When my three older boys were going through the college application process, the question I dreaded the most was, “Where is your son applying to college?” It is a logical question to ask a mom of a high school senior, but my own insecurities made me dread it. My insecurity didn’t come from lack of confidence in my kids, but from my worries about the cost of college.
To be honest, we aren’t poor, but we aren’t wealthy either. We are smack in the middle – with four kids to educate. And my alma mater’s total cost of attendance is approaching $70,000 a year. I know that the cost of attendance is only the sticker price, but even so, $70,000 is a high starting point.
To deal with my anxiety and to lighten the situation a bit, I developed a stock answer to the question of where my kids wanted to go to college. In part to disarm people, and in part because it was the truth, my standard response was to smile and say, “They’re going to the highest bidder.”
Over time and experience, I have realized that everybody has that one thing that is the most important thing about their child’s college choice. For some people it’s prestige. They just really want their kids to attend the most prestigious school possible. For other people it might be distance – they can’t imagine their child more than a day’s drive away.
For us, it was financial. While, like anyone, we would love to have a blank check for our kids’ college tuitions, we simply do not. When our kids were going through the application process, we were honest with them and explained to them that getting accepted by a college was just the first step in the journey. The financial package would be the crucial next step in whether or not that college could be an actual possibility.
We were honest with our kids, but, importantly, we were also honest with our school’s college counselor. My kids attend an independent K-12 school, where applying to and attending some of the nation’s best colleges is the accepted norm. I found it humbling to sit in the college counselor’s office and admit that after all of my kids’ hard work and dedication over the years, in the end, affordability was going to be the decisive factor in where they went to college.
That difficult admission ended up being the best thing I did. Far from being disdainful at what I had to say, she embraced it. She told me the beginning of the college search was the time to acknowledge that cost was a factor, and that she had seen the heartache that happens when kids learn too late that their dream college actually isn’t in their parents’ budget.
Learn What Each College Values
Also, admitting cost is a factor at the beginning of the search can steer the applications in a better direction. Colleges give the most merit aid to the kids who are the most desirable in their applicant pool. It seems obvious that GPA and test scores would determine desirability, and they do, but it also isn’t all that clear cut. While all three of our boys had similar GPA’s and test scores, their extra-curricular activities varied dramatically, and we saw this affecting their merit offers.
Two of our sons were the student body president of their high school, and they got lucrative financial packages from several colleges based on that. Our third son didn’t have student government experience, but he did show an ability to lead in a variety of activities, as well as dedication to a few projects over his high school career. He got accepted by, and merit packages from, colleges that his brothers did not get. When you are fishing for merit packages, it pays to cast a wide net because sometimes you just can’t predict what a college will deem as desirable.
It’s Nice to Feel Valued
There was an intangible benefit to telling our kids they were going to the highest bidder, too. My kids realized they offered something of value, and they saw this value in a tangible way whenever they received a merit offer from a college. It’s nice to feel valued. Of course, the opposite was true too. Sometimes they didn’t feel valued by a college, but that’s life, and that’s a good lesson to learn, too.
My kids each have gone to the college that was the most affordable option, and we don’t have any regrets. They each have gone to college knowing that they were wanted and valued and expected to make a contribution there. That’s been a great way for them to begin their college careers.