Choosing The Right College: A Guide for Parents from your Financial Advocate

College Finances | 529 College Savings Plans | Saving for College | Life Events

 Wes Garton By: Wes Garton

“I want to go somewhere in the south that has football.”

That was my youngest daughter’s answer when I asked her what she was looking for in a college.

As a huge college football fan, that was music to my ears. But making a decision about where to attend college is not that simple, and as a parent, your child’s education is critically important to their future success.

My wife and I have been through the college planning process with all three of our kids, all of whom had vastly different interests and priorities when it came to higher education. From military academies to big state schools, the process can vary by your child as well as the institution.

We learned a lot about how to best support and guide them as they made this important decision about their college education. I hope our experience and insights in this parent’s guide will be helpful as you begin the journey with your children

These tips will help you reduce stress during the process and prevent higher education from becoming a drag on your long-term financial goals.

Establishing Priorities Around College Choice

Before you begin the process of choosing a college, I recommend sitting down with your spouse and your child to determine priorities.

Priorities could include fields of study available, staying in-state or going out-of-state, extracurricular activities, and of course, tuition costs.

What does your child want in a college? This is a very important question to ask. Try to dig deeper than “in the south and with football” though!

What are the possibilities given your financial situation? Is there a savings fund earmarked for their college tuition or do you need to consider financial aid like scholarships, grants, or work-study programs?

If you’ve been working with Plancorp, hopefully higher education costs have been included in your financial independence analysis and you’ve been consistently saving and investing, but if you are newer to Plancorp or not yet working with a proactive wealth manager, this may be a top consideration. Everyone knows education expenses are high, but you might be surprised just how much overall costs have increased in the last decade alone.

These are just a few considerations that can be great conversation starters. Remember: your role as the parent is to guide and assist—not to make the decision for them. Let them know that you value their input, and that their priorities are just as important, if not more important, than yours.

When to Discuss College Choice

Don’t wait until senior year to start talking about college with your kids. In fact, it’s never too early. Our son asked about the college he would eventually choose just before he started high school.

Two years later, he affirmed that decision and pursued acceptance based on their specific acceptance requirements. My wife and I helped where we could and supported him 100% throughout the process, which was greatly enabled by our ability to start early and plan ahead.

These early discussions had a couple of important impacts on our children:

They started to understand the importance of academic excellence in high school and independently chose to focus on putting their best foot forward when it came to their school work (it was a nice change of pace to not have to nag them to do their homework, study for the SAT/ACT, and think about their GPA or test scores!). Knowing your next step makes the importance of your current step easy to understand.

It also helped our family focus on a short-list of college choices, plan campus visits, and make sure our college financial plan could support their choice without a rushed deadline.

Making the Most of College Visits

UGA Photo 1-crop

Speaking of college visits, as our children showed interest in schools, we planned tons of college visits. Making in-person visits to schools is extremely important—it will help your children understand their desire to attend a school and envision themselves there better than any snapshot on social media could.

Over the course of the college process with three kids, we’ve made in-person or virtual visits to schools all across the country—from Texas to New York, from North Carolina to Oklahoma. We were very well traveled by the end of it, and it helped each one of them narrow down their choices immensely.

We just recently returned from a trip to Charleston, SC. Our daughter was able to visit several colleges she was interested in along the way, and we enjoyed a fun weekend in a great city!

We visited state schools and private schools all across the South. The trip was a huge success. Our daughter had the opportunity to figure out what she was really looking for in a school beyond them “being in the south and having football.”

It also helped her learn what she didn’t want in a college experience—also a very important aspect of the college choice. No parent wants to send their child to a school they won’t enjoy, only to hear a few weeks in they’d like to transfer or throw in the towel.

I recommend staying in a hotel the night before your visit to experience the area. We drove around around campus and looked for things like safety, shopping, and restaurants.

During college visits, you’ll typically attend a short information session, covering topics like tuition, scholarships, and application deadlines. Don’t skip this, even if it feels gimmicky. You’ll learn a lot from the tour guide and walking through everything in a group with others considering the same choice.

A campus tour usually follows, emphasizing the school’s history and focusing on aspects like student life and educational programs. You’ll get a glimpse of on-campus life as well, including dorm room tours and dining options. You may even have the opportunity to meet current college students and hear about their experience.

If you’re still having trouble narrowing down after college visits, I recommend tapping your personal and professional network. Do you know anyone who attended that school or has a child that did? Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them how their experience was and what they recommend. You might get unique answers that college admissions teams won’t bring up.

Choosing (or Changing) a Field of Study

Although I would’ve loved to see my oldest daughter attend a football powerhouse like University of Georgia (I could have been one of those dads with two-time national champion sweatshirts to match my Kansas City Chiefs world champion swag), she is enjoying her time at Creighton—a smaller private college with a focus on medicine, law, business, and basketball.

The diverse educational offerings at Creighton have been really important, especially since our daughter switched majors from pre-medicine to pre-law after her freshman year.

Don’t forget this aspect of college choice. College students need flexibility when it comes to their field of study.

According to a study conducted by The Ohio State University, as many as 50-75% of undergraduate college students will change their major before earning their degree. This is normal and expected, and one of the worst things you can do is force or pigeon hole your child too early.

If they choose a school with a ton of academic options, they won’t feel pressured to stick with a major they don’t enjoy just so they can stay at their chosen school. It’s our job as parents to support them through this change, as they are ultimately deciding what they want for their career.

Financial Aid and College Savings Plans

Of course, as mentioned earlier, you must also consider the financial aspect of sending your kids to college. The cost of college has skyrocketed lately, and oftentimes is the driving factor for families when choosing a school. Beyond flat tuition costs, books and supplies, room and board, and everything around college has also become more expensive.

Perhaps you’ve been contributing to a college savings account like a 529 since your child was born, and it’s been wisely invested over the years to grow into a great fund that will give your child opportunity. Pressure test how far what you have saved will take them. (Bonus points, if you’re reading this with many years before college, consider the flexibility of contributing to a trust that can support more than just education expenses.)

Or maybe college funding hasn’t been a priority for you, and now that high school graduation is on the horizon, you have questions. Are you able to avoid student loans? What is the FAFSA and do you need to submit it? How can you find the right scholarships? Is that really what your expected family contribution (EFC) is supposed to be?

Here are few additional tips we’ve learned throughout the process that may be helpful for you:

  • Be sure to read up on tuition exchange or reciprocity programs—many states will allow residents to attend a college in a nearby state without having to pay out-of-state tuition rates.

  • If you happen to stumble across the phrase “Test Optional” on college applications, don’t leave that field blank! Test Optional means you are not required to submit your SAT/ACT scores, but keep in mind: some schools use these test scores to determine your eligibility for merit scholarships and aid. Check with the specific school your child is applying to first to see if they require scores for aid considerations!

I recommend checking out these articles to learn about planning for college costs, saving in the right kind of plan, and paying for college without breaking the bank. Don’t be afraid to dig into supplemental programs like scholarships based on academic achievement in high school or consider AP courses as a method to reduce costs by getting dual credit (if the school accepts them). Paying for the AP test can often be much more affordable to get credits than paying for the same class at a university, possibly saving your family a few thousand dollars.

How to Plan for College Costs: A Roadmap

How to Pay for College Without Breaking the Bank

5 Key Questions About 529 College Savings Plans

I can’t wait to see what my youngest daughter’s final choice will be come spring time. As she works her way through stacks of college applications, I wonder if I’ll have to start wearing bright orange, purple or red as I cheer for her new team.

But one thing my wife and I are sure of is that we have helped her make as informed choice, and the odds of her having a great experience is better because of our help and support. If you have questions about saving and planning for higher education costs or want to talk college selection strategy, reach out to your Wealth Manager.

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Wes brings 20 well-rounded years of operational management experience to Plancorp. Prior to joining the firm in 2014, he had most recently served as the Vice President of Finance at PH Financial Services and Chief Financial Officer of Parkway School District. Over the course of his career, Wes has been responsible for sales, purchasing, accounting, finance, human resources and technology. A jack of all trades when it comes to operations, Wes still actively manages many of these areas at Plancorp. Originally from Springfield, Missouri, Wes has made St. Louis his home for the last 17 years. He and his family are involved with their parish, Immacolata, and frequently volunteer for charitable activities. A lifelong Cardinals fan, Wes is happy to discuss any potential trade to improve the team. More »