Surviving Your Child’s College Selection Experience

It’s early; around 5:30 a.m., September 25th. I am in the car with my husband and 17 year old daughter, Emma, and we are on our way to visit UVM in Burlington, VT for an open house which begins at 9:00.  First stop: coffee. Next stop: college. How did we even get here?

In the beginning….

We went through a similar albeit less daunting high school shopping process. My husband came from a public school background. Being one of 7, money was tight. A rare celebratory meal out for his family meant a trip to the “Fancy McDonalds” (a/k/a “Friendly’s”). Private school tuition was simply not in the budget.  And then there was the fact that his parents were both teachers in public school systems who believed in public education. Although I came from a lower income family, my mother sent her 5 children to private schools from kindergarten through high school. (I’m pretty sure that her hidden agenda was to get us married off to a more notable family.) It was predestined that we would ultimately disagree on our educational strategies.

My argument in favor of smaller classes for personalized attention, learning strong study skills for academic success in preparation for college, and a positive social experience (as well as the hope of getting her married off to a more notable family) trumped his argument that we could afford a pretty nice car for the same cost.  I reigned as victor!

We narrowed down Emma’s high school selections to 4 private schools that were not completely out of our financial comfort zone. After Emma spent a shadow day at each, we compared what each school had to offer and analyzed the final costs. We made a decision.  By “we” I mean my husband and I. Don’t get me wrong, Emma’s opinion counted, but just as we convinced our kids they really wanted the toys we had already bought them for Christmas, we exerted the Supernatural Parental Force of Persuasion towards the choice we thought was best. And we let her believe it was really her decision.

College Experience

Back to today….

The college decision was a very different animal. In 4 years our grip on Emma’s decision making process had weakened considerably. We got to UVM, toured the campus, met with various enthusiastic employees and students of the school and BAM! I was hooked! Burlington, VT in the fall! I was ready to buy the “UVM Mom” sweatshirt, pack her bags and move her in. She was clearly not as passionate. Reality set in with tuition slapping me square in the face: $50,310. ‘”For all 4 years?” “No ma’am, that’s 1 year- tuition, fees, room and board.” Now I don’t feel I was being unreasonable to believe that I was going to spend about half of that amount. After all this was a state school, not a private university. And her academic goal is to teach high school English. She’s not going to get filthy rich on that career path; shouldn’t the cost of the education be directly proportional to the anticipated income?? Or something like that??


As we continued to visit countless college campuses the reality set in. Our investment in Emma’s high school education paid off and she was accepted to 9 great colleges, both private and public. The range of prices started at about $24,000 and went as high as $60,000 annually. Although I consider myself educated in concepts such as financial goal setting, paying for college was something I didn’t properly plan for and I knew it. I figured I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I was now standing on that bridge peering over the edge into the churning river of debt. All the financial aid information sessions in the world couldn’t save me now. Because we were lost in that “middle class” socioeconomic belt somewhere between completely broke and reality-star rich, there was no federal financial aid available to us. I think the FAFSA response actually may have stated “you’re kidding, right??!”  My only hope was that somehow, this child was brilliant enough to be awarded academic merit scholarships. Big… fat… beautiful scholarships.

College expenses

And she was– somewhat. While most of the colleges offered her some level of scholarship, the final tally still came to somewhere in the $20-$40 thousand dollars/year range, which included the cost of on-campus living. A couple of impudent universities offered her no scholarships at all, sacrilege! According to the Wall Street Journal, 2016 college graduates will have over $37,000 of student loan debt upon graduation, the highest yet. This is a real concern for today’s students. It’s also a huge concern for parents who want the ability to give their children all of the opportunities they were given– or may not have had. Do we tap our retirement accounts? Sell stock? Take student loans? Suck all the equity from our homes adding to our own debt load? Find additional jobs? Rob a bank? (just checking to make sure you are paying attention)

We are regular people…

The truth is, funding a college education probably includes a combination of many resources for most families. I didn’t plan well enough. How do you save for college when there is not really a lot left over after the bills are paid? We don’t own a palatial estate, a vacation home on the coast, or drive expensive new cars; we are an average family. This is not a “how-to-pay for college” article; clearly I am no expert. My only advice to anyone reading this is to get educated on the options and try harder to make saving a priority. Don’t think it is too late to start. I have started.

College Process

Wisdom for people like me and their college-bound students…

  • Get educated; find information about paying for college online, from friends who have been through it, or through other reputable sources while your student is in high school if not sooner. Knowledge is power.
  • Save as much as you can as early as possible. This is the hard part. It might mean making sacrifices in your lifestyle; be willing to make them. Seek help from financial advisors; your bank or credit union may have them on staff and consultation is generally free of charge. There are college savings plans such as MA U.Fund, U.Plan & 529 college savings plans, generally available through investment firms, which offer tax sheltered savings and prepayment of tuition. Google ‘college savings plans’ for more details and information on how to get started.
  • Students should write one great essay for any applications that do not require a specific topic; this could save time with both college and scholarship applications.
  • Apply to colleges early. Many schools offer fee free applications before their first deadline, usually early fall. You don’t need to decide at this point where you’re attending, but you will have a level of comfort knowing your admission status early, and you saved some money doing so.
  • Visit all campuses or attend open houses early at schools that your student is truly interested in and listen to both administrators’ and students’ opinions. Ask questions. Attend informational sessions. Revisit the “favorites” after narrowing it down. Consider the education and value as well as the total college experience.
  • Don’t rush the decision. Offer your parental insight but allow your student to make the choice. Give them some credit. If you’ve done your job, they will likely make a (possibly dramatic) perfect decision.
  • Look for free and low cost options first. There are a multitude of scholarships available through your college, on the internet, through local organizations, etc. The trick is to apply early and often. (there are deadlines and we missed many due to ignorance) Don’t become overwhelmed with the amount of applications to complete. Accept that this is now your life and just make it happen. Piecing together several small scholarships that do not need to be repaid may be a hassle, but to repeat, they don’t need to be repaid!! Free is better than borrowing.
  • Student loans- FAFSA first, then research the options. You will be hounded to death by your student’s college until you file your FAFSA! At least then you’ll know your reality. After federal student loans, you can research options for other student loans. It’s confusing, not gonna lie- seek help from the experts (talk to lenders and your college financial aid office).

Plan for College

And then it happened…

It was really so much easier when we could exert our own will on our children, but independence and maturity had taken over. This was Emma’s first real adult decision. She considered the quality of academics offered, distance from home, size of the student body, average class size, even the dining choices came into play. City campus or rural? The cost of tuition. There were many tears shed, sleepless nights and anxious discussions. Luckily this is a level-headed girl I produced. After considering all of her options, not without pain and suffering, she came to the conclusion that she could get an excellent education and have a fantastic college experience without drowning in debt forever. She is excited as she prepares to attend Worcester State University in September, one of the more affordable options. My husband and I are pretty happy with that choice as well. Although it’s not the ‘full boat’ I expected our undeniably brilliant daughter to achieve, I am confident that we will be able to somehow piece together the necessary funds to help her from many of the sources previously mentioned, with the exception of robbing a bank.

It’s interesting to note that many friends and relatives criticized Emma for even considering state universities, citing that the money we spent on a private high school was essentially “wasted”.  When I consider what our goals were in choosing a high school, attending a private college was not among them. We simply wished for our student to learn in the most beneficial atmosphere that would prepare her to achieve the maturity, independence and intelligence needed to make smart choices going forward. I think she’s off to a good start…

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2 Responses to “Surviving Your Child’s College Selection Experience

  • Kaelagh Haley
    3 years ago

    Great article, Gratia!! I think anyone with kids heading to college soon would really like these tips and be able to relate to your experience.

  • Kate Dame
    3 years ago

    Thanks for the advice, Gratia! We are just getting started in Faith’s college search and I am already nervous. I loved your helpful and practical suggestions.


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