Planning For College Part 1 of 3 – Parent and Family Expectations

grad - smallDuring May of this year, my son completed his sophomore year of high school.  Next year brings the task of visiting colleges and the beginnings of selecting where he would like to apply, preparing and submitting applications and eventually choosing a school for the next stage of learning.  This pending adventure serves as motivation to write a series of blogs about what I believe lies ahead and the possible challenges.

Part 1 will address immediate and extended family dynamics that may influence children when they are young and impressionable.  Part 2 will focus attention on how children reconcile these family preferences and opinions with their own.  Part 3 will tackle the financial aspects of paying the costs of their choice. Some readers may have completed this journey but others may have yet to start.

Regardless of where parents and children fall on this education continuum, hopefully some of what is written will resonate and be used to more successfully navigate what is to come.

Planing for college can be a daunting task.  The primary focus tends to be setting aside money to cover the cost.  Secondary to this initial worry, but one that increases in importance as children grow older, is the choice of school.

As years pass and demands on financial resources shift, funds earmarked for education take shape and lend support (or not) to which schools are financially feasible.  All the while, conversations between spouses, extended family and sometimes children about fond college memories and experiences are occurring long before children narrow choices and make decisions.

This often casual but spirited dialogue can sometimes lead to divergent opinions and priorities around the best schools.  In turn, children may be subtly influenced to select a school less aligned with their strengths and career goals and more by emotion.

A simple example is the in-state versus out-of-state public university.  Is the University of Virginia any better at providing a solid liberal arts education than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?  The answer may depend on whether you, your spouse or extended family member attended one or both.

Depending on the state of residence, this simple comparison and the resulting choice can have a significant financial impact.  According to The College Board, a resident of North Carolina attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall of 2015 will pay approximately $20,400[1].  That same individual attending as an out-of-state student at the University of Virginia will pay approximately $57,500.  Assuming the child is not receiving outside financial assistance, this adds just over $148,000 to the cost of a four year bachelor’s degree at the University of Virginia.

Before having a detailed conversation with a child about where they might like to attend, consider speaking with your spouse and other family members vested in their education about any preferences, basic expectations and any financial limitations that might exist.  The most important consideration is that of the child and their intellectual and vocational gifts.  However, parents should have a game plan around how they will approach guiding their children through these important education decisions.

Here are some questions to get the conversation started.

  • Is it important the child attend a parent or family member’s alma mater and why?
  • Is there an expectation the child attend a smaller, possibly private college or university?
  • Does the child show the aptitude or express a vocational desire that aligns well with a school(s) that a parent or other family member attended?
  • Where do most graduates of a particular school find work (geographically or economic sector)? Do these coincide with any preferences the child may have expressed?
  • Does your current financial situation suggest the ability to cover out-of-state or private college costs? If not, are there family members willing to assist financially?  Is a non-working spouse willing to re-enter the workforce to help cover additional educational expenses?  Is there an expectation the child share some of the cost by working during college or taking on student loan debt?
  • If post-graduate studies are required (e.g. medical school) or recommended to secure a job in their field of choice, how might the undergraduate school choice affect their graduate school choice? Does it make sense to select a reputable, public in-state university for the 4 years of undergraduate work – at a lower cost – then select a more prestigious, out-of-state public or private institution for 1 or 2 years of post-graduate work at a higher cost?

Selecting the right school is a multifaceted process and for some, may start earlier than expected.  Take care when speaking about schools and opinions because as any parent knows, children absorb and remember a significant amount of information and are particularly tuned in to what parents say and do.

With advance planning on the part of parents, the college choice a child makes stands a solid chance of aligning well with their career aspirations and at the same time using the family financial resources wisely.

[1] Includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies