Preparing Your Kids for College
If college is in your kid’s future, understand that there are many ways to pursue a college education without being subjected to a lifetime of debt. For your child, it may mean choosing to attend a community college for the first two years, and then attending an in-state school for the last two years. There are many ways to “skin the cat.” A great education can be achieved without the need for attending the best university, or the most expensive one.
The bottom line here is that parents, together with their kids, should to get a head start in discussing all of the dynamics that will go into making decisions about education and career-paths in the future. If your child is just entering the adolescent years, you have some time to process these things. You don’t have to ask your middle-schooler to decide her college major today. But as a parent, you should absolutely keep higher education on your radar screen. If you believe your child will one day head off to college, it’s never too early to begin thinking about how – and who – will finance his or her education, and begin taking steps, such as establishing a college investment account, to make it possible when the time arrives if you are going to help pay for college.
Choosing a College
Some time ago, I was sitting next to a woman on a plane. I noticed she was diligently working through some college information brochures. I said, “It looks like you have a child ready to enter the college world.” She smiled and replied, “Well, my daughter is only nine, but it’s just never too early to start with all the pressure to get into the right schools.” I was speechless. Early planning is a good thing for college finances, but neither kids or parents should have the extra pressure to make sure they get everything just right when their child is in the third grade. Many parents know what it’s like to feel as though they didn’t start saving soon enough for college expenses. I can relate. If we had to do it over again, we would choose to start that process sooner.
Here are a few thoughts:
- Pray about it. The college years are typically when a person makes some of the most important decisions in life— chief among them whether or not to marry and what kind of career path to pursue. These are decisions not made lightly, so it’s important to bathe the college issue in prayer before deciding where and when to attend. Some of my foundational decisions about life were made in college. Same with all three of my kids.
- Ask others about their experiences. Scripture reminds us “There is wisdom in the counsel of many.” Do you know anyone who is already attending a school your teen is interested in? Get to know them. Ask them what it’s like to attend the school. Hearing about a real life experience will tell you more about a college or university than any handbook or brochure ever will.
- Visit the campus. This one might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of teens and their parents who make decisions about where to attend college based only on a brochure, website, or just because it’s Mom’s or Dad’s alma mater. Since college is where your child will be spending some of the most foundational time of her life, take a couple of days to visit, preferably when school is in session, and walk the campus. Sit in on a class or two. Talk to some of the professors and support staff. Really “try the place on.”
- Read everything you can about possible colleges. This is another obvious point too many parents miss. Just because you have good memories from your days at “good old State U” doesn’t mean a certain school will be right for your teenager. Get the brochures, look at websites, and both you and your teen do your homework.
- Start saving now. You know what they say, “There’s no time like the present.” This is especially true when it comes to saving for college. Whether your child is seventeen years old or seventeen months old, it’s never too late (or too early) to start saving for college. Don’t try to save the whole amount all at once. Save what you can and start doing it now.
- Remember that grades count. High school can be a confusing time for young people. One moment, their main priority is getting straight As; the next, it’s simply hanging out with friends and having a good time. Many scholarships are based on a student’s GPA. So, stress with your child the importance of earning good grades and maintaining a solid grade point average. (But remember, it’s his/her primary responsibility, not yours.)
- Search for scholarship help. There are plenty of free scholarship search engines available online. It takes some time to search, but millions and millions of scholarship dollars are available. Ask your teenager to invest a few hours a week searching these sites during their junior and senior years of high school. It’s worth the investment of time.
- Apply early to schools. In many cases, institutional financial aid from a school is given to students who apply and are admitted early. For this reason, it is in your family’s best interest to apply early. Some schools actually make the acceptance process just a bit easier if you apply early.
- Meet deadlines! Many times, state and federal government aid is contingent upon a student getting their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in by a priority deadline. Families can start filling out the FAFSA for the upcoming school year as early as January 1 of that year.
My wife and I are on the other side of the college and education issues. All three of our girls have Master’s degrees and did well in school. (One of the girls did cram a 4-year education into 6 years but that’s another story. ) As we reflect on their education process as teens, we would have possibly done it a bit differently. We would have taken this advice and put more of the responsibility on our kids instead of daily struggles where we felt we cared more about their education at times then they did. All three of our girls went to 4-year colleges out of high school and now we see the benefit of some kids going to a 2-year school, first for financial reasons or simply because they needed to learn some life lessons in high school that included consequences for poor grades.
I guess what I am trying to say is don’t let the education of your kids get in the way of teaching them to be responsible adults. No one said it would be easy. Today you can get the help you need from books, resources, and guidance counselors. Take advantage of the options and whenever possible try to end the homework hassle while you prepare your teens for adulthood.