Lessons Learned after Sending Four Kids Off to College. Part One

Tim Watters |
Lessons Learned after Sending Four Kids Off to College.


   PART 1


I recently dropped off my twins for their first year of college. These are my last two. I had two sons graduate in 2011 and 2012.  Here are some lessons I learned along the way. There are so many that I will do this blog in two parts.


1. Don’t be afraid to apply to colleges that may seem out of your budget.


There is often a big difference between the “sticker price” and the final tuition price offered. Often, private colleges will offer merit scholarships even if your child does not qualify for financial aid. Your child is more likely to receive money if he or she offer something the college wants (a talent, profile, qualifications).  If your child's grades and test scores are higher than the average student at the school, they are more likely to get a scholarship and/or be a candidate for the honors program. Note: Be aware that some colleges offer  “Awards”  that are actually loans which need to be paid back.  Your child also has a better chance at getting accepted and offered money by a college that is further from home for diversity reasons.  However, don’t forget to consider the added cost of airfares, etc. when comparing offers.


2. Apply for Early Action not Early Decision.


Early Action allows your child to be one of the first applicants evaluated and perhaps have a better chance of getting accepted. They are not obligated to attend. Also, Early Action applicants have a better chance of being offered money. If you don’t object to paying the sticker price and your child has wanted to go to a particular college since kindergarten then go with Early Decision. However, Early Decision takes away much of your bargaining power.


There are hundreds of colleges that offer a quality education. The common application makes it easier to apply to more colleges and see what comes back in terms of programs and scholarships. However, your child must be willing to put in the extra effort of completing many more essays, since many colleges require supplemental essays.


 3. Few students get money for athletics.


Very few students go on to college athletic programs and only a few of them actually get scholarships. One of my sons got on a Division I track team but did not receive a scholarship for it. There is nothing wrong with your child being dedicated to a sport. Obviously, there are many benefits. Just don't rely on a sports scholarship to pay all or part of your child's college education.


 4.  529 Plans are a great deal.


529 plans offer you the option of saving for college without having to pay taxes on the earnings within the account, as long as the money is used for a "qualified expense" (room & board, books, tuition). You need to keep good records in case you are ever audited. If the school offers credit card payment options, pay the bill by credit card and then payoff the credit card with the 529 plan withdrawal. This will help you earn points (if your card offers them) for school expenses paid.


5. Even Small Scholarships Help.


My daughter and son got several small scholarships by writing essays in the spring of their senior year when most kids are not interested in writing more essays (so they had a better chance of winning them).   Have them start writing their essays early. The questions come out in the summer and the best essays take lots of revisions. Part of the common application essay and supplemental essays could possibly be used as starting off points for the essay entries in the spring. Suggest that they ask their teachers early for their letters of recommendation (before they get overwhelmed with other requests).


6. Guidance Counselors Can be Worth Their Weight in Gold.


We were lucky to have very informative and helpful guidance counselors for all of our children. If you are not as fortunate, there are college counselors and many college fairs where you can gather information as well as campus visits. Big universities vary in terms of how important it is to visit the campus.


In our next blog entry, I will delve deeper into the financial aid process and how to evaluate different schools. Please call me if you have any questions.  I'd be happy to discuss them with you.