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Been There, Done That, Ready to Write the Tuition Check

Reality sign postFamilies are stressed out about college. And why shouldn’t they be? If all you hear about college admissions is what gets reported in the media, you would be certain that outstanding students everywhere are being denied admissions in the schools they so rightly deserve while taking out massive loans for jobs that don’t exist.

But it’s kind of like all of the reality shows on TV, they really don’t have much to do with the reality of most people who watch them. But who wants to watch well-adjusted individuals and families work out their issues in a reasonable manner?

So I thought it might be useful to hear from some people who have successfully navigated the college admissions process as a reminder that it is possible.

Wendy Nelson has been through the process with her oldest daughter who will be starting college in the fall. She has an excellent blog, My Kid’s College Choice, where she shares lessons she has learned. Wendy has been kind enough to answer a few questions that might be useful to other families in their college search.

When did you start you start the college search? Was it the same time as your daughter?

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My daughter went to a college fair at a local community college the fall of her sophomore year and she came home with tons of college brochures. That pretty much kicked off the college search. I was anxious to find colleges that I thought would be a good fit for her, so I started searching online and making a list shortly after that.

Why were you the “lead role” in your daughters college selection process?

When she brought home the brochures from the college fair, she just wanted to leave them in a pile and be done with it. I was anxious to start looking through them. I got her to at least sit down with me and sort them out into a “maybe interested” pile and a “not interested” pile.

That was a struggle to get through though!

I tried to start questioning her on what size school did she think she might be interested in, how far from home, etc., but she really didn’t want to think about any of it.

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Being a project manager by trade, I saw this as a great project to manage. I kept thinking that if I armed myself with enough information, I could start getting her interested in the college search process. My plan was to sneak in little conversations here and there to try to get more preferences out of her to move the process along. It was very slow going because she really didn’t want to think about it most of the time.

We went on our first college visit the summer before her junior year and that actually helped to make it a little more real for her, but not enough that she wanted to do her own research.

Looking back now, I am not sure what would have happened if I wasn’t interested in the college search and left her on her own with it. She might have been one of those kids who springs into action and starts looking sometime before senior year, but I also know a lot of kids who didn’t have a parent encouraging them to search and they got halfway into their senior year and didn’t know what they were going to do after high school.

What do you wish you had known when you first started looking for colleges?

Oh, there are so many things!

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The number one thing I wish I had known was how much college was really going to cost.?  I was one of those parents who thought I had done a good job of saving for college because I was throwing a small amount into a 529 and an UGMA (that one was a mistake) every month. I never increased that amount as my oldest daughter grew up.

When I started looking at college sticker prices, I started panicking. It wasn’t until the beginning of her junior year that I learned about the FAFSA forecaster. When I ran that, it was a pretty rude awakening to see how much we would probably be expected to pay out-of-pocket. If I had known that number a few years earlier, I would have upped the amount we were saving every month and I might have started with a different list of schools to look at.

I wish I had understood more about the advertised price vs. the true net price of schools. I left a lot of schools with an expensive sticker price off of our list because I thought there was no way we could afford them. Looking back, I would have at least run net price calculators on more of the high-priced schools to see if they should have at least been considered.

Another big one is the paradox for kids with great GPAs and good test scores. Originally, I thought my daughter was special because she had good statistics. The more I read online, the more I realized that there were tons of other kids out there just like her, fighting for the same admissions and scholarships.

There are two ways these kids can go – either make it into a highly selective school and pay more or target less selective schools and get good merit scholarships. I still wrestle with that one. Nobody seems to have an easy answer. It kind of fits into the whole return on investment question and whether it is better to have a degree from a top-name school or whether it is just as good to have a lesser name school and do more while you are there.

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One more big thing was having enough time for college visits. When your child is involved in a lot of school activities, this becomes much more difficult. We struggled to find free weekends. We didn’t really want her to miss school to do a visit because it can be so hard to fit in make-up work.

We ended up combining three college visits with our summer vacation before her senior year. That was exhausting!?  Plus, with summer visits, there is not an opportunity to see what the campus is like with students everywhere and there is no opportunity to sit in on classes.

I wanted her to experience small, medium and large campus environments, but we ran out of time to complete that.?  I’m glad we started looking as early as we did because if we had waited, we would have missed out on some of the visits.

What were the critical factors in looking/deciding on a college?

For me it was value – balancing cost against opportunity.

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I wanted my daughter to be engaged and challenged in her classes, have lots of opportunities for extra-curricular activities, be somewhere she felt like she belonged, and have a good chance at success, including being happy there through graduation and being attractive to future employers.

A strong advising emphasis for undecided students was also important because she had few ideas on what she might want to major in or do for a career.

I wanted to avoid loans as much as possible, so when the admission offers and financial aid packages came in, we ruled out any schools that required a heavy reliance on loans.

Also, I wanted to avoid relying on any need-based grant money. I was surprised to get any at the schools she applied to (after my experience, I am a strong proponent of filing the FAFSA even if you think your income is too high!), but I needed to think through the next four years and anticipated increases in our incomes. I didn’t want to get into the situation where the need-based component disappeared and we were left wondering how we were going to cover the difference.

For my daughter, she was really interested in not being too close or too far from home (two to four-hour range), not being in a rural setting (we live in a town of 4,000 people and she wanted something different), and not having a campus that was too small or too large. She considered less than 2,000 students too small, but we never really got a chance to define what was too large.

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I do think she may have limited herself somewhat by her criteria, but given the number of schools out there and the limited time to explore, you have to draw the line somewhere to make your list of potential schools manageable.

Did you use any books and did you find them useful?

I didn’t really use books much. I leaned more towards using websites because they were free and readily accessible. I did get a chance to look through Loren Pope’s book, Colleges that Change Lives and read about the schools included that I thought my daughter might be interested in. I thought that one was very helpful if you are already somewhat interested in any of the schools included.

During my daughter’s senior year, I purchased Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College. I wish I had found it sooner. At that point, I had read so much online that most of the material was review for me. I think someone just starting out with the college search would greatly benefit from this book though. I am currently reading College Unbound by Jeffrey Selingo. It is a very eye-opening look at the state of higher education in the U.S.

Next Week: The Results

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