There are about 7,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Whittling that down to half a dozen schools that your kid desires and you can afford can seem daunting. But it’s doable. By the summer before your kid’s senior year, you should be browsing—and talking about what you’re looking for in a school. Here’s how to do it.
Memorize this sentence, and repeat it often to yourself and to your child: There is no such thing as a perfect school. In fact, based on watching my oldest kids and their friends go through the college process, I’d argue that kids who went to their second- or third-choice schools were often just as happy as—or happier than—those who attended their number one pick. Of course, it’s nice to get in everywhere, including that dream college. But sometimes outsized expectations can lead to massive disappointment.
- Talk money. As parents, we’d love to say, “Damn the cost!” But this is real life, and most families can’t. So level with your kid. Talk about not only your financial limitations but also your reluctance to saddle your kid with excessive student debt after graduation, just when her career is getting underway. Before talking to your kid, though, get a rough estimate of how much federal financial aid you may receive—and how much you’ll probably have to pay yourself (your Expected Family Contribution) using the government’s online FAFSA4caster. (For more on the money side of college, read Everything You Need to Know About Financial Aid.)
- Start local. You might be surprised by what your local college or your state’s flagship campus has to offer—and by how much money you can save staying in state. That includes room and board, if your kid can commute from home.
Several states, including Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota, offer free community college programs. The New York Excelsior Scholarship offers full scholarships for tuition at two- and four-year publicly funded schools—if your family meets the household income limit and your kid takes on a minimum number of credit hours. Be warned, though: Many state schools (think Georgia Tech and University of California–Berkeley) have acceptance rates on a par with “highly selective” private colleges.
- Don’t be dissuaded by the sticker price. Most students receive financial aid to offset the full cost of college (which, at some schools, can easily top $50,000 a year). To get a sense of what your family will actually pay, check out net price calculators for each school your kid is interested in. (Find them here). These take into account not only your income, but also how many kids you have in college and your assets. Note: This figure is just an estimate. (For more, read Everything You Need to Know About Financial Aid.) Some elite institutions will even give your kid a full ride if your family earns less than $65,000 a year. In fact, only about 10% of private college students pay full price. To find institutions that are generous with aid, check out bestcolleges.com and usnews.com/education—and read more of my thoughts on this subject here.
- Plug your ears when the rankings come out. U.S. News & World Report publishes probably the most famous college rankings. While they contain valuable insights and can be titillating water cooler (and school cafeteria) talk, the rankings have come under scrutiny—in part because they’re better at measuring the quality of the students a school attracts than how well it teaches those students after they arrive. For example, to rank schools, U.S. News weighs outcomes like percentage of students who finish within six years. A college that selects only go-getter high school students is going to see fewer dropouts. Another problem? They don’t always tell you how much bang you’re likely to get for your bucks. A recent Wall Street Journal ranking came up with a familiar leader list, packed with Ivies and other elite private schools. But when it compared the cost of each school with job placement outcomes for graduates, only one of these schools cracked the top 10. That (much more relevant) list was dominated by public universities.
- Do a smarter search. When it comes to narrowing down the list of colleges your kid might like, there are probably as many criteria as there are institutions of learning.
You can differentiate by academic strengths, school size, student diversity, athletics, campus setting, religious affiliation, availability of student housing—you name it. Your first stop should be the government’s College Scorecard, which highlights essentials such as size, location, and available degree programs. Bear in mind, though, that what your kid is looking for today will likely change after she enrolls. A recent Gallup-Strada survey found that more than half of graduates wish they had chosen a different college, program, or degree. Although the survey doesn’t probe the reasons these grads have come to regret their decisions, it’s telling that STEM graduates—with salaries that tend to be higher than traditional liberal arts grads—are the least likely to wish they’d made a different choice.
- Visit schools. Whether it’s your alma mater, the local community college, or a list of top targets across the state or country, if you can afford a road trip, it’s great to get your kid on campus so she can see the facilities minus the glossy sheen of a university website. Try to go when classes are in session and encourage your high schooler to conquer her shyness and ask students questions.
- Use social media. You and your kid should check out college Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to get an eye-level view of campus life, coursework, and even cafeteria offerings. (Following the college newspaper’s social media accounts is a good start.) Remember, of course, that social media can bring out the drama, so be careful not to take every slam or five-star review literally.
- Include a financial “safety” school. Make sure that your kid applies to a school she’s pretty sure to get into—one that she would actually attend and
could afford with just federal student loans and no other borrowing.
Talk about not only your financial limitations but also your reluctance to saddle your kid with excessive student debt after graduation, just when her career is getting underway.
- Use a high school counselor. If you’re lucky enough to get an appointment, that is. On average, high schools have one counselor for every 281 students. Fortunately, a few great organizations are doing their best to fill in some of the gaps. I’m a big supporter of College Advising Corps, which is dedicated to helping first-generation and underrepresented students navigate the college application and financing processes.
- Be wary of for-profit schools. While the current administration has embraced the industry, you and your kid shouldn’t. For-profit colleges tend to saddle students with huge loan debt while awarding degrees that don’t carry much weight with future employers, making those loans even harder to pay off. It’s a vicious cycle—and that’s if your kid even gets a degree. For-profit graduation rates are atrocious: The federal government’s own National Center for Education Statistics reports that 60% of all first-time students complete a four-year degree within six years. At for-profit colleges, only 21% make it to graduation. If you think a school you’re considering might be a for-profit, find out by searching for it on the College Board’s BigFuture.org.
Shopping’s Over. Time to Apply.
The last time you saw an application, you were probably punching keys on an electric typewriter. I still remember filling out my college applications down to the wire, and then jumping in the station wagon with my dad to go get it stamped at the post office before the deadline. Times may have changed, but most admissions officers are still looking at the same qualities they always have: grades and test scores. Colleges are also looking for kids who demonstrate a real passion for something beyond the school walls—say, music or coding. That said, the process of applying has undergone some significant modifications. Here are five big ones:
- The forms. These should look familiar to parents who went through the application process long ago—essay, test scores, transcript, etc. What’s changed is that more colleges—and more applicants—have joined services that allow you to complete a single application and use it for multiple colleges. The most well-known: the Common Application, with about 900 participating schools. The newcomer: the Coalition for College Access. The difference is that, while the Coalition application covers fewer schools than the Common App, every college on its roster has to prove that it offers financial help to needy or underrepresented families—so it’s a good place to go if you fall into one of those categories. (Note that some institutions require additional components, which you also complete through the Common App or the Coalition.) These services make it much easier to apply to multiple colleges. Which could explain why the share of students applying to three colleges or more has risen 21 percentage points since 1995.
- Test scores. Colleges are increasingly allowing students to self-report test scores to avoid the fees charged by ACT and College Board. That doesn’t mean your kid can get creative with his numbers. If he’s accepted and decides to enroll, the admissions office will ask for the official scores. One side note: Kids from affluent households are more likely than their peers from disadvantaged backgrounds to retake the SAT and ACT. Why does this matter? Researchers recently found that retaking the SAT lifts a student’s score by an average of 90 points. The point: Unless you ace these tests right out of the gate, retake. Both the SAT and the ACT offer fee waivers to students who demonstrate financial need.
- The fees. More college applications equal more expense. Application fees run an average of $43—and they can pile up quickly. You can apply for fee waivers using the Common Application and from schools with their own applications. You’ll have to show that the fees are a financial barrier to applying. Common App offers a list of qualifying circumstances that includes being enrolled in the Federal Free or Reduced Price Lunch Program (FRPL), being homeless or residing in federally subsidized public housing or a foster home, or having received a fee waiver when you took the SAT or ACT.
- Social media. Nearly a third of admissions officers admit to checking up on a student’s social media feeds. Kids should know that the way they comport themselves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et al., is just a click away for college administrators. Just ask the handful of students who recently got into Harvard, only to have their acceptances revoked when the school found their offensive comments on Facebook.
- Early applications. More kids are applying early decision and early action, so you should know the difference—and the consequences of taking these routes. First, the deadlines: While regular-decision applications are usually due in January or February, early birds must submit their materials in the fall of senior year—often Nov. 1 or Nov. 15. Early action gets you an admissions decision months before the usual response date, but you aren’t obligated to attend. Around a quarter of public colleges and about 40% of private schools offer this option. Early decision is available mostly from private colleges. You can apply early decision to only one school. (Don’t try to game the system by applying to two. College administrators tend to share information, and it might cost you admission to both.) If the college accepts you, you are obligated to attend—and you must withdraw any other applications. Use this option only if you and your kid are absolutely certain that it’s the best school on your list—and are sure that you can pay for it. (If, in the end, you truly can’t afford the school, most will let your kid off the hook for attending, but your kid will have to scramble to meet the regular decision application deadlines for other schools.) You might have heard that kids who apply early are more likely to be admitted. This is true, but the reasons are a source of controversy. Some say the students who apply early tend to be stronger candidates, but some schools do admit to giving preference to early birds. Why? Admissions officers know these kids are committed. Colleges want high “yield”—that’s the wonky term for the number of kids who get accepted and actually attend.