18 Dec 2014

College Thoughts

If you have a high school student or two, like me, you are probably in the process of visiting colleges, working on college applications, and trying to figure out how to afford college and whether it’s worth it for your student to accumulate so much debt.  In this weak economy, we hear about under or unemployed college graduates who have mountains of debt.

I just read a New York Times article that clarifies this position: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/upshot/what-students-dont-know-about-their-loans.html?_r=1&abt=0002&abg=0
“Nationwide, many students are borrowing more than they understand. At elite colleges, though, the opposite may be true.” According to this article, “the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds with a four-year degree is 5.4 percent, and it’s only 3.2 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds.”

The key takeaways for me are that these are graduates of 4-year colleges. Furthermore, the article points out that graduates from more selective colleges tend to overestimate their college debt; meanwhile, students who attended less selective institutions for less than 4 years not only tend to underestimate their debt, but are less likely to acquire the types of jobs that will help them pay back their loans.

All the research I’ve done lately says that in spite of incurring debt, it is definitely worthwhile to graduate from a 4-year college or university because lifetime salaries will be significantly higher.  However, many students drop out of college either because they are not ready to attend college and be independent yet or because the college they are going to is not a good fit.
Here is my advice for maximizing the chance of selecting a college that your child will succeed at, grow emotionally, have a great college experience, feel like he fits in, and GRADUATE.

  1. I recommend the Fiske Guide to Colleges. It only talks about the top 175 or so 4-year colleges and gives a very good flavor of what it is like to attend each college, including quotes from students.  It also includes a quiz to narrow down your choices.  For example, do you prefer a big or small school, urban or rural, Greek life or not?
  2. Do not rule out private schools because of the sticker price. They may provide more financial aid to more students than you think.  You can find out approximately what your portion will be by using their financial aid calculators.
  3. Be sure to visit the college(s) of choice, if at all possible. Getting a tour, sitting in on a class, eating lunch at the cafeteria, and spending time with students are all indicators of how good a fit the school is.  The prospective student should feel comfortable and at home there.
  4. Starting in 9th grade, make sure your student takes challenging courses, gets help when the courses get tough, and adequately prepares for the SAT and/or the ACT.  The goal is to be positioned to have many options of colleges.
  5. If the selected college turns out not to be a good fit, it is fine to transfer.  I have spoken to many students who transferred after two years and were much happier at the second school.
  6. Encourage your student to focus on a potential career choice and major early on.  Switching majors, careers, or schools can lead to a loss of credits, increasing both the time and cost required to graduate from college.

Winter break is a good time to relax and unwind, but also a good time to regroup, get started on test prep, and plan for the future.

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