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Help with choosing the right college

How can you help your high school graduate take the next step on their education path? Here are four parameters to help you jump-start the conversation.

Dad and son unloading college supplies from car

Choosing the right college is a big, exciting time for young people and their families. Some teens may start dreaming about higher education while they’re still freshmen. Others may not consider the decision until their senior year. But whatever time is right to start the higher education discussion, it’s important to weave in a lot of variables. There’s cost, location and field of study. But it’s also important to talk about the day-to-day life of students at different types of higher education institutions as well as post-graduation plans. As you and your teen start the discussion, use these steps to help your future scholar thoughtfully and thoroughly wade through the choices.

According to Gallup, if they had to do it over again, nearly 30 percent of college grads say they would attend a different school. At an average yearly cost of nearly $36,000 for tuition, room and board at a four-year, private institution, that’s an expensive decision that needs to be carefully considered.

Ask a lot of questions

Any search should begin by gathering information from schools and other sources and include an in-depth review of the type of person your teenager is. Your child should honestly assess his or her interests, then begin with a short list of institutions that may offer a related field of study. At this point, don’t eliminate programs. Cast a wide net that includes two- and four-year colleges and both public and private universities. If possible, identify current students in those fields as well as practicing professionals so that you can help your teen query them about what courses of study and jobs look like. Your teen may also have preferences at this point in the search, such as a desire for a big school versus a small one. Ask them why they came to those conclusions and what the appeal is in one choice versus another.

Discuss all the costs, now and in the future

There are a lot of cost considerations to discuss in addition to tuition, room and board; it’s helpful to discuss as many as you can. One idea: Start a spreadsheet and include the tuition, room, board and extras such as travel to and from school, to name just one. Then layer in resources you currently have saved, potential grants and scholarships and what you might contribute when your student is enrolled. You should also discuss the cost of several planned courses of study against the potential income/job outlook after graduation. Finally, break down any loans and assess what they mean not just in today’s dollars, but in future obligations. Going through that exercise may help both students and parents envision the constraints that any future loan obligations may entail.

Start exploring a variety of schools

It’s one thing for a kid to say, “I want to go to a small school.” It’s another thing to actually visit institutions with different enrollment sizes and see what they look like. A school with a strong commuter culture may feel much smaller than one where nearly everyone lives on or near campus. If there are two- and four-year institutions close by, visit them if only to get a feel for what campus life and facilities might be like.

Seek help

Let’s face it: Your student may have a viewpoint that contrasts with your own experiences and ideas. Bridging the gap can be easier with the input of experts, such as guidance counselors and professional academic advisors, who can offer impartial guidance on how to choose the right college. For example, is your child really ready for the leap to a four-year institution — or would they benefit from a two-year school first? Widen your group of advisors to include students and their parents who have been successful and those who may have stumbled before finding a good fit.

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