Smart college shoppers take timely action and get help when needed
By Dr. ROBERT RONSTADT
For many college-bound students, it's the end of their junior year. If they (and their parents) don't know the answers to some critical questions about college, or they aren't comfortable with their answers, maybe it's time to get some help. After all, preparing for college, finding the right college, and making sure the family doesn't go broke paying for college are among the most complex and important issues they will face in their lifetimes.
What are these questions and how do smart college shoppers answer them in their quest to discover outstanding educational values? They ask:
1. Am I ready for college? Have I done all that's needed to prepare myself academically?
2. Have I matched my academic interests with at least five colleges I want to attend so I know in detail why these schools are the right ones for me?
3. Am I (and is my family) prepared financially to attend these particular colleges?
4. Have I formed a team with my parents and/or others to help me address these and other tough questions about what I need to do before, during and after college?
Better ask the questions now. Recently, I received a phone call from some distraught parents. They needed help because they have over $200,000 in undergraduate college debt they incurred getting their child through a pricey university. From my perspective, it's a bit like calling firemen to a home that's already ablaze. The real problems started over four years ago when they selected a school they simply couldn't afford. The choices you make now will have consequences – sometimes negative ones that can last for years.
To experience more positive outcomes, many families form a team to identify a few schools and determine what's needed to get admitted. That's a good start. But too often they don't get much further because the team is incomplete or dominated by one person. Sometimes the dominator is a parent whose done all the leg work. Sometimes it's the student whose gathered information and has presented a fait accompli ... "Mom, Dad, I've worked hard. I've researched several colleges, and I've decided I want to go to New York University. My heart's set on it." Unfortunately, Mom and Dad's pocketbook isn't quite "set on it."
Too often, the right answers aren't forthcoming because the team fails to ask the right questions. They'd do well to seek the help of an objective third party who is knowledgeable about the entire process of getting ready for and succeeding in college, one who at the very least can be an objective arbitrator. They need someone who can determine the right questions because he or she has taken the time to get to know the family, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, who can find viable college choices for the student from both an academic and financial perspective, who can help them select the best value, as well as figure out how to pay for a great education without descending into back-breaking debt.
Nor does this process stop once the student is admitted. College is a huge investment and sometimes the family needs help making sure their investment in a college education is being protected and maximized. Sometimes the college is not delivering on its promise. Sometimes the student isn't performing at a high standard. Sometimes the student's interests change. What's the appropriate response? For instance, one of every three students will transfer to another college. How do you maximize the move?
Where do parents and students get help to answer these and countless other questions? High school guidance counselors are often a good start. Many are very capable. Unfortunately many are overwhelmed by numbers: too many students and too little time to provide meaningful assistance.
Another possibility are financial planners. Even better, if possible find one living near you who is also a "certified college planner." But do your homework before selecting one. Most are expert about only a part of the process. They may know the admissions and financial aid standards at some schools, or have some accounting and/or tax expertise. That's good but recognize you may need more than one person. And don't expect miracles if you are looking for help at the eleventh hour. So start early. Find some help and form a strong team. Identify all the members you need, and then go shopping for a great education – the smart way.
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