College Planning: Where to start?

Portrait of Lauren Russo

By Lauren Beckett • March 22, 2022

Does the word “college” give you heart palpitations?

You’re not alone. In fact, far from it. Data from Statista says there are approximately 17,245,000 high school students across the U.S. in 2022. That’s a LOT of students. And a lot of stressed parents and family members. Whether you’ve gone through the college application process yourself or this is your first brush with it, know that you will be okay. You just need a plan.

Ok…where do I start?

You may have more than one child but for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you have one daughter. What grade is she in? If she’s a high school freshman or sophomore, she should be focused on trying new experiences and figuring out where her interests and goals lie (easier said than done for a 15-year-old, I know). This might be picking up small jobs, interning or shadowing opportunities, or volunteering. It also might include taking personality or career aptitude tests online and simply researching various career fields.

Let’s say she’s a junior or senior. Then you’re busy. Between sports, extracurriculars, friends, and maintaining grades, it may feel impossible to think about actually applying for college. But now’s the time.

Creating your college list

It’s helpful to begin with no limits. Create a huge list of every college, university, trade school, or certificate program that piques your (the student, not the parent!) interest.

Your current school or local colleges often offer both career and college fairs. Both are valuable. Like any business or product, colleges are going to put their best foot forward to show you everything wonderful about their institution, so don’t plan on falling in love with a particular school just yet – you should visit the campus and do plenty of research first.

As to career choice, many universities (especially larger schools and liberal arts institutions) offer a wide array of options for Majors. Most high school juniors and seniors do not know what they want to do for the rest of their adult lives – they don’t even know what they want for dinner tonight (hey, but neither do I)! It’s okay to begin without a solid decision, but it’s important to take courses in areas that are appealing and to aid in making that decision. If your child is creative and independent, some schools such as UMass Amherst even offer “Create your own major” programs. The opportunities are nearly endless.

Know your deadlines!

FAFSA, CSS profile, applications, CommonApp, letters of recommendation, the college checklist is impressive.

There are a lot of forms to complete before making a final decision. Familiarize yourself with the admissions office at your top-choice schools and ask lots of questions! Find out what the deadlines are and stick to them. This is also a great way for your child to start managing their time and personal responsibility before going off on their own (if that’s the case).

Now, uh… what about the bill?

I could write an entire book on this topic. Fortunately, it’s already been done. Multiple times. The short answer is that there is no perfect solution for everyone. However, it IS possible to find the OPTIMAL solution for YOU and your family, based on your own unique circumstances.

Seek out scholarships – and don’t stop once you get accepted to a school. I cannot stress this enough! There is lots of aid out there that can be accessed if you look hard enough and take the time to apply. We know your child is busy (and probably just as stressed as you are!) but they should prioritize finding time to seek these out and submit genuine applications along with any supporting documents required.

The FAFSA gives you a sense of what schools think you can afford, which can help you to estimate your true costs for each school. Yup, that scary “sticker” price? Almost nobody truly pays that. Now it’s time to compare schools. Is your expected value from a private school significantly higher than at a state school or community college? What about if you factor in anticipated student loan payments?

One note on loans… they’re not the worst possible outcome! If you, as a parent, are putting your own financial independence in jeopardy solely to avoid your child having any student loans, is that worthwhile? Especially if their loans are minimal and have favorable interest rates? How about when you consider the fact that they could qualify for programs such as Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans, or Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)?

Paying for college is typically a combination of a few different sources. The key to avoiding excess stress and burdensome student loans is to start planning early and to ask questions and know where to access your resources.

You’ve got this! And don’t forget, we’re here to help, too. To learn more about college planning, contact us today.


Berkshire Money Management presents: Understanding the Financial Aid Process. Free webinar. Tuesday, April 5, 7:00 pm. Register now.

Lauren Russo, CVB, CEPA, is a financial advisor at Berkshire Money Management. 

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