By: Rachel Fenton
University of Michigan 2015, B.A. in English

Raising a teenager is often riddled with uncertainties, especially when it comes to planning for college. Right and wrong approaches can be hard to distinguish in such a busy and confusing time and hindsight is always 20/20. In order to save you a headache in the long run, we’ve laid out five strategies to be avoided that, though they seem logical, often hurt more than they help.

1. Let the kid dream until the last second

So many parents don’t have “the talk” about their family financial situation with their kids until the child has already sent out applications. Not only do you then have a crushed teen when you have to tell him that he can’t go because you can’t afford it, you also have a teen that is totally unaware of the family’s budget and finances. This means that the teen is probably unequipped to manage his money once he goes to school, or at least unaware of the financial implications of the choices he makes.

Families often avoid this tough talk until the last second by playing dumb about financial aid. They try to remain optimistic about the financial aid letters and hold out for them before getting serious about the financial realities of paying for college. One of the first steps in our process is to review the family’s financials, then we look at the child’s college lists and determine where the gaps are. Knowing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is key, but knowing what merit and financial aid is available for each college is also extremely important.

2. Keep your sights set on the big name schools

Great schools don’t always come wrapped in the shiniest bow. Sometimes a student’s right fit isn’t with the thousands of other pupils at the biggest state school with the most well-known reputation. Colleges like Kalamazoo College and Swarthmore College are extremely selective and prestigious schools though they are far less known compared with big names like the University of Michigan and Penn State. If your student thrives in a smaller environment socially or academically, a smaller college might be the right fit.

Attending a small college doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice prestige, but it can be very advantageous in terms of financial aid and learning opportunities. Additionally, if your child already knows his or her passion, finding a smaller school that specializes in that field of study may be a better option than attending a big university with a wide variety of majors. Parros College Planning takes the college selection process very seriously and we try to challenge our students to think outside the box when narrowing down their list of schools.

3. Trust that your child will win in the cutthroat world of scholarships

Yes, your child is special, perhaps even the most special in the world, but so is everyone else’s, according to their parents, and they’re all competing with your child for the same pool of scholarships. This reaffirms the importance of having a handle on your financial situation before selecting schools to apply to. Merit and athletic aid are both highly selective and often limited. Smaller scholarships and national scholarships are often highly competitive. This isn’t a reason to be discouraged, but it is a reason get smart and start saving, identifying and applying to as many scholarships as you qualify for (and do it well), and become literate in the confusing language of financial aid award letters.

Loans are always an option to consider and will often be a necessity. However, loans should not be taken on until the parent and student both fully understand the nature and the implications of having a student loan and have taken as many steps as possible to receive grant and scholarship aid. There are also numerous scholarships offered by the colleges, but they are the best kept secret of all; we show our students where to find them and how to apply for them.

4. Think that a financial aid award letter is the be all and end all

A lot of families don’t know how to read, evaluate, and appeal financial aid letters. Award letters come in many different shapes and sizes, which can make it extremely challenging to compare two offers to one another and figure out which is really the better offer. It is important to be aware of what aid is actually scholarship/grant aid, how work-study aid works, the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and how the budget is broken down (what is the actual tuition vs total estimated cost of housing, food, books, etc.).

You need to be meticulous when looking at financial aid awards and really understand them before you make a final decision. We meet with many panicked students in March and April, concerned by low offers, and assist them in the Appeal Process. There are many reasons to appeal, such as to explain a change in financial circumstances since applying for aid and, if possible, even to use the awards offered by the other schools you have applied to as leverage for being awarded more free money.

5. Wait until senior year to get started on planning

By the time your student reaches his or her senior year, there is little you can do to change study habits, increase GPAs, up SAT/ACT scores, or add standout extracurriculars. By senior year it is time to apply and students who didn’t plan ahead may face very limited options. A college application should reflect all aspects of a student’s first three years of high school, not the last year scramble of trying to turn it around. College planning takes time and without forethought, a student may end up wasting time and money in a school/program that was a last minute choice. We have the greatest success with our students when they start in middle school because we can guide them in creating an academic and extracurricular schedule that puts them on the road to college readiness all the sooner.

Your family can save time and money by avoiding these five mistakes. There isn’t one simple path for all college-bound students, which is why Parros College Planning is here to work closely with students and families on finding a right college fit that meets their individual needs.