Protecting the College Investment: 5 Things Parents Need to Know

The pricetag for an undergraduate college degree seems daunting and insurmountable. However, there are steps parents can take to ensure the college investment is a favorable one.

For many of us, the pricetag for an undergraduate college degree seems daunting and insurmountable. However, there are steps parents can take to ensure the college investment is a favorable one, providing students benefits during their undergraduate years and after graduation. It is essential to view college as not just a financial investment, but also as an investment that can challenge and expand a student’s academic abilities. Additionally, the college years are an important time for students to develop critical skills needed to build a successful career path.

Preparing for those college costs requires that we look at the investment from several angles, including financing. The following suggestions should not only ease the pain of writing the tuition check, but more importantly ensure that doing so was worthwhile.

1. Engage in financial planning

It is never too early to start thinking about financing your child’s college education. In fact, the college investment is often only second to a home investment. While the cost of attendance at many private colleges currently exceeds $50,000 per year, there are steps that families can take to manage the costs effectively and in a manner that enables them to fulfill other financial goals, such as retirement.

Consider working with a financial planner, as well as attending (often, free) workshops, webinars, and other resources offered by organizations such as MEFA (Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority) and AAA Student Lending. MEFA offers workshops to parents with children of all ages, beginning with Pre K. In addition, the organization’s website is an invaluable tool for both students and parents at all stages of navigating both the college search and financial aid processes. AAA offers financial aid assistance to its Southern New England members and also invites members of the public to attend some of its financial aid awareness events. Most states have their own organization similar to MEFA. Families should not be shy about contacting them and asking for assistance.

2. Ask your child to invest

Encourage your children, the prospective applicants, to also invest in the financing of their education by working in part-time jobs and applying the earnings towards college expenses. Students should also search for scholarships throughout their high school career. Multiple scholarship search websites are available, including this site, as well as FinAid and Fastweb. High school guidance counselors and librarians can help students search for scholarship opportunities while in school. Lastly, if you think your child may be a candidate for merit scholarships that recognize academic achievement, extracurricular leadership, and/or community service efforts, your son or daughter can easily peruse for scholarship opportunities.

3. Find a college match

The best way to earn a return on the college investment is to invest in a college that genuinely meets your child’s needs, both academically and personally. The college should also offer a supportive environment that will allow your child to take creative risks and mature. Too often prospective college applicants and parents place more emphasis on the prestige of a college’s name, rather than focusing on finding the best fit. Students are most successful in college environments where they are able to make meaningful social connections and achieve their academic goals. Simply put, students succeed when they are happy.

How can a student identify a good college match? Start answering this question with ample self-reflection followed by copious college research. Then, visit prospective schools. Campus visits are arguably the best way a student can decide whether or not a school is a good fit. When touring colleges, students should pay attention to the big picture of campus life, including academic programs, social life opportunities, residential and dining options, learning support services, campus location, etc. Students should ask themselves, “Can I see myself here?” If the answer is “no,” then they should feel confident that a better college option is out there and continue exploring.

School-based college counselors, as well as private counselors, are available to assist families in developing thoughtful college lists that focus on finding the right match. Committing to this priority will enable both students and parents experience ROI on many levels, from academic achievement in the undergraduate years to success in the workforce after graduation.

4. Help build your child’s academic “tool kit”

Students are more likely to succeed in college if they are well prepared for the experience academically. If students display a weakness in organization and study skills in high school, consider hiring a tutor to help your child improve in these areas. Strong writing skills are also essential as college professors expect students to understand grammar rules and be able to successfully execute various writing styles, including analytical, creative, persuasive, etc. Students will also face an increase in homework in college and will need to assume more independence regarding the choices they make. Strengthening critical skills in time management, as well as the aforementioned areas, will serve your child well when presented with higher-level academic demands. If you notice your child is struggling in any way in school or could benefit from brushing up on these essential skills, don’t delay getting help. Consult with your child’s teachers, guidance counselor, school psychologist, private college counselor, or mentor to identify the best course of action for building your child’s “tool kit” of skills to master any academic challenge.

5. Encourage safe and healthy choices

When children matriculate to a residential college setting, they are faced with many choices that they have never confronted previously. Parents are also not present to supervise their children directly, so it is critical that students use their independence wisely. The best way to ensure that students make healthy, safe decisions in social settings involving dating relationships, substance abuse, and more is for them to be prepared, and the best way for them to prepare for these moments is, as with anything, practice. I’m not suggesting that students start experimenting with the very things we hope they avoid, but parents should not try to shield children from these situations by forbidding them to go to high school dances, parties, and the like. Instead, parents can use these situations as teaching moments and advise their children how to handle themselves responsibly. Teens will face awkward and challenging moments in the college social scene and are most likely to emerge from them in a good place if they have some practice under their belts. Finding success in the classroom, as well as in the social arena, is vital for students’ college experience to be meaningful and rewarding.

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