Planning for College – Managing Wants and Desires

Children are often influenced in ways that are not always obvious.  As mentioned in part 1 of this 3 part series on planning for college, family conversations about fond college memories and experiences, likely occur long before a child narrows their choice about where to apply and enroll.  Children will also be influenced by friends and their ideas or maybe where a teacher encourages them to explore.  Ideally, they consider their intellectual and vocational gifts and settle on a few schools that align well with their longer term professional or vocational aspirations.

All the while, parents may be trying to gauge how much feedback to give and wondering whether their financial preparations will be sufficient to cover the costs of their child’s choice.  Before leapfrogging to the subject of how the cost will be reconciled with resources, first let’s address how a parent can best approach helping a child explore options.

While children may be influenced by similar factors, every child is unique and very likely to make decisions based on different objective and subjective criteria.  Add to this, a seemingly infinite amount of information available on the internet and other sources like the U.S. News college rankings, and the process of deciding where to attend college can be overwhelming.

A positive outcome might lead to the reconnoitering of 3-5 schools.  If the child is less focused on their ideal profession or what they want from a university, the parent(s) and child might find themselves traveling the country seeking the right fit.  If canvasing the United States is something you hope to avoid, but providing your child leeway in choosing a mix of schools is a priority, help them narrow their choices by establishing a set of selection criteria.  It may not result in the perfect list but it might eliminate some obvious (to parent and child) non-starters.

Here are a few questions and considerations to offer as a starting point.
  • Does the university, or a particular department or college within, focus on or have a good reputation for preparing students for their desired career path? Does the school have a positive track record for assisting students in securing a job through their career placement centers?
  • If undecided on a career path, does the school provide a broad range of specialties? Said differently, will there be multiple liberal arts and/or technical (engineering) paths to choose from in years 3 and 4 after completing general studies in the first two years?
  • If graduate school is likely, is there an in-state public option that will prepare the student in a way that increases the probability of being accepted to a more prestigious out-of-state public or private university for graduate work after receiving their bachelor’s degree?
  • Some individuals prefer to have deeper relationships with a smaller number of people. Others prefer a broad network of acquaintances.  A smaller school might appeal to the former and a larger school the latter.
  • Is the child an adventurer or do they prefer familiar surroundings? Knowing might help shape a decision around in-state or out-of-state.

While some might suggest adding a financial component to the guidelines, I would suggest first waiting to see the list of schools.  Depending on the list, it might not be necessary to discuss any financial considerations in the context of how to pay the costs.

Since a majority of parents would prefer to be in a position to pay for most or all of the expenses this would be ideal.  If the child’s preferences cause financial constraints, ask what is motivating the choice(s).  Further discussion on this and how the other, less expensive choices stack up, might lead to the elimination of one or two schools.  One of which might be the cause of financial stress.

Financial considerations are important.  Regardless of whether the cost of college is a strain on a family’s resources or not, discussing them should be done in a way that serves as a learning opportunity for the child.  This topic and suggestions on how to approach it will be covered in part 3 of this series.

However, before taking this important next step, allow the college bound student the fun and challenge of arriving at a select number of schools they believe will help them transition from the spring to summer phase of their life and prepare them for the increasing responsibilities of adulthood.