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3 College-Selection Mistakes to Avoid

Feb 11, 2020 3 min read

Key Takeaways

  • Don’t pigeonhole your child based on your priorities
  • The price may be righter than you think
  • Unless they know their path, let them find it



It makes sense that the college-selection process is a family affair: Even though the increasingly higher bills for higher education are in the child’s name, parents are usually the ones who foot the bills. Meanwhile, the admissions process can be extremely competitive; the student loan debt "crisis" Opens in new window dominates financial headlines; and all of it can serve to forecast your child’s future, from employment prospects to earning power. So feel free to forgive yourself for feeling stressed while guiding your child through this crucial next step in life.

Still, the stress both of you feel could help cloud your combined judgment when scouting for and applying to colleges. Here are three common college-selection mistakes, and tips for avoiding them.


1. Narrowing their horizons

Do you have your heart set on a particular school for your child? Perhaps it’s a family alma mater or a top-ranked school on the latest U.S. News & World Report Opens in new window list. Maybe location (and thoughts of frequent weekend visits) plays a role.

There could be many reasons to narrow the list of colleges your child should consider. But not helping to expand their educational horizons could be a mistake: He or she might miss out on a fantastic program or financial benefits that aren’t available at schools with higher profiles. Perhaps a small liberal arts college or a STEM program at a big research institution is more their speed. Maybe they’d do better with a two-year associate’s degree than a four-year course load, at least to start.

With over 5,000 colleges and universities Opens in new window in the U.S. — and many more abroad — the choices are vast. Try not to limit your child’s options based on what you want; you both may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.


2. Misunderstanding the real costs

Being overly cost-conscious (or overly cost-casual) is a major issue to avoid. But if a high-cost private school turns out to be the right fit for your child, don’t assume you’re shut out because your income isn’t high enough. That’s because the “sticker” price is often not the price you’ll end up paying.

First, a vast range of scholarships are out there, from the usual need-based and athletic offerings to less-common ones Opens in new window geared toward everything from the extra tall (really) to vegetarians and twins. It may seem cliché, but there really is something for almost everyone. Moreover, many private schools can dip into large endowments if they want your child to attend, making their effective cost lower than you’d pay for a similar public college (particularly if the public school is out-of-state).

Overall, 85% of first-time students pursuing four-year degrees receive some form of financial aid Opens in new window — which include federal loans and work-study programs. Of course, you don’t want your child to be too encumbered by too much (if any) debt after graduation, so be sure to look into as many “free money” options as possible.

Some elite schools, including Ivies like Harvard, Princeton and Penn, even have “no-loan” policies based on family income. At Harvard Opens in new window, for example, parents with annual income of $65,000 or less are expected to contribute nothing to their child’s education — and even those earning up to $150,000 won’t pay more than 10% of their income.

Parents and students can begin exploring their financial options through tools such as SimpleTuition. Opens in new window


3. Believing the hype

Perhaps your high school senior is eyeing a certain college based on a highly rated program, such as business or pre-med. Or maybe they want a school with a heavy focus on STEM.

That’s fine if they’re dedicated to a particular path. But unless they’re absolutely sure, choosing a college solely for a prestigious program could be a big (and expensive) mistake. Part of higher education is learning what course of study (and eventual career) to pursue — and lots of students change their minds along the way. The college years are often when students discover who they really are, away from the influences of their hometown, their high school peers — and, yes, their parents.


What you can do next

The college years are when your child is likely to acquire many of the skills that will take them through adulthood. Letting go of preconceived ideas and considering a range of options can help your child focus on what really matters: their happiness and future success.


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