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College Planning 101: Tips and Advice for Teens and Parents

Which one? What will it cost? When should you start thinking about it? What does your child have to do to stand out? Relax: You're about to be schooled.

High school seniors across Michigan nervously put the finishing touches on a bundle of information meant to capture the best parts of their lives. From academic performance to their pursuits outside of school, their very character will be crafted into a streamlined packet electronically submitted to institutions within the state and beyond. That's right: It's time to get in college applications.

Even if your child is years away from worrying about ACT scores and letters of recommendation, it's never too soon to start discussing the importance of higher education. And if your child is in high school, read closely. Understanding the college application process and choosing the right school can help you ease some of your child's fears (and your own!).

When do we start?

College readiness doesn't start in high school. Instead, college is the culmination of academic training in and out of the classroom that's been happening since you first sat your child in your lap to read stories together.

Express your interest in education (not necessarily school, but learning) when your child is young. Frequent trips to the library, snuggling up with a book together, asking questions while going on walks, volunteering in the classroom – all of these everyday activities will demonstrate to your child that learning is important to you, and that it should be for her, too. Talk to your child about why learning is exciting and listen when she wants to tell you about what interests her.

Once she enters school, encourage her to be an active learner, to ask questions in class and participate in classroom discussions. This foundation of talking about education will help you delve into more complex discussions about college readiness once your child nears the end of middle school and enters her high school years.

A real love of learning is something colleges look for in applicants, explains Don Dunbar, a former high school guidance counselor and now an educational consultant and author of What You Don't Know Can Keep You Out of College.

How can I help?

There's a fine line between walking your child through the application process and doing it for him. Researching colleges, filling out applications and studying for college entrance exams will take time, and your child may not understand at first just how much time he needs to put into the effort.

In the spring of your child's junior year in high school, he'll need to start getting serious about deciding which schools he's interested in. Applications become available over the summer months. Your child needs to fill out these applications carefully before submitting them electronically to the schools.

Some of the application information is easy to fill out, but other elements, like responses to questions and his essay, will take thought, planning and time to complete. Dunbar suggests setting aside an hour each week, once applications are available, to fill out the forms and work on college planning.

If your child has questions about applications, encourage him to find the answers himself. Charlene Rencher, dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, advises, "The college admission officers like to hear from the students, not their parents." Many consider it a sign of your child's resourcefulness and independence – traits colleges hold in high regard.

 

Rencher points out that college admission officials are "attentive to their email" and that if your child does send a question, "the officers understand that 18-year-olds may not have the most sophisticated language to explain their question, but they should go ahead and give it a try."

Your child will need guidance completing his college applications, but you shouldn't step in and do it. After all, he's preparing to go out and start living on his own – he needs to know that you trust he's capable.

What college is the best?

Finding a school that suits your child's personality and academic record along with your financial abilities should be an ongoing conversation. Visiting potential colleges in person should also be part of the planning process.

"There's no better indication of whether a student will fit in at a certain college than going and seeing it in person, so that students can get a sense of whether they can see themselves in that place," says Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, the president of Kalamazoo College, a private, liberal arts school in Kalamazoo.

"Families should focus first on what they want for their sons and daughters in terms of a college experience, and then let the finances work themselves out," she adds. For example, liberal arts schools may tend to carry higher tuition price tags, but they can often have extensive scholarships available to students.

According to a Sallie Mae-Gallup poll, families with college-attending kids paid an average $24,097 in 2010 for tuition, books and living expenses. Some of this tab was paid by parental income and college savings plans, with the rest covered by loans, scholarships and grants.

Your child's annual college costs will vary greatly depending on the school he or she attends. For instance, a year at Macomb Community College is a heck of a lot cheaper than the same year spent at an Ivy League school like Cornell University.

Barbara Lehmann, a guidance counselor at Canton High School, says some students are looking at ways to trim college costs by starting at a community college and then transferring after a year or two, or choosing in-state schools instead of faraway universities.

"Community colleges are in the business of transferring students; they're very knowledgeable," says Lehmann. "Even with Michigan's recent financial struggles, I'm not seeing any decreases in the number of students going to college, but what is changing is the way that students make it work."

Once you figure out what college cost-bracket you're considering, you should have a heart-to-heart talk with your child about how it's going to be covered.

How can we pay for it?

For Canton mom Lauren Foster, sitting down with her daughter and developing a clear understanding of expectations helped both of them avoid misunderstandings.

Foster told her daughter in her sophomore year that she would pay for a portion of school costs, but her daughter had responsibilities "to perform well in school, to put in a concentrated effort to qualify for scholarships, to do her homework and to keep her grades up." Then in her daughter's junior year of high school, they sat down again and discussed responsibilities in even more detail – bringing finances into the discussion.

Foster, a certified public accountant and member of the National Financial Literacy Commission, notes that many parents who probably planned on covering all of their child's college costs may no longer be able to do so based on the economy. In fact, Foster recalls her daughter coming home from high school one day and explaining that a friend wasn't planning on college anymore because her parents just couldn't afford it.

"It was such a huge crisis for this teenager," says Foster. Open, candid communication can avoid crises or misunderstandings when it comes to college plans – and potentially the biggest headache, paying for school.

Foster had contributed to the Michigan Education Trust (MET) savings plan since her daughter was small, so she explained that she would be able to cover the cost of college tuition and books. But her daughter would need to take out loans to cover the cost of room and board.

"I explained that I would try to reimburse part of her loan, but it would be in her name," says Foster, whose daughter was at Wayne State University in Detroit. "If she skipped classes or didn't keep her grades up, then she would be on the hook for her entire loan amount. I wanted her to know that she was accountable.

"I'm a firm believer in contracts," continues Foster, who developed a simple contract based on what she discussed with her daughter that they both signed. If parents don't talk to their kids about expectations, confusion often follows. "A parent might think that their child wants to go to Wayne State, while their child is planning on going to the University of Arizona."

What are colleges looking for?

The admission process for some select schools can be tough and mysterious. Have your child consider, "Can I get into my first college choice?" She should carefully review each college's requirements and talk to her high school guidance counselor about which schools she wants to target.

Counselors have firsthand experience on what kind of qualities – from test scores to afterschool activities – certain colleges are looking for in applicants.

But be aware: There are unpredictable "X" factors that contribute to the admissions process. Students should expect that while some colleges' requirements overlap, each is slightly different.

"Students need to get a sense of where they stack up," advises Ted Spencer, executive director at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor – who's also served as its dean of admissions.

"Does the college accept 80 percent or 7 percent of those who apply? The majority of the colleges admit 70-80 percent of prospective students. There's only 14 percent of colleges – selective schools – that admit 50 percent or fewer; the University of Michigan is one of them."

Who can help?

Navigating the logistics of college applications, along with the emotional stress of helping your child choose a college and the added strain of figuring out how to pay for college, is a lot for any parent.

All of the college experts emphasized that there is help. High school guidance counselors, financial aid officials, admission officers, teachers, even clergy members can be a resource.

Contact your child's high school guidance counselor with any questions, and be assured that you're not the only one who wants your child to be a success.

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