Don’t Let the College Dream Become a College Nightmare
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
September 29, 2023
This time of year, juniors are starting to consider where they want to apply in the coming year and seniors are starting their application and financial aid process now through mid-spring and are deciding where to attend when acceptances (eventually) roll in. Unfortunately, because some juniors didn’t set themselves up for success, many families, now with seniors, are receiving college letters telling them what they are expected to pay for the privilege of attending their child’s dream school. It can be a dream, or it can be a horror story.
Those of us in the world of helping college families hear lots of stories. Some stories are thrilling–a perfect fit college with a price tag the family has planned for and can manage.
On the flip side, stories of incredibly smart students who were rejected or waitlisted at every school because their application list was made up of reach schools with single-digit acceptance rates. Suddenly, these students feel like failures for the first time in their lives.
We hear from families and students who applied to schools without consideration of what the actual price tag will be…with no strategic plan when applying on how to get the most college for their money. When they find out the actual price, students are heartbroken, and families are willing to jump into massive debt to make the dream happen.
Of course, the reality can be very different. You MUST have a game plan. Don’t wait until your student is submitting college applications in the fall of their senior year to reach out for help. Give yourself time. Making a plan and following it through is not something you can do overnight.
Block time. Put it on your calendar.
Find that you need extra help? Seek out the professional resources where you need them whether it is choosing a college, picking a major, mastering testing, or being able to pay for it. (We know lots of professionals in the field who can help if you ever need to be pointed in a certain direction.)
Sometimes professional help has the added bonus of holding you accountable to help get things done. I like to say I can go to a gym, drink a smoothie, and leave. Not a successful workout! Belonging to the gym doesn’t make me work out. But if I join a group class or hire a trainer, I am motivated to conquer what I need to do.
Back to the game plan…try some of these:
Know your deadlines.
When are applications due? (usually by November of senior year) When does the FAFSA need to be completed? (the same time) When do final decisions need to be made? Knowing the deadlines not only keeps you from missing anything, but also gives you time in advance to get things done.
Have the money conversation with your student.
Sit down together to examine the financial situation. Not sure how to do that? Click here for tips on having that talk. Students find it valuable to understand the impact of their grades/GPA and test scores on how much college you can afford. They want to understand how it works.
Understand the importance of building your school list.
Don’t go shopping willy-nilly defeating your game plan. Building a strategic list of reach, match, and safety schools. A reach school is one where your academics fall below the school’s range for average freshmen. A match college is just that…one where your student’s academics match the school’s average freshmen scores. Safety schools are ones where you are fairly certain based on their acceptance criteria that you will be accepted.
But in addition to reach, match, and safety considerations, you need to keep a little positioning in mind. We talked about appealing a financial aid award letter, but you can’t do that without alternate offers to compare one against the other. Also, if financial need is a possibility, does your list include colleges that meet that need?
At Capstone Wealth Partners, we work with families who ideally have a Junior in high school.
We can help you build your college list to strategically position your student to find the best college that best meets their needs at the best price for you.
If you have made a plan and submitted applications to the best list for your student, you won’t have tears when this time of year rolls around. You’ll be able to provide that college dream for your child.
Originally published April 2017.
Updated on September 2023.
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