I loved it when families came for college tours. They were excited, happy and sometimes even nervous. However, some families weren’t sure what questions to ask because everything (everything!) was new to them.
I compiled a list of must-ask questions to ask on a college tour for admission counselors, financial aid professionals, professors, coaches and more. You may think of others that pertain directly to your child’s situation, but this should give you a great start!
The student tour guide offers the most candid look at what a college is like. Spend as much time as you can with your child and the tour guide and make sure your child asks questions, even if the tour guide probably isn’t going to be your child’s best friend. Yes, the student is groomed to give canned responses to some questions but talking to the tour guide is the best way to get a feel for a college.
What’s your favorite thing about this college?
What’s your least favorite thing about the college you attend?
Where might my child spend a lot of time if he/she is a student here?
Why did you choose this college?
What are the students like?
Which residence hall is your favorite? Where did you live your first year?
Where do you live now? Why did you choose to live there?
What is the food like?
What is your major?
Is this a suitcase college? (Do people go home a lot on the weekends?)
What activities does the college have available for students?
Is it easy to get an internship here? Have you had an internship?
How available are professors?
How does the college handle communication?
Have you found it difficult to handle the costs of college?
What are your plans for after graduation? Do you plan to go to graduate school? Get a job?
Is it easy to get a work-study job on campus? Why or why not?
Where do first-year students typically get assigned for work-study? Can they request a work-study job?
How have online classes gone due to COVID-19? Has that been a seamless transition?
Are the classes rigorous? Have you found them manageable?
How do you manage classes and athletics? (If the student is an athlete and your child is a prospective athlete as well.)
How many tours did you go on before you chose this college?
Is this college far away from your hometown? How do you manage going home during breaks?
Is it easy to get involved in extracurricular activities?
Was it easy or difficult for you to get accepted into this college? How many other colleges did you apply to?
What do you do for fun and what is the social scene like?
What was the most surprising and difficult thing about adjusting to college life?
Admission Counselor Questions
You can call an admission counselor an “admission counselor” or an “admissions counselor.” What does an admissions counselor do? Check it out before you go on your visit! Generally, this is the person who will help you throughout the college search process. Your child will be assigned an admission counselor based on geography. You can search a map of the United States on any college’s website and find your child’s admission counselor. Here are some great questions to ask your child’s admission counselor. (I spent 12 years in college admission and I loved it when families asked me these questions!)
Admission Requirements and Process
What’s the application process?
What is the admission process, from start to finish, and what should my child expect after an application?
What ACT/SAT scores does my child need to attend your college? Is it optional?
Do you superscore test results (take the best score of each subject test on multiple ACT or SAT dates)?
Can my child self-report my standardized test scores?
Should my child aim for a certain grade point average? What are the requirements?
Does my child need to submit an essay or letters of recommendation? If so, what are the requirements?
Are there any other admission requirements we need to be aware of? What types of supporting materials does my child need to provide?
Does my child need to do an interview with an alumnus or college staff member to be admitted?
Are there different admission requirements for various departments or majors?
How can my child make his or her application stand out?
What are the most important admission factors at your college or university?
Do you accept the Common Application, the Coalition Application or the Universal College Application or do you have your own application?
What types of deadlines do you have for your applications?
Do you charge an application fee? How do we pay it?
Can we get a waiver for the application fee if the fee is a hardship for our family?
Do you have an applicant portal my child will need to use?
What are your recommendations for teacher evaluations, if required?
What does your ideal applicant look like?
How do you look at extracurricular activities and work experience in the admission process?
If my child applies early decision or early action to another college or university, can he or she apply to another college?
Do you defer admission to some students? If so, why, and what can my child do to be admitted?
Can my child defer admission once admitted?
Is the rigor of my high school taken into consideration when my child applies?
Who will read my child’s application?
Will it help my child to take advanced, accelerated or honors courses?
Can my child add/remove something from his application once it’s submitted?
How does my child track the status of her application?
Does your college ever rescind an admission offer?
If my child is rejected Early Decision, can he apply Regular Decision?
Does my child need to submit mid-year reports of her grades?
Are my child’s chances for admission to your university’s graduate school greater if she attends your university as an undergraduate?
How should my child submit transcripts from any college courses?
Are admission requirements different if my child is homeschooled?
Will my child’s financial aid award be different if she applies for admission under Early Decision, Early Action, etc.?
When do application decisions become available?
Is there a maximum number of students admitted from a particular country, region or school?
How should my child submit standardized test scores?
How do you determine which credits transfer?
Is admission competitive? How competitive?
Future Visit Details
You may want to come back! In that case, check with the admission counselor you’re talking to so you can find out which options are best. Check out my ultimate guide to Here are few questions you could ask:
Which visit days should my child attend throughout the year?
How do we arrange an on-campus overnight visit?
What’s the best way to arrange future visits in general?
What does a visit schedule look like if my child chooses to arrange future visits?
In your opinion, is it best to do a group visit day if we choose to visit again or is it best to do a personal campus visit?
Do you have competitive academic scholarships my child can interview for (and come back to campus another time)?
Why not ask the admission office about academics? Admission counselors can offer a candid overview of academics at the college they’re working at because what do they do all day long? They talk to current students who work in the admission office (and also hear their complaints and what they celebrate).
Do professors have an open-door policy? How accessible are they?
Are teaching assistants or professors the ones who teach the classes?
What is the average class size?
What is the student to faculty ratio?
Can you tell me about the [insert name] major? What are your most popular majors and classes?
How are classes selected?
Are there required first-year classes?
My child’s favorite subject in school is [insert favorite subject]. How can that translate to a major here?
How rigorous are classes here?
Tell me about academic support services here.
Does your college provide services if my child has a disability?
What is your graduation rate?
How many students go on to graduate school or become employed after graduation?
How many students get jobs in their majors or a related field?
What types of internships are available for students?
Is it possible to do research as an undergraduate student?
Is your school on the semester or quarter system?
Does your school offer pre-professional majors?
Are tutors available?
Demographics, Social Life and Other Activities
What types of clubs and organizations can my child get involved in?
What are the most popular clubs and organizations?
What’s the social life like on campus? What do students do for extracurricular activities?
What would you change about this college or university?
Do students usually attend sporting events, theatre events or more?
Is it possible for my child to start his or her own club or organization? What is the process to do that?
How many students study abroad? Is it a popular thing to do? How is study abroad structured here?
Is it easy to manage a collegiate athletic career and academics? How do coaches approach academics and athletics here?
What security measures are in place at your institution?
Is on-campus housing guaranteed?
Is my child required to live on campus?
How does the meal system work?
Is it easy to find a student job on or near campus?
How is housing assigned?
Can my child live on campus during school breaks?
How safe is the campus and the surrounding neighborhood?
What is the percentage of students of color on campus?
What is the percentage of students who live on campus?
Can you tell me the male-to-female ratio on campus?
How does parking on campus work?
Where are students who go to your school from?
How does your college or university accommodate students with food allergies?
What role do parents play in your community?
What is your freshman retention rate?
Financial Aid Professional Questions
You might want to meet with a financial aid professional as well — and that’s a great move. However, if you can’t get an appointment with someone in the financial aid office, admission counselors are well-versed in most financial aid topics and should be able to walk you through an award letter or answer basic questions about scholarships and loans. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
What is the tuition, room, board and fees at this school?
How much does tuition increase each year? Do scholarships increase to match the change?
What scholarships can my child qualify for? How does my child qualify for them?
Are there any merit-based scholarships available at your school?
Can my child receive grants? If so, what are the requirements?
How do loans work and how should we apply for them?
Can you explain in detail how a financial aid award is set up?
What amount will my child receive, using your school’s net price calculator or a financial aid estimator?
What are the interview or audition requirements for certain scholarships?
Can my child apply for talent-based scholarships?
What will happen if our family’s financial aid situation changes while my child is at your school?
Will my child qualify for work-study? How does work-study work here?
Does my child need to report outside scholarships? Will merit-based scholarships be “taken away” if my child receives a large outside scholarship?
Where should we send checks for outside scholarships?
Do we need to complete a CSS Profile?
How will we know if the FAFSA has been submitted correctly?
When will my child receive the financial aid award?
What is the deadline for applying for financial aid?
My child is undocumented. Is my child still eligible for financial aid?
How does financial aid work if my child studies abroad?
Can veterans or children of veterans receive financial aid at your school?
Can we apply for financial aid in future years if we do not apply the first year?
Will you help me file the FAFSA in person?
What kind of need-based aid can my child get?
How is work-study awarded?
How will the financial aid office help our family break down the costs?
What does the average student receive in financial aid from your school?
Are there other extra expenses we’ll need to be prepared for, like activity fees, biology lab fees, etc.? Can you give us a list of those additional expenses?
Faculty Member Questions
Many colleges and universities will grant you time with professors — you just have to ask. It can be intimidating for your student to meet with a faculty member but it’s well worth it! After all, your student may have that professor for classes. A professor can change the trajectory of a your student’s career and life. Here are some questions you and your child can ask:
Which classes do you teach?
What is your favorite class to teach? Why?
Why do you teach here?
What is your teaching style?
How often do terminal degreed professors teach the classes?
What are your top expectations at the beginning of any semester?
Do you help students with connections for internships and jobs after graduation?
Are undergraduates able to get research opportunities?
How do you measure success in your classroom?
What does a typical syllabus look like in one of your classes?
How does advising work? What’s the process to put together a student schedule?
When are your office hours? Is it easy for students to get their questions answered?
What is your average class size? For introductory classes? For advanced classes?
What are your most successful students doing now?
How do you communicate with students?
Do you put an emphasis on interactive or group work or put an emphasis on lectures?
How do you choose the textbooks a student will use during the semester?
Do you consider yourself to be approachable?
What should my child do if he or she is having trouble in your class?
Do you have teaching assistants (TAs)?
Are there any supplemental instruction (SI) sessions my student can go to during any given semester?
How have you handled online learning during COVID-19?
How much time do your students spend studying and completing assignments during the week?
Are your classes reading and writing intensive?
What types of issues do students bring to you during office hours?
Is there a capstone project or internship requirement for your program?
What does a typical path to graduation look like? What exact classes are required?
How long does it take the average student to graduate? Four years? Five years or more?
What is the academic community like in your department or program?
What resources are available to me?
Is service learning or similar opportunities for hands-on learning a priority in your classes?
Do you help students determine their career path or calling?
Do your students make connections between their academic studies and activities outside of class? Can you give us an example?
How do you work with students who choose to study abroad? Is there a best time during the academic program?
What other majors and minors do students usually combine with this major?
Do you do any other research or other projects that can affect what you teach here?
What are students surprised to learn when they’re in your class?
What do you do when students realize your major isn’t a fit?
You want to be sure that a college is a good fit for your child athletically if your child is an athlete — but make sure it’s a great fit academically and socially as well. Note that you’ll want to ask the admission office questions about grades, admission, SAT, ACT, academic scholarships, etc. — coaches should not answer admission questions.
A quick tip: Don’t bring up athletic scholarships right away — a coach wants you to demonstrate a team commitment first. Here are some questions you and your child may want to ask a coach.
Why do you coach? What is your coaching philosophy?
What are the holes in your program that my child can help fulfill?
How do you recruit?
What are you looking for in the right recruit?
Can you describe your program’s values?
What does a typical day look like for a player during the season?
How about the off-season program? What are the expectations?
How do you encourage your players academically?
What are the academic requirements for your program?
What do your players do during their free time?
Can you tell me your team’s total GPA and graduation rate?
Do the players typically live together on campus?
Is it easy for players to catch up after missed class time for games and meets? How do they usually do that?
My child wants to major in X. Is it possible to major in this and still play for your program?
How much of an impact do you see my child making on the team right away? Later on?
What does my child need to do to be evaluated by your staff?
Can you tell me more about your assistant coaches? What are their philosophies?
When does your coaching contract end? Do you see yourself here another four years?
How would you describe the team chemistry?
What are the current strengths and weaknesses of your team?
Get Your Questions Answered
I’ve included a lot of questions on this list! You’ll keep yourself pretty busy if you ask every single one of these questions on your college visit. However, note a few, write them down, take this link with you on a visit. Maybe this list will also inspire your own questions on your visit!
Here’s something I witnessed in the admission office many, many times: Parents playing an active role in the college search. It’s natural, right? We worked with families, not just students.
What happens when the student wants you to do it all? I saw a lot of this:
Parents who called me in the admission office (not their student).
Emails from parents with questions (I never heard from their kid).
Parents who filled out applications for their kids (it was sometimes obvious!)
Now, to be fair, students sometimes messaged me. The occasional student even talked to me on the phone.
One mom, Mrs. Bach, left me this voicemail: “This is Mrs. Bach, Emily’s secretary. Emily refuses to pick up the phone, so I’m calling to ask questions about your college’s music scholarship.”
It made me smile, but I also know Mrs. Bach was slowly being driven crazy by her daughter’s reluctance to handle her own college communication.
What should you do when your kid wants you to be a helicopter parent? (Maybe not even consciously?) I know you’ve probably heard this term before, but just in case: Helicopter parents before college hover and take care of every part of their child’s life. On the other hand, lawnmower parents mow down any person or obstacle that stands in the way of anyone or anything that causes their child discomfort or frustration.
Here are a few tips to set expectations, goals and work together. You may want your child to do most of the work but you may also know there are things (like the FAFSA) that may require you to lend a hand.
1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front
Make sure your child knows your comfort level with helping in advance. For example, you can tell your high schooler you’re definitely on board to assist during the college search process but you’re not going to do everything for him. Explain your reasoning and explain your limits way before the college search begins.
Remind your high schooler that completing college admission requirements, scholarships and more doesn’t mean he’s overburdened. Instead, explain that he’s gaining the mental strength he needs to get ready for college.
2. Divvy Up Responsibilities
Decide ahead of time who will handle specific parts of the college search. For example, you might decide you can handle the following:
Go to scholarship events at the college (if applicable)
Talk through financial aid awards
Obviously, you can pick and choose which tasks make the most sense for each of you. Your child may be completely fine with scheduling college visits on his own and doing robust scholarship searches.
No matter what, figure all this out ahead of time and gently hold each other accountable.
3. Set Goals Together
Setting goals together is different than splitting up responsibilities. Setting goals during the college search is a great way to make sure you’re on track. The beauty of goal-setting is that you can kick start it at any time, whether you’ve got a year left in the college search process or three. For example, let’s say your child is a junior in high school. You can map out goals over the next two years. Let’s say you’ve got twin eighth graders. Why not set some loose goals for the next four years?
Make sure your goals are specific, detailed and indicate when you’d like to accomplish them.
Let’s say one of your high schooler’s goals is to get into a prestigious university. He could even write it down: “Get into Carnegie Mellon.” But would that actually help him? Nah. A general phrase like that won’t help your child (or you!) hone in on exactly what you both need to do in order to make that happen.
Instead, research what it will take to get there. For example, let’s say you look up Carnegie Mellon’s requirements for the School of Architecture. You find out that your child must:
Apply Regular Decision before January 1 during senior year using the Common Application.
Submit a portfolio of creative work for admission to the school of architecture.
Complete an on-campus review of the portfolio submission.
What will it take to get there?
Here are some targeted goals your child could write:
Take an architecture software class at the local community college by May of sophomore year.
Talk to an architect in my community who can advise me on how to put together an architecture portfolio and assist with a project by June of sophomore year.
Design several small buildings using this software during junior year.
Design my aunt’s new home that she’s planning to build during junior year.
Create a portfolio that showcases design creativity and technical expertise in several types of architecture software like Grasshopper or Rhino3D fall of senior year.
Did you notice goal No. 1 on the list? It’s a goal that allows your child to take immediate action. Taking an immediate step toward a major goal makes it more real and builds momentum toward the ultimate goal.
Here’s a way you can apply it in another way. Let’s say your child has always wanted to travel to Europe with a friend, spouse orother family member. What’s one immediate step she could take to make it happen?
Call a travel agent today and discuss your future plans.
Request a brochure from a travel company.
Set a date within 24 hours. Why not?
See how doing those three things can make something seem so real for your child?
Your child can set small, realistic, specific and attainable goals that lead to the big goal in the end — getting into Carnegie Mellon. Or achieving a specific scholarship — or whatever that goal may be!
4. Write Down Those Goals!
Encourage your child to write down his or her goals. There’s such power in writing down goals! Put them in a place where you’ll both see them every day, whether they’re on a Post-it Note stuck to the bathroom mirror or a printed-out list on the refrigerator (as long as your child doesn’t see them as a constant nagging reminder!).
Trello, a free service, is a great way to handle scholarship applications or college applications. It could include categories like this:
Scholarships to apply for/ Applications to complete
Ready to submit
Trello is a great way to keep track of progress and all family members can use it to aid the college search.
5. Acknowledge Steps Taken
Once you and your child have set those goals, it’s time to tackle them. Now, what happens if your child finds that his or her goals are difficult to achieve?
Break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This might take a little more planning but it’s always better to make sure goals are achievable. Otherwise, it would be really easy to give up on them. Be flexible with due dates if it’s an option.
Every time your child achieves one of his or her goals or mini-goals, celebrate! Acknowledging achievements goes a very, very long way during the college search.
6. Pivot When Goals Aren’t Met
What happens if a goal slips right past your child because he just didn’t feel like doing the work or is unable to complete it in the allotted time?
For example, what if your child doesn’t want to do the work to get into Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program?
It might be time to go back to the drawing board and figure out whether that’s really your child’s best path. Maybe committing to an architecture major at 18 isn’t the best option! Get to the root of the problem — have some serious conversations with your child and decide what you’ll do next.
So what do you do?
You move forward with the next plan. Maybe the next goal is to apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application after August 15. Maybe the new goal is to get into Arcadia University, closer to home! Break down those goals, write down the new goals and move forward.
Nip Helicoptering (or Lawnmowering) in the Bud
Your child may be used to your heavy helping hand (remember that science fair project? Yikes!) but now’s the time for your child to start learning how to move independently. Recognizing that deserves a huge round of applause.
One more quick tip: It might not help to air frustrations during this time. You want to be as positive as possible during the college search and you want to be your child’s partner during the process. Remember, your goals may not be the same as your child’s goals. It can be tough to wrap your head around (and tough to accept!) alternative decisions.
What are your immediate thoughts and feelings when you think about this?
Do you feel excitement for the years ahead? Sad at the idea of being an empty nester? Do you feel a deep spike of fear when you consider how you’ll pay for it? Maybe you feel all of the above!
Hang in there — it’s normal to feel a rollercoaster of emotions.
I’ll always remember the unforgettable Andriuskevicius triplets. (That last name! Three times!) The three high schoolers came through the admission office looking so identical. It was so fun talking with them. Two of the kids ended up enrolling at the private college I worked for. One enrolled at a state university.
Their parents got slightly nervous when the conversation turned to paying for college. “You know, we knew this was coming,” Mrs. Andriuskevicius said. “But when they say, ‘Enjoy it, they grow so fast,’ they really mean it,” she added.
She was a fun mom (she had to be, to raise triplets!) and asked how much it would cost immediately. She listened to the financial aid spiel and did some fast math. Mrs. Andriuskevicius totaled up a pretty accurate figure in her head about much it would cost for all three kids to go to college — after grants and scholarships.
According to College Board, the average published yearly tuition and fees (not including room, board, housing or supplies) are:
Two-year public colleges (in-district students): $3,440
Four-year public colleges (in-state students): $9,410
Four-year public colleges (out-of-state students): $23,890
Private four-year colleges: $32,410
Multiply these amounts by two (or three or four!) kids and you could be looking at quite a chunk of change, as Mrs. Andriuskevicius deduced in about one minute flat. (I was really impressed.)
Hang on, there’s good news coming!
There’s Good News!
Did you know that it having two kids in college can work to your advantage?
“In my experience, the FAFSA’s expected family contribution (EFC) takes a significant drop when the second and third child enter college,” says Pam Rambo, former financial aid director in a community college, four-year college and a 5-city college access organization training counselors in financial aid. She now owns Rambo Research and Consulting.
The EFC is based on household income and assets. It’s the minimum amount that a household is expected to contribute toward the cost of college.
The financial aid office at each college uses the EFC for each student to determine how much aid your student gets. “That is a simple subtraction problem in which they take the official cost of attendance (COA) for their school and subtract the EFC,” Rambo says.
In other words, let’s say your student is attending a college that costs $30,000 per year and your child’s EFC is $15,000. The amount of need for your oldest child is $15,000.
Now, that doesn’t mean that all financial aid offices try to meet the full $15,000. Each financial aid office uses a financial aid formula that they use to distribute aid. Some colleges try to meet 100 percent of need. Others might meet 50 percent to 80 percent of need.
Check for a Sibling Discount
Have your kids considered going to the same college?
Whenever I think about this topic, Michelle, Maye and Rachael all come to mind — three sisters who attended the college I worked for — all at the same time. Michelle was a senior, Maye was a junior and Rachael was a freshman! They always said their dad (jokingly) refused to move three girls to three separate colleges each fall. It worked out really well that they all went to the same college.
I Know What You’re Thinking: “There’s No Way My Kids Will Go to the Same School!”
You might think there’s no way your kids will go to the same school: “They’re like oil and water! There’s no way they’ll end up on the same campus!” But the reality is that older siblings do have an influence on younger siblings, according to a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
In addition, a study by Joshua Goodman of Brandeis University, Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, Christine Mulhern of Harvard University and Jonathan Smith of Georgia State University found that when older siblings enroll at a target college, it “nearly quadruples” the probability that younger siblings will apply to that same school. In addition, 13 percent of younger siblings follow their older sibling to the target college only because their older sibling enrolled there.
The benefit? Cost reductions.
“If the children are entering the same college, I have seen very favorable treatment in terms of the financial aid package offered,” Rambo adds. She says there’s no fixed dollar amount for the reduction because the reduction depends on financial information from each family.
“I like to address the fear of parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors with a plan to apply where their aid awards will be greatest in relation to the cost of the colleges. Looking at whether colleges collect even more data about a family by requiring the CSS Profile is another strategy,” she says.
The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application created and maintained by the College Board. It allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid and requires a much more comprehensive overview than the FAFSA. Nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs use it to award non-federal aid. Check with the admission office of the schools your chid is applying to to determine whether your child needs to fill out the CSS Profile.
Filing the FAFSA
Does it change the FAFSA with more than one student in college? Rambo says that in addition to other calculations, the FAFSA collects information on the number of minor children in the family who will also be attending an undergraduate program at the same time and figures that into the formula, which is used to calculate the EFC for each child headed to college.
A frequent surprise for families with two children in college: Each child has a different EFC number. “They ask, ‘How is this possible when we entered our same income information for both?’” Rambo says.
The answer is simple: Student income and bank balances can make a difference.
How Many FAFSAs Do You Need to Complete for Multiple Kids?
This is a great (and common!) question. You’ll need to fill out FAFSA forms for each child but can transfer the information from one form to another so you don’t have to completely start from scratch each time you work on the FAFSA.
But wait! Before you file the FAFSA, you’ll need to get separate FSA IDs for each child. An FSA ID is a username and password combination that serves as your legal electronic signature throughout the financial aid process. You and each of your children will need your own FSA ID.
Your FSA ID is associated with your Social Security number and is equivalent to your legal signature. That’s why you must have a special FSA ID per person. You’ll use the same FSA ID to sign each of your children’s FAFSA forms.
Don’t forget to do a few things methodically:
Look for lower-priced schools.
Put an emphasis on having your child help earn money throughout school.
Consider ways to earn more or make more money.
Consider federal loans over private loans. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS loan) is an excellent option if you’re willing to take out a little bit more for college. for the freshman year and work with the college aid and scholarship offices to find additional funds for sophomore year and beyond. Learn how to apply for the Parent PLUS loan.
Remember that you don’t have to come up with the full amount yourself. Many colleges offer steep discounts!
“You might find that if you’re a high-income earner and your child has already been accepted at a high-dollar university which only awards need-based aid, you may not see much help with the first child who enrolls there. That will improve some when a second child goes to college,” Rambo says.
It Takes Planning
Every dollar you save is $1 less that you or your child will have to borrow. (Yep, I’ll bring out the “a penny saved…” adage. Those pennies really do add up, even after just a couple of years!)
Most families end up covering just over 40% of college costs with a combination of savings and income, according to a national study by Ipsos and Sallie Mae. Your child will likely get scholarships, grants and loans as well.
What can you do as a parent?
Don’t forget about how helpful meeting with a financial advisor can be. If you can, do it before your first child’s a senior so you can develop a comprehensive plan to determine what’s best for your family’s financial circumstances. In some cases, financial advisors can recommend how to reallocate your assets, which can be helpful before you file the FAFSA. (It can help you qualify for more aid.)
Also, don’t discount your earning power. Your earning power may be tremendous during the course of a 10-month period. Remember that you can always figure out how much your paycheck can cover and submit money (even if it’s just a little bit!) to help pay for college.
You Can Do This!
I always admire the Andriuskevicius triplets’ parents because they handled having three kids in school all at once with such grace. They took a deep breath and handled the costs through a combination of grants, scholarships, cash and loans. All three kids made it through college (and incidentally, the “oldest” triplet ended up student teaching in my daughter’s first-grade classroom. A fun connection!
Thinking about putting more than one student in college at once can feel like plopping yourself into an icy stream. But it’s doable. Jigsaw the puzzle of all the options together. Consider how you can break it down, and remember, having more than one student in school can be a benefit, not a drawback.
I vividly remember working with a student whose dad said, “Whaddya mean, it costs $XX,XXX for my daughter to go to college? I’m not giving up golf and vacations!”
He was joking, he was joking. (I think.)
At any rate, I know that on some level, just about everyone can relate. You may think, “When do I get to do what I want to do? When my kids are out of college? Uh, no thanks. I’ll be what, 70 by then?”
Of course kids are a blessing and you’re willing to sacrifice for them.
But is it possible to have it all? Is it possible to pay for collegeand help your kids through a very expensive part of life? Without taking out oodles of loans?
Yes, it is! Yes, it is. You can do this — even if college is coming at you at 60 miles per hour. It just might take some creativity and careful planning (and maybe a side hustle to boost your bank account). Here’s how it can be done.
My husband has been hankering after a garage for the better part of a decade. Actually, I take that back. He wants a shop. A place to store his tools, a car project and a boat.
Do you need a lot of things all at once? Maybe your husband wants a new car and a shop, you want a new kitchen and you want to pay for college all at once. Life is short, right? You deserve it. You’ve worked hard all your life. But have you asked yourself what you really need?
One out of four houses with two-car garages is so stuffed a car can’t even fit in the garage. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the four!)
Each American throws away over 68 pounds of clothing per year.
Americans spend about $1.2 trillion a year on nonessential items.
I’m not saying that the “things” you want aren’t essential. It’s a great exercise to decide your priorities and figure out what’s essential. I know from experience that prioritizing what you want is easier said than done.
How to Evaluate Your Priorities
My husband’s shop isn’t done and he’s getting increasingly nervous about the lack of time he has to build it. In fact, I can almost hear his train of thought: “It’s almost already July and the cement floor isn’t poured yet… When am I going to build the thing because it’s going to be December before we know it? The truck will have to go into storage somewhere else because there’s already snow on the ground… AAAH!”
But in the grand scheme of things, the shop doesn’t have to be built now. In fact, he could wait another year or two if he really needed to. However, he wants it now so he has enough time to work on a car (which could take years). He wants to be able to have it ready so he can teach our son all about restoring cars as well.
So, there’s a bigger priority in the works here — son and dad time. Priorities go deeper than wants. In fact, they drive to the very heart of our most important values.
How do the things you want align with your priorities and values? Here are some examples. You may want to:
Install a pool to spend more time with family.
Build a bigger dining room to entertain and encourage closer friendships.
Help your child with college so he or she’s debt free after college.
Go on an anniversary trip to become closer to your spouse or partner.
So, what are yours? Getting clear on your priorities can often help you decide how to put your money into pieces and parts that achieve those goals.
Use Your Money to Fulfill Your Priorities
Let’s say you decide your priorities are:
Paying for college.
Building a new shop.
Painting your cabinets (instead of getting a new kitchen).
The car will have to wait.
The reality is, we all have a finite supply of money and lots and lots of buckets.
When you discuss your priorities with your family, maybe you agree that your priority is to make sure your children don’t start their working years in debt and that you want to be able to help them pay for college.
Maybe you decide the full kitchen upgrade is a want, not a need. You can cook just as well and entertain friends in the kitchen you have. Furthermore, you do some research and realize that a full kitchen upgrade won’t give you a great return on your investment when you sell down the road.
You realize you can get along with the van you have. You realize your jealousy of your next-door neighbor’s shiny new van was getting the best of you. (Due to the large scrape on the front bumper from backing out of the garage too quickly. Yes, this is coming from personal experience. My van actually does have a recent large scrape and rock-chipped windshield.)
On the other hand, what if your priorities are different? Let’s say your main priority is to spend more time road tripping with your family. In that case, the van may have gone in the first priority slot and paying for college might move to the second slot on the list, like this:
Buy a new car.
Save for college.
Build a shop.
Paint the kitchen cabinets.
Determine How You’ll Juggle Various Goals
Once you determine your priorities, figure out how you’ll get them done. Have some fun with this! It can be like a fun puzzle to determine how you’ll get to those things you really want. Here are some ideas of how you can go about doing it.
Estimate how much money you’ll need for each goal you’d like to achieve. It might cost more over time for things like college but there are lots of calculators that can help you estimate how much it will cost later on.
Ask yourself how much of your savings you’ll need and when you’ll need it. Do you need the money soon? If so, you’ll need to organize your finances so you can save the money more quickly.
Create an online savings schedule that aligns with your paydays. Decide how much you’ll swoop into a savings account immediately after you get paid. If you do it regularly and often, it’ll become a habit and you won’t miss that money. (Promise!)
Don’t forget to create a separate account. You don’t want to spend the money you’ve earmarked for other goals, so make sure it goes into a different account. It also keeps you going! When you see how much money is in your “other goals” account, it’s inspiring.
Treat this extra savings like a bill. In other words, treat money for your extra savings as if it’s a required payment like a utility bill. Make sure the payments are automatic so they come out of your paycheck right away, every time.
Ask yourself whether you need a side hustle. You might need another source of income to float your project. What are your talents? Can you brainstorm extra ways to make money? It can help you hit your goals much faster if you place all of your extra money in your savings account to reach your goals.
Tips for College Savings
Guess what? The tips for saving for college are the same as the steps listed above for saving for other goals.
What might be a little trickier is determining how much to save. This can get confusing because you might not be sure what type of college your child will attend — community college, state university, liberal arts college, etc.
In other words, how much goes in the bucket?
The rule of thumb is to save as much as you can.
Even if your child only has two years of high school left, it’s worth saving as much as you can. You might not want to sock a lot into a regular savings account because there are other types of accounts that offer tax benefits. You can consider channeling that money into the following types of accounts:
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Education IRAs: These are tax-deferred accounts with earnings and withdrawals which may be free from federal income tax if used for qualified education expenses. Contribution limits apply.
529 Plan: 529 plans allow you to invest for your child’s education or even your own. You can make sizeable contributions every year and also shift portions of assets in a 529 to future generations.
UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act): An UTMA or UGMA offers a way to transfer securities to a minor. You’ll call it an UTMA or UGMA, depending on which state your child resides.
There are various pluses and minuses with each type of plan, and it’s a great idea to consult with a financial advisor about which type of plan is best for you. Your best bet is to make it automatic, just like you do with your other savings accounts. (Who knew you could save for a kitchen just as effectively as you can saving for college?)
Staying on Track
Part of staying motivated is making sure you check your progress. Let’s say you funnel each of your savings streams into different accounts. Keep a fun tally system on the bulletin board in your office or on a spreadsheet so you know exactly how much money you’ve saved at any given time. It keeps you motivated and excited as you see those numbers climb. You can go old school with a Post-it Note and jot down all your numbers. You can also use a tool like Personal Capital or Mint to track your spending and savings. (I use both.)
You might not be able to save as much money as you want if you have several goals on your plate. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere fast if you’re saving for four different items. The buckets fill up a lot more slowly when you’re trying to funnel your finite extra income into four different streams.
So, how do you stay motivated when it seems like there are only pennies in the bottoms of four different buckets? Great question. Why not tackle your smallest payment first?
For some reason, this reminds me of the Debt Snowball method. The Debt Snowball method means you tackle your smallest debt amount first. You get an instant win by paying that off, then move on to your larger debt amounts.
In other words, save for one thing (the smallest amount), then the next largest amount, and so on. That way, you only tackle one or two things at a time and you get quick wins along the way.
How to Get Through It When You’re Over It
Sigh. Saving for things often loses its excitement really fast. I remember a long time ago, one of my friends was really gung-ho about saving for a new car and I was really excited for her. She’d mapped out a robust savings plan for how she’d have her beautiful new (used) car in a year.
A week later, I went over to her house and a new car was sitting in the driveway.
She’d caved and gotten a loan. “I just couldn’t wait anymore,” she told me. “I wanted it now.”
It’s easy to take out loans for the things you really want, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s necessary — you may need to take out a loan because you’ve got no other choice. What else do you do when you don’t have the money and your car breaks down? What else do you do when your child’s ready for college and you haven’t saved quite enough?
Anyone at any life stage can experience this. But I always encourage trying to save for the “extras.” Even the things that fulfill your priorities and values but that you don’t absolutely need right away. My husband’s shop is a great example.
You Can Do This!
So, if you want that [kitchen, boat, new bathroom, she shed] but college is coming soon, now’s a great time to start making a plan. And it’s still possible to make a plan if college is catapulting right around the corner (maybe it’s in just a few months)!
You may just need to heavily consider how you’ll make it happen more quickly. You might even need to come up with a more robust savings plan early on so you can prep for those college bills and the things you really want.
The last time I went to the dentist, my dentist told me all about how the college search was going with her senior. (Naturally, I wanted to ask her a billion questions as her dental instruments clinked against my teeth.)
Anyway, she told me that her senior, Will, was happily considering a local liberal arts college and a state school an hour down the road. She said to him, “Do you have a reach school? Somewhere you really, really want to go? Far away?”
He thought for a second. “Nah,” he replied. He went back to playing his video game.
She was kind of disappointed. Later, she asked him why he didn’t want to “see what else is out there.” Will told her he thought it might be weird to do something other than what everyone else seemed to be doing.
Another mom I know has a student who’s completely focused on saving money, not taking out any loans and making it easy on his parents. He’s looking at state schools and private colleges to humor his parents, but his mom said, “He’s seriously looking at community colleges and I’m actually disappointed. Imagine that! Disappointed that he wants to go to college and save us money. But… I just don’t think community college is the best fit for him.”
You want your kids to make their own college decisions, yet you want college to be the right choice the first time around. So what do you do when you feel slightly disappointed (or a lot disappointed) by your student’s shortlist?
Never fear — here are some helpful pointers!
1. Know that it’s Okay to Feel This Way
When you‘re unhappy with college choice or your child’s college search isn’t going the way you envisioned, you might feel sad, confused, guilty and also harbor a range of other emotions. First of all, know that your feelings are normal.
It might bring up reminders of other times in your life you were slightly disappointed. Remember when your daughter decided to give up piano lessons? Or your son decided to choose soccer over baseball?
It’s natural — you’ve invested some major time and energy (and money!) into piano lessons or soccer. Let’s take piano lessons, for example. You invested your time by hovering over your daughter as she practiced and drove her to piano lessons every Thursday. You invested your assumptions (“Wow, she played that song really well!”), hopes and dreams (“Maybe she’ll get into Juilliard someday!”).
The more invested you feel, the more you expect an incredible outcome. Same with college. You feel mounting expectations for your child with every A+ math test and every note from an English teacher that says, “You’re a Shakespeare whiz!”
But here’s an interesting question: Is your child supposed to fit your expectations or are your expectations supposed to fit your child? You don’t want to drive a wedge between the two of you.
2. Make Sure Your Student is Ready for the Next Step
E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut-wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented — or disoriented — than the choice of a major.”
I’d like to add “choice of college” to that list, too. This is particularly true because you might have to ask yourself if what your child’s ready for. Some kids have a lot of growing up to do before they choose a college.
I recruited Jesse, a bright (really bright!) student. He had the worst time getting through his first year of college because, suddenly, there was this gigantic responsibility on his shoulders — how well he did in school depended completely on him. He faced enormous distractions because his friends (seriously) never went to sleep — they just hung out all the time. To make matters worse, he’d let his grades slip during his senior year in high school so he could have fun with his high school friends. In one fell swoop, he weakened his study habits before he’d even gotten to college.
The increased degree of freedom and independence was too much for him. His relationship with his parents suffered and so did his grades.
How well do you think your child will do in college? Is your child a major procrastinator? Is she smart but easily overwhelmed by what’s set in front of her? Know your child’s capabilities and think carefully about whether he or she can handle the type of college you’ve always dreamed of.
By the way, Jesse’s story ended well! He did graduate and is now a teacher in California.
3. Ask Yourself Whether Your Dreams Are Overshadowing Your Child’s
This is definitely a family decision, particularly if you’re paying for college. But ultimately, it’s hopefully your child’s decision. You know your student will be successful if he knows he’s blazing his own trail.
My former boss’ son went to a state university despite the fact that she really wanted him to go to a private liberal arts college. She’s the proud alumna of a liberal arts college herself and works at a liberal arts college and knows the benefits. He had nothing to do with any of it and shipped himself off to a state university. Of course, she’s happy he chose a great state university but had to give up on her long-standing dream of him attending her alma mater. (She’d always pictured his flaming red hair bobbing up and down her alma mater’s soccer field.) It was a little bit of a letdown to know that he’d never play soccer there like she had.
Nobody warns you that you might have to mourn this a little bit. There’s research out there that says most moms have a bout of real grief after they drop off their kids at college. (Note: There’s good news. Nine out of 10 moved on from this feeling within a month or two, and some do sooner.)
But nobody tells you that you might be deeply disappointed for a while about The College Choice that Never Materialized. Lots of kids refuse to go to their parents’ alma maters or where their parents really want them to go. (I’ve seen it happen firsthand after so much effort to attract these kids.)
4. Consider the Big Picture
The goal is college. The goal is to get into college — and make it, and graduate and get a job. (And be happy.) If your child feels he must do X, then X and X to get there (whatever those Xs are) then it’s important to remember one thing: Your child’s still going to college. If you have to tell yourself that a million times, do it. But keep the big picture in mind. Your goal was to save for college — and your child is going.
Now, it’s still important to make him aware of certain oppositions you have. Maybe the school he’s going to isn’t accredited or is in a known gang neighborhood — or whatever. Obviously, if he will endanger himself or his future, it’s not a good idea and you must have that important discussion.
5. Talk to Your Teen
Yeah! Have you had the deep-down, heart-to-heart discussions with your child about college that last late into the night? (This is what I’m picturing in 10 years when my oldest starts her journey. Please tell me this will happen!) Obviously, how much you talk about college depends a lot on both of your personalities and how open your child is to talking about the college search.
Evaluate the Academic Fit Together
The academic fit is obviously one of the most important parts of the college experience. Ask your teen what he’d like to get out of the academic experience and what his priorities are.
Talk about the academic differences between a community college, a state university and a liberal arts college. Talk about academic rigor between like institutions. A small rural college might pack an academic punch but an Ivy League institution is obviously going to kick it up a notch.
It might be interesting to hear about his biases and perceptions. Make sure your teen is getting his information from a reputable source. His well-intentioned assistant baseball coach might not be as reliable a source as a college professor, admission counselor or financial aid representative.
There’s no shame if both of you aren’t sure what the exact facts are. That’s what the college search is all about — it’s a fact-finding mission. Do whatever you can to be sure you’re getting the right facts about academics.
Also, remember that a lot of colleges pay to be on the “Best of” lists. Use your best judgment when you’re Googling yet another “Best Small Liberal Arts Colleges in the Northwest” list. Your best bet is to visit each college, ask lots of questions, sit in on classes and make those determinations for yourself.
Talk About the Importance of Social Growth
I’m going to flat-out say it: There’s a big difference between a commuter college versus a residential campus. If your child’s a social butterfly, she may already be thinking she wants to live in a sorority or on a residential campus. She may naturally gravitate that direction.
A more introverted student may want to go the community college route because he’s hoping to live at home and keep life how he knows it.
But what’s best for both of these types of students in terms of social growth? An introverted student might thrive at a university, a bubbling social butterfly might be able to focus better in a smaller environment.
Have a Discussion About Retention
Retention rate is certainly something that doesn’t come to mind immediately during the college search. I believe it deserves careful investigation.
What is retention, anyway? A college or university’s retention rate is measured by its percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at that school the next year. Let’s use my recruit, Jesse, as an example. He studied full-time in the fall semester of 2016 and kept studying at the college during the next fall semester. He was included in that cohort of students who retained during their first year.
Here’s an easy way to learn about a school’s retention rate. Check out College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics. I really love that tool! Just type in the name of the school, find it in the drop-down, then click on “retention.” You’ll be able to see first-year retention and overall graduation rates and a lot of other great information.
You want this retention rate to be as high as possible. Steer clear of a college if its retention rate is really low — like in the 30th percentile. This means a large number of students transfer out after freshman year. If your student is really excited about a college with a low retention rate, you’d better quiz the admission counselors at that school about why its retention rate is so low.
Talk About How a Visit is Really Important
Has your teen already decided where he’s going to go without checking it out?
Just because your child’s got his mind made up, try to strike a deal. Teach your child how to schedule a college visit at one large, one medium and one small school to give him an array of options.
Talk About Money
Is your fear about money manifesting itself in disappointment? In other words, are you disappointed because your child has chosen a really expensive school and you’re not sure you can make it happen?
Conversely, have you set aside a pile of money and your child isn’t going to use it? Maybe he’s opted for a community college but you planned for an Ivy League. Is the amount you’ve invested equally proportionate to your giant expectations?
The money part of college can bring out all sorts of emotions and fear is a big one. Just make sure your child understands that your disappointment is placed on money — not his or her decision to go to college.
6. Know that Your Child Can Go into Any Industry with a Degree from Any College
This is huge. In fact, there’s some major evidence that pinpoints exactly what matters most in lifetime success. Want to know the secret?
It’s grit. Grit is the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. It’s a stick-to-itiveness that simply having a degree won’t magically do to instigate success. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has said, “Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals. Grit is living life as a marathon, not a sprint.”
If your child decides that College X (which you’re not a big fan of) is the best place for him, rest easy if you’ve noticed your child’s excellent work ethic. Your kiddo will be just fine.
Disappointment Happens — But Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Again, you know the prize is that calligraphy-clad diploma at the end of the road. Your child’s going to get there. Often, good decision making for success in college includes making excellent decisions about college from the get-go.
Make sure you tell your child you’re proud of so many things, including his choice to go to college (even if you’re not excited about the path he’s taking to get there).
Socrates said, “Know thyself,” and in this case, “Know thy child” is so applicable.