Paying For College For Dummies
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At the traditional length of four years, completing a four-year college education is both time consuming and costly. Too many students don’t complete their college degrees or take a longer time to do so. Private nonprofit colleges have an overall six-year graduation rate of just 66 percent; public colleges graduate about 59 percent, and for-profit colleges graduate only 21 percent of their first-time, full-time students within six years.

Graduating quickly ©michaeljung/

So, if some or all of your kids are going to go for a four-year college degree, it’s imperative that you and they have a clear and well-thought-out plan for getting the job done efficiently and cost effectively. This article highlights ten tips for doing just that.

Communicating is key

These are big decisions. College is tremendously expensive and takes a good deal of time. And, it’s hard to really know what you’re getting until the student is there and well into the experience.

Of course, you should expect that parents and aspiring college students aren’t going to think the same thoughts or have the same concerns and priorities when it comes to selecting colleges. Take your time and be open to your kid’s thoughts, ideas, and concerns. And be patient explaining your thoughts, ideas, and concerns.

Be candid with your kids about your financial constraints but be careful in using those concerns to steer your kids too much to what you want for them. Yes, you should lead and guide. You’re the parent and have decades of experience as an adult in the real world, which your teenagers lack. And, yes, you should sometimes say no because sometimes kids get goofy and unrealistic ideas in their heads. Remember to continue the dialogue with them to find some common ground.

Keep all your options open

Be sure you and your children explore all the reasonable post–high school options that help prepare them to work and have a career. A four-year college degree isn’t the only way to do that. Among families and students that end up the most unhappy with college are those who too quickly zeroed in on that option without having good reasons or having considered alternatives.

Pay attention to the warning signs in the early semesters of attendance at college. If your student is unmotivated, uninspired, and having a hard time staying focused on school, it may be a sign that you need to evaluate and consider other options.

Plan ahead financially

A common mistake that some families make when addressing the cost of college is that in the beginning, they are thinking about the first-year expenses and meeting those. It’s imperative, however, that you consider the whole four-year cost and how those expenses will be paid.

Students who stop out for a semester, a year, or more are at far greater risk of failing to complete their college degree. Often, these breaks in attendance are caused by strained family finances and the student feeling pressured to work and earn money to meet current living costs and potential future college costs. By coming up with a strong financial plan, you can minimize these issues from arising.

Pick colleges with high graduation rates

Colleges calculate and report their graduation rates, typically over four and six years. Colleges with higher graduation rates are generally better choices. For starters, high graduation rates show that the college is doing the necessary things to ensure that students can complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time. Higher graduation rates also indicate a motivated student population that is demonstrating that they can complete the degree requirements in a timely fashion.

I’m not suggesting that you immediately rule out colleges with graduation rates that are merely good but not exceptional. A school that takes more risks on accepting a more financially diverse student body, for example, will tend to have a somewhat lower graduation rate. If a particular college seems to check all the right boxes but has a lower graduation rate, inquire as to why that is.

Select colleges that offer your desired courses and majors

Especially at larger colleges and universities, and those that are public, it may take longer to complete all required courses for the simple reason that there are so many students competing for limited spaces in some courses. So, be sure to ask lots of questions when you’re considering such schools so that you have an informed perspective on the realities of getting into and completing certain courses and majors.

Also, be aware that changing majors can lead to problems graduating within four years at some colleges, again with more issues at the larger public schools.

Choose schools with affordable housing

Besides having trouble getting their desired courses in a timely fashion, another challenge for some college students getting through college efficiently is being able to find and retain affordable housing. This can be especially problematic in high cost of living areas where there aren’t a lot of rentals available at reasonable prices.

I can tell you from the personal experience of having toured dozens of college and university campuses that too many schools gloss over and fail to disclose their lack of housing. At numerous schools, housing may only be guaranteed, for example, for the first two years. If you look at the attendance numbers for a college and then compare them with the number of students living on campus, you can get to the bottom of the campus housing situation.

Get college credit in high school

Some colleges will give you course credits for college-level classes — for example, advanced placement (AP) courses — that you have completed and done well on the AP exam taken at your high school. At most colleges, on the AP exam grading scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest and best score possible, scores from 3 to 5 are considered passing grades. More selective colleges, however, may only consider a 4 or 5 score acceptable.

Especially at the most selective colleges, the credits won’t typically help you to graduate earlier or sooner. For example, if a student did well in AP calculus or statistics, such colleges will then place that student into a higher-level introductory course so that at a minimum, they aren’t taking the same course in college that they recently took in high school.

Some colleges do offer credits for high school AP and equivalent courses that may be used toward meeting graduation requirements. So, investigate that option as you survey colleges to consider, because knocking a semester or full year off your kid’s college attendance plans can save your family quite a bit of money.

Make use of advisors and deans

Many college administrators enjoy working with students — that’s part of the reason they were attracted to a job on a college campus. (The flip side, unfortunately, as you may experience, is they are generally less enthusiastic about hearing from parents despite the fact that you’re the ones paying the bills!)

Part of what students (and their families) are paying for are all the advisors and deans who can help in many situations. So, when it comes to issues with course scheduling, planning for majors, graduating in a timely fashion, and not breaking the bank, administrators often can help and enjoy doing so. Remember — your student has to ask!

Try your best to have your student contact the administrator on their own. If they repeatedly refuse to do so, then I think it’s fair game for you to contact someone to raise the issue and solicit help for your student.

Work during college

Upperclassmen can earn up to about $7,000 per calendar (tax) year without impacting their financial aid awards. (For freshman, the income limit at some private schools that utilize an institutional methodology is about $5,200.)

So, during the summer and while working part-time during some of the school year, students can help pitch in and earn some money toward their college costs and living expenses. Ideally, they would earn up to the levels allowed without affecting financial aid awards.

Avoid stopping school to work

Stopping out for a semester or going to college part-time may sound financially appealing when you consider all the income a student can earn. However, that doesn’t consider the entire picture. What about the impact that the higher income will have on the pricing/financial aid package the college offers?

Also, working more and going to college less will inevitably lead to a four-year college experience stretching out to five, six, or even seven years. Part-time jobs during college generally pay much less than full-time, post-college jobs.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Eric Tyson, MBA, is a renowned finance counselor, syndicated columnist, and author of numerous bestselling financial titles.

Tony Martin, B.Comm, is a nationally-recognized personal finance, speaker, commentator, columnist, management trainer, and communications consultant. He is the co-author of Personal Finance For Canadians For Dummies.

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