Finding the right college for your child


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Classes, late-night study sessions and extracurriculars. College is a time for students to learn and grow, both academically and in their personal development.

As a parent, you want what’s best for your child, and that includes helping them pick the right college. But finding the right school for your child may require some time and research, and you’ll likely want to make sure you leave the final decision up to your teen.

As you consider various factors, it’s important to zero in on the ones that matter the most for your student.

Depending on how much time you have to invest in the process, here are some tips that can help you and your child pick the right college for them.

Related: Ways to start preparing for college

1. Making a List

Start by creating a broad list of colleges for which you and your child might be a good fit. Consider both local and out-of-state colleges, and don’t be afraid to let your student dream big.

Every student is different, so it’s worth curating a diverse list of options to consider. Typically, various rules of thumb suggest students apply to a mix of “target,” “reach” and “safety” schools. This could be a good way to organize your child’s initial list of schools.

As you work through the other steps in the process, and learn more about each school, you can refine the list.

But if your child leaves some schools off in the beginning, they won’t get a chance to determine if they’re really a good fit or not. Consider having your child take a quiz like this one: What College Should I Go To?

2. Talking About What They Want to Study

Your high schooler may not yet know what they want to be when they grow up, but they may already have an idea of what direction they want to go. It may be worth having an initial conversation with your child about choosing a major.

Once you have an idea of what they’re interested in, you can look at the colleges on your child’s list that excel in those areas of study. If there aren’t many, you could always consider adding more.

3. Considering the Cost

A college education can get expensive, and some universities charge much more than others. If your child already has an idea of which schools they want to apply for or have already received their admissions letters, a key step is to dig into the cost of attendance for each school.

This step is important regardless of whether you’re planning to help your child cover the cost of their education. Finding a college with good value can reduce how much your student may need to borrow in student loans during their stay.

The cost of attendance isn’t the only important cost factor, however. If your child has already received an admission letter, consider whether there’s a financial aid package included, including grants and scholarships. If there is, calculate the total amount you or your child would have to pay after applying that financial aid to get the net price.

4. Talking About Location

Discuss with your child about whether they would prefer a college close to home or far away. Each person is different in this regard, and your teen’s desires on the matter are important.

That said, sending a child off to college, especially out-of-state, can be a stressful experience for parents. It’s normal to feel anxious about this milestone in your child’s life, but avoid allowing your anxiety to dictate your role in the process.

For example, it may be wise to avoid trying to steer your teen toward a local college so they stay close to home unless that school really is a good fit for them. It may be better to focus on what’s best for them rather than what might make you feel better.

5. Learning About the Environment

Finding the right college for your child isn’t just about the school itself; it’s also about the environment the school provides. This is where it can be worth making a trip to visit college campuses with your child to get a feel of the place — or at least to take virtual tours.

Also, it may be worthwhile to look into some of the extracurricular activities the schools provide. If your child is athletic, for instance, ask about intramural sports. If they want to study abroad, look into the quality of each school’s international programs.

Also, you may want to consider other factors that can affect your child’s experience, such as classroom size. If you think your child may need more attention, a school where every class is in an auditorium with hundreds of other students may not be the right one.

6. Giving Your Child Time

Picking a college may be easy for some students, but it can take time for others. If your teen is having a hard time, it can be a fine line between supporting them and annoying them. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

As a happy medium, consider choosing a night each week to discuss college plans with your teen. Ask about their thought process and offer help if they’re feeling stuck.

It can be frustrating to sit back and watch your child struggle, but allowing them to make the decision for themselves can help them develop the independence they’ll need in the coming months and years.

7. Being Supportive

No matter what your child decides, they need your support more than anything else. Remember that you’re finding the right college for your child, not for you.

And keep in mind that your child may choose to transfer at some point in the future if they decide the school is no longer a good fit. Regardless of what happens, your support can give them the confidence they need to make their college experience a good one.

8. Talking About Financing

Once your child has picked a college, talk about how they’re going to finance their education. If you’ve managed to set money aside in a 529 Plan or can help with your current income and savings, discuss the numbers and whether your teen will need to pick up some of the slack.

Also talk about student loans and how to use them wisely, as well as how to reduce how much they’ll need to borrow. Ideas include applying for scholarships and grants, working part-time, and borrowing only what they need.

Other options to look into include federal parent PLUS Loans, private parent student loans or private undergraduate student loans to help fund their education.

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