Finally, a college decision!

I’m not sure, but I think my high school senior is ready to commit to her choice of school for next year. It’s been a yearlong process since we first started touring schools, and analyzing what would be a good fit for her (academically) and us (financially), and even for the whole family (emotionally).

Quite frankly, this whole college admissions process is such a game. It’s an emotional roller coaster for so many kids and their families. Just think about all the aspects of coming to an agreement about this very large investment:

  • Does the school offer a good fit for the skills and knowledge the student wants to acquire?
  • Does the student fit the school’s academic profile?
  • Does the school fit the student’s cultural and community expectations?
  • Does the school have a good record and network for assisting graduates into their preferred careers?
  • Does the school’s cost reflect good value for the student?
  • How does the cost affect the student’s and family’s finances?

I want to start by saying that I think MOST kids start their search on the wrong foot. Instead of starting with the notion of “What’s the most prestigious school my child can get into?” what if all parents helped their children started a search with the question, “What’s the best value out there for the money?” or “What do I want my finances or the finances of my family to look like in four years?”

MOST kids should start their search this way, but I do think there is a percentage of elite students who ought to be pursuing the elite institutions. We all think that our Johnny or Suzie are in that elite category, but honestly, most aren’t. I believe that the top half of the academically-gifted students are on the high end of average. No offense to your own (or my own) little snowflake.

I think there is so much pressure to have your child’s worth (and ours as parents) wrapped up in their college choice. I know some of the best and brightest kids out there aren’t getting into these elite institutions, and if they are, they are severely handicapping their financial futures for many years to come, impeding their ability to invest and grow their net worth early.

The best advice I can offer is to start early and find schools that offer all sorts of opportunities for your kid…opportunities for their admission, opportunities for their intellectual growth and well-being, and opportunities for a sound (or northing more than a slightly strained) financial future. If you have to, find every school within an acceptable location radius that meets the student’s educational needs. Find the net cost calculator for each school. Review the academic qualifications to see where your child fits comfortably. Plug in their unweighted GPA, class rank, and test scores to estimate the amount of merit money they are likely to receive. Seriously, if your child is a high school freshman, START NOW.

After doing this, you have two choices: focus on the schools that are “affordable” and/or start stashing every extra penny you have. Your child can also start working to build their own savings and working to improve their grades, which will increase the amount of merit money they’ll be offered.

My child applied to six schools, two safe, two probable, and two stretch schools. She was accepted into all six, so academically, we found good “fits” for her high school transcript (unweighted 3.5 with six honors/AP courses, above average SATs, and about the 10th-12th percentile in her graduating class).

We received no needs-based aid, which we didn’t expect with our dual high-tech incomes and substantial net worth. The fully-loaded costs for these schools ranged between $24 and $62k. She was offered merit money at all but one school, bringing the price ranges down to $20k to $53k.

And yes, you parents need to show some tough love. We’ve always told our children that we were willing to pay the going rate at our in-state flagship university. They are free to apply anywhere, but there must be enough merit money to cover (most of) the difference.

The odds-on favorite on the list had a reduced cost to us of $40k/year. Ouch. A bit more than we’d hoped for, but an excellent fit for her. Loved the school, the community, everything about it.

There was only one school we didn’t visit before the applications were submitted. A state school that is a few hours away. The program appeared to be a great fit on paper, but would the big school be intimidating? We went. We toured. And we loved it. The program was exactly everything our child was looking for. The facilities were better than expected. And, they even offered a favorite extra curricular activity.

And it’s cost? “Only” $24k! How did we do that? Well, the degree is a niche program not offered in our own state’s higher education network. Instead of paying out-of-state rates, the school offered to match in-state tuition for our own state’s flagship state university, AND then there was additional merit scholarship.

This is excellent news for us, and we’re thrilled that she found such a perfect match for her college years. We were also thrilled with the $40k/year school, but the extra $64k in our accounts means we can afford to send the second child to school some day. Assuming costs haven’t completely out of control by then.

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