportunity to have some skin in the game helps students understand what sort of challenges their parents are navigating to pay for their college. Taking on a stake in paying for college gives the student more motivation to get as much out of the experience as they can.
Listed below are a handful of ways that a student can address their own financial aid and college funding outside of just working harder for straight As on their report card next marking period.
1. Understand the Influence and Risks of Social Media
Your child needs to be aware that his/her social media accounts are fair game in the admissions process. Let’s be realistic: college admissions officers are not scraping the internet for dirt on each and every applicant, but they may turn to social media to look for any red flags. Kaplan Test Prep discovered that 36% of college admissions officers they polled looked at the social media profiles of prospective students.
The good news: this works in both ways. 38 percent of those officers who checked an applicant’s social media profile said that it had a positive impact. We talk so much about the negatives of social media; it turns out, your student can use social media to improve their chances of getting admitted by highlighting their strong character, thoughtfulness, and community involvement.
Even more fascinating, demonstrating interest via a few quality engagements with the school on social media may improve your student’s chances of admission and financial aid as well.
2. Be Open to Work-Study
Participating in a work-study program is a great way for your student to gain some additional pocket money, help pay for college, meet people at school, and add structure to their day. Many of these work-study opportunities involve getting paid to study while working in the gym or library.
In order to qualify for work-study, you must submit the FAFSA and demonstrate financial need. Make sure to mark YES when the FAFSA form asks if your student is interested in work-study programs.
3. Become Informed on Private Scholarships Early
One of the biggest myths out there is that you have to be a valedictorian-level student to receive a scholarship. Nope, not even close. It helps to be a decent student, but there are many scholarships that take other factors into account.
The main reason why this belief prevails is because the majority of students who apply for scholarships send out a couple of applications to the largest, most competitive pools. The most realistic way to get free money for college is to go after those small scholarships in your community. You would be surprised how many areas of interest and talent these scholarships cover.
For example, my mom sent me on the scholarship hunt in my junior year of high school. I was able to find a small scholarship that I was eligible for specifically because my grandfather once worked in the Motor-Trucking industry. With Pop Pop’s old job, a short application, and a 2- page essay that I wrote on the team bus my junior year, I wound up having most of my books paid for with that scholarship during college!
Prepare and apply for scholarships as early as you can.
Many families wait until their student is in their second semester of senior year to start looking at private scholarships. This is completely understandable given how chaotic the first semester of senior year can be. But why wait until senior year when you can be planning and applying beforehand?
There are scholarships out there that you can apply to well before senior year. At the very least, it would be hugely in your benefit to encourage your child to start eyeing scholarships earlier in high school and make a realistic game plan for applying later on. Consider utilizing summer and winter breaks to your advantage and giving your child incentives for formulating a scholarship plan and applying to scholarships that fit their skills and interests.
4. Learn About Schools of Interest Early on
Maybe your student has an idea of where they want to go early in high school. Most of the time it’s where a parent or older sibling went or maybe a school with a great sports program; whatever the reason, the student has identified it as a school of interest early on in the college search.
When this is the case, learning as much as possible about the school as early as possible can help the student confirm whether they want to seriously pursue the college; doing some early research may uncover some things about the school in question that makes the student eliminate it from contention.
By eliminating or confirming a contender school early on, your family will save time and energy down the line when things start to get really hectic in late high school.
5. Contribute to Their Own 529 Plan
If you, a grandparent, friend, or other family member have established a 529 Savings Plan for the student, the student themselves can make contributions into this account.
Since anyone can contribute to a 529 plan, a student can take a portion of the money they earn and put it away knowing that those savings are earmarked for their college education.
Teaching your kids to save is incredibly valuable. It is also very challenging!
Every family is different, but think about these two questions: What motivates your child? How can you show them that their savings are directly benefitting them in the long run?
Your kids don’t see the big picture like you do. It might make sense to offer incentives for hitting savings goals. Maybe you offer them 10% cash back on their deposits, or maybe take them to a ball game, museum, or amusement park. Or, think farther outside the box: propose added video-game time or a day free of chores.
6. Consider Alternative Paths
The four-year university route is not right for everybody.
Encourage your student to weigh the pros and cons of going to college right away. Dropping out with student debt can be debilitating.
Would your student be better off at a community college, a trade school, or an apprenticeship?
Take community college, for example. Yes, your student may not get the same social experience compared to a traditional university, BUT it is far cheaper, offers more flexibility, has smaller classes, and allows your student to determine whether college is the right move and what they are interested in at a lower cost. Plus, your child can still transfer to a traditional four-year college if they determine that’s the right move.
7. Lower Paying Internship vs. Summer Job
If your student is in college and coming home to visit, they may be looking for employment opportunities over the summer.
Depending on their major, they may want to consider taking an unpaid (or lower-paying) internship in the field that they’re interested in, especially if your child qualifies for need-based financial aid.
While it may pay less than their previous summer job, the student earning less income means less income for them to report the next time they complete FAFSA. Additionally, the internship experience can be extraordinarily beneficial when they ultimately enter the job market. Some internships may even be able to qualify for college credits.
8. Work on Essay Writing/Test Prep
Senior year in high school is a blizzard of college applications and standardized tests.
One of the ways your child can potentially increase their financial aid is to score better on the SAT/ACT. Some schools offer large merit scholarships that take ACT/SAT test scores into account.
You can also knock out college credits and potentially save big money by scoring well on the AP Exams and/or CLEP Tests.
Encourage your child to spend extra time studying in areas where they may not typically test as well in an attempt to get a better aggregate score. Perhaps, a test prep course or tutor makes sense for your student. Again, incentives always help!
Additional preparation on essay writing can improve test scores; even better, it can help improve the quality of any application, scholarship, or supplemental essays your student may need to write throughout the process of finding and selecting a college.
The application and testing essay practice will help immensely with the scholarship essay process and will help your student get into a better school, win scholarship money, AND be a better communicator and self-advocate in the future.