Pocket Change Investor
Finding a way for the whole family to get on and stay on the same page about playing the college game could save you a fortune, and keep a mountain of debt off your child's back, as it builds a happier high school experience for you all.
While we all want the best for our children, if you can't afford or don't want to borrow for a four-year trip to an ivory tower, just say so ... and calmly discuss the options. Even if you feel as though you've blown it, by not having enough money socked away for college, take heart. Fortunately, the best investments your family can make for college can be made in the few years before applying, and involve little or no money.
Life is tough enough without feeling pressured to excel all of the time at everything you do. Growing up should and can be fun. That said, without putting your children under enough stress to drive them to the brink or beyond, instill an Invest in Yourself attitude in your high schoolers. After all, it's their future.
In addition to SAT scores, schools look for good grades in serious, academic subjects, a few advanced courses, leadership qualities, a record of community service, as well as skills on the ballfield or in the orchestra. Top students get accepted to more schools, are offered more non-loan aid, and are in the best negotiating position for pitting one school's offer against another. Not surprisingly, students who merit them are the ones who get Merit Scholarships.
By being realistic about interests, academic capabilities, and personality, your child can focus on schools where the fit would be right, and where s/he has a very good chance of being accepted. Ultimately, the more a school wants your child, the more "doesn't-have-to-be-paid-back" financial aid you'll receive, and the less that degree will cost.
As early as sophomore year, you all want to begin looking at colleges -- or at least at their catalogs, videos, Web sites, and the numerous write-ups you'll find in college selection guides, magazines, and books. On the Web, go to: www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/college, www.review.com, www.universities.com, www.collegeboard.org, and www.petersons.com.
The more you and your teen discover about the most promising choices -- and the earlier you begin -- the better prepared you'll be for everything you and your child need to do during senior year. The earlier those college applications are out, the more relaxed your child's last year in high school will be. And for a school with rolling admissions, (where applications are considered as they come in), applying early in the year gives you an advantage.
But early admissions programs (where a student attests that So and So School is the only one s/he is applying to, and that s/he'll happily go there if the admissions people agree) come with an important cautionary note: If the school thinks your kid really wants to go there, you may not be offered the most generous aid package.
You could also schedule in some vacation time around the campuses that seem most appealing. Granted, the best time to see a school is when classes are actively in session, but you could still pick up a lot of good info by strolling the grounds and seeing what the surrounding town or city is like. And with colleges and the rest of the world often being on different schedules, a long weekend for you, thanks to one of those now conveniently scheduled birthdays that we celebrate on Mondays, may be just another day of classes at a school or two your family should see.
Encourage your children to focus early on the choosing-a-college marathon. If they need an immediate payoff to go at it enthusiastically, come up with a suitable reward. Bribery within the family has great investment potential, and is perfectly legal.
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