For Mansfield's high school seniors, it all comes down to just one month. For the past 12 years they have been going to school learning, growing and working toward their high school diploma. And now, it is college decision time. These students have studied, taken the SAT exams, written essays, completed the rigorous admissions process and now have just 30 days to make a decision about which college to attend. Schools have mailed their acceptance letters and almost every college expects a response by May 1.
So how should a student make that final choice? Based on where their friends are going? How great the football team is? How much financial aid the school is providing?
According to Todd Weaver, a Senior Associate with Canton-based Strategies for College, "That depends! Hopefully a student has a number of options to choose from. The “maybe” and “denial” letters are tough to face, but the focus should really be on which of the “accepted” letters make the most sense. I believe the two most important factors for students and their families to consider are money and how well the student "fits" the school."
Money – Can you afford it?
In the past 10 years, the cost of college has doubled. Many parents are shocked to learn that it is not unusual for a school to charge $50,000 or more per year for both tuition and room and board. So the first step is to decide whether the school is affordable. Make sure the family (mom, dad, student, others) can afford the four-year cost of today’s undergraduate degree. Weaver says, "Know what your financial aid letter offers in terms of scholarship grants and loans. Be sure to know how much debt your student may be saddled with after graduation. A good rule of thumb is to keep the four-year total debt load less than what a potential starting salary might be. So, if you expect to make $35,000 per year, don’t take out loans that add up to be more than that amount. You’ll struggle making payments".
Students need to understand the seriousness of college debt because it can have a profound impact on their quality of life after graduation. Struggling to payoff student loans is a growing problem. Home ownership among young married couples is at its lowest level in years. Even though real estate prices have fallen and interest rates are at their lowest levels ever, many 20 and 30 year-olds are finding that they can't qualify for a mortgage because they owe too much.
Similarly, the parents of college students need to understand that funding their children's college costs can have a profound impact on their ability to retire comfortably. Don't make the mistake of making a college-funding problem a retirement-funding problem.
So keep this thought at the top of your mind: If the college your child is considering does not make attendance affordable, then they clearly do not value the student for what she brings to the academic community as much as what she brings to the school's financial coffers.
One of the keys to making college affordable is to beat the odds and graduate in four years… not five! Adding another semester or year to your education could be extremely expensive, both in money you spend and money your student forgoes by not joining the workforce on time.
Too often students don't graduate on time because the school was not a good fit. If the academic or social environment is not right, students sometimes struggle and end up losing credits should they transfer to another school, change majors or need to make up classes they either failed or dropped.
Todd Weaver's firm, Strategies for College, Inc. has helped guide more than 4,000 families to appropriate financial and academic “fits” for college since 1990. He asks, "Are the academics going to be challenging? Will the opportunities for intellectual success be appropriate at your destination? Does the school have the right “feel” for the student? In other words, will a 70-30 male to female ratio like that found at some engineering schools, be an acceptable environment? Maybe. Maybe not. My advice is to make sure the student attends and takes advantage of an 'Accepted Student’s Day' on campus or regional reception in their home town over the next few weeks. It’s a great way to get a feel for what campus will be like when enrolled. Also, take the time to learn about alumni stories, graduate success rates, etc. at every opportunity.
May 1 will be here before you know it and soon parents will be placing school logos on the rear windows of their cars and minivans. If you would like some help in the decision making process, sign up for Todd Weaver's free blog at www.collegesearchgameplan.com .
About this column: Steve Davis is a local CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ who has been helping clients in Mansfield, Foxboro, Easton and other local communities for more than twenty years. You can find out more about Steve and his company, Davis Financial at www.talkwithdavis.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/davisfinancial
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Securities offered through LPL Financial Member FINRA/SIPC