At this time of year, high school seniors are anxiously checking their email and snail mail for college acceptance letters. Lucky for them, the stress of college applications and admissions lasts for a brief year or two. Their parents, on the other hand, grapple with this Byzantine process practically from the time their kids are born.
Parents barely have time to settle the little bundle of joy before some nosy — I mean helpful — acquaintance asks if they’ve started saving for college.
And so it begins.
If a college savings plan has been established, the concerns are whether it’s enough money and how the savings may impact a child’s eligibility for financial aid. Though parents might not admit it out loud, most are likely wondering what happens to the money if their child decides not to go to college. Could this secretly be the buy-a-Ferrari or retire-to-Bora-Bora fund?
When the children hit middle school and then high school, that’s when the parents’ information overload really begins.
There’s a mountain of confusing details, deadlines and requirements. And the questions. So. Many. Questions.
Is college the right path for my child?
Which college is right for my child?
How the heck does this application process work?
Why does it take several arguments to get your kid to finish their personal essay?
Should a high school student take the SAT or ACT test more than once (or at all)?
Which evil villain designed the awful financial aid application?
And the mack daddy of them all: How much is this going to cost and can we afford it?
If you’ve ever had a nightmare about paying for college, it might have looked like one of those heartwarming credit card commercials gone awry:
Instate tuition and fees at public university in Oregon: $11,000 a year.
Room and board, plus other expenses: $15,000 a year
Your child’s beaming face as they receive a diploma at graduation: priceless!
Oh wait, no it’s not. It cost more than $100,000. And that’s assuming your child graduated in four years.
Can we also take a moment to ask why it’s possible (and many parents feel necessary) to spend so much money to get your little darling into college? I’m not talking about the six-figure bribes reportedly paid in the cheating scandals making headlines. The legal college prep industry is big business and big bucks. Everyone is happy to take your money by charging fees for required entrance exams, test-prep courses, college advisors, tours of college campuses, including meet-and-greets with admissions officers, and more. You can easily spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars before making a tuition payment. What gives?
It’s easy to feel financially unable or just morally outraged about all these precollege expenses. But in the back of your mind, you still worry that your child is at a disadvantage if they don’t have access to all these services while kids who are competing with them for limited spots in the incoming freshman class do.
What’s a parent to do? Here’s my advice.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start with the college advisors and counselors at your child’s school. They can give lots of great (and free) guidance to help focus your efforts. They can also recommend various resources and services that are free or low-cost. Companies like the nonprofit Khan Academy offer free online test prep courses. Many universities offer scholarships or need-based tuition discounts that can substantially reduce the amount you’ll actually pay.
The bottom line, however, is that you’ll still spend an awful lot of time — and gain some (more) wrinkles and gray hair — trying to gather information, make decisions with your kid and get through this process before you drop them off for freshman orientation.
There needs to be a college course or maybe a full-degree program just to teach parents how to help with college admissions. But then, parents might not be admitted and probably couldn’t afford it anyway!
— Kim Himstreet is the 40-something mother of two teenage boys whom she and her husband have raised while living in three different countries and three U.S. states.