Whenever I visit college campuses, I try to take the same tour as parents and prospective students. I am as interested in what they think of the school as what the tour guide has to say. I meet parents who have allowed their student to take the lead in their college search as well as those who wanted their student to favor one school over all others, whether it be for cost, closeness to home, choice of a major, or perceived prestige. It’s best to find a happy medium.
It’s been 35 years since I applied to college, but when I did, I was given one rule by my parents: I could attend any school I wanted, though I would only get as much financial help as I would need to attend Rutgers, my home state university. I didn’t like that rule back then. But as an adult I realized that was fair. If I did not want to go to Rutgers, I could go to a less expensive school, try for scholarships, or work at a job to make up the difference. It made the most sense for me to go to Rutgers, and it all worked out. I got into some very good graduate schools, including three universities that I could not have gained admission to as an undergrad. I also owed very little money. I did not need to earn a high salary to pay off my student loans.
Which leads me to a major point for parents: if you don’t have the money to pay the total costs from the get-go, then say so and explain why. Explain the risks of taking on tremendous debt, to your student—and make sure you fully understand those risks yourself. Don’t wait until your student is ready to visit colleges or start filling out applications. Be a partner in the search.
How can you be a good partner? For one thing, ask your student what s/he wants from a school: big vs. small student body and classes, close to home vs. farther away, city vs. college town, sports culture, academic program, and so on. Ask what s/he believes the ideal to be. Then work together and try to find it. And don’t force one particular school or another on your student, unless s/he truly wants to look into that school.
Most likely you will find private as well as public schools that meet your student’s interests. If money is an issue, and you have a long list of schools, narrow them down by checking out the middle 50% of the standardized test scores and accepted/admitted GPA for each school. If your student’s scores are above the top of this range, then congratulations, s/he may qualify for merit-based aid, scholarships that do not need to be repaid. If they fall within the middle-to-high end of the range, then your student may gain admission, though not necessarily merit-based aid. Try to eliminate schools that you cannot afford to find those that are most likely to help you reduce your costs and potential debts.
Your partnership does not end once you have chosen schools. You have deadlines to meet to complete financial aid forms, just as your student has deadlines to apply and take tests. Hold each other to them. Make sure that your student’s applications are neat and complete; a mess is most likely to be ignored. Sift through offers of admission and aid together to make such a school can work out financially. Then let your student visit the more affordable schools on his/her own.
To me, the student should also visit and stay on campus, preferably on a Friday night so s/he sees what happens on weekends. If you can, come back to pick up your student at the end of the visit. Take a walk around campus, if you have time, then settle into a restaurant or coffee shop to recap together, before any details of your student’s visit are forgotten. Listen and ask thoughtful questions, as a good partner should. And in the end, remember, your student should make the final decision.