A little background:
My oldest is heading into his second year of high school, making him a "rising sophomore" in college admissions parlance. My younger son will be an eighth grader.
This is not too soon to be thinking about college, even for my younger son. Just read what I wrote last year about two books that opened my eyes to new ways to think about preparing for college.
In case you have an older child, let me assure you that it's also never too late to think about college. The more you know, whatever stage you're at, the more you can help your child. But it is a lot easier if you start early.
As you look at this list, keep in mind that it's a list that's designed for my family, our finances, and our goals - which are (1) for the kids to attend colleges where they'll have a great experience, and (2) for no one in our family to go into debt to pay for their educations. Your own finances and goals will likely result in your family taking a different direction than ours. But this checklist can help you get started.
- Learn the basics of college finances. There's a lot to know - merit versus need, FAFSA, EFC, CSS, and much more. Last fall, I summarized some things you should know about paying for college.
- Learn the basics of college admissions. The Princeton Review has a decent overview of the college admissions process.
- Read my reviews of Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be and Debt-Free U. They'll help you approach the actual college search and admissions process from the best starting place.
- Figure out your best basic options. For example, use a free online EFC calculator to get an estimate of what your EFC will be. Research scholarship opportunities at your public colleges (e.g., some state schools offer free tuition to students who meet specific criteria, like National Merit Finalist; in Los Angeles, many high school graduates can take two years of community college classes for free). Figure out if you'll qualify for the Pell grant.
- Learn, learn, learn! Once you know the basics, keep researching. Attend free webinars to hear from experts about their particular view on paying for college, writing essays, extracurricular activities, and more. Research schools using the Common Data Set and determine where your child is likely to get in and receive merit scholarships. I share webinars from experts I like on the CFO Facebook page, and I highly recommend the Paying For College 101 Facebook page.
- Create a budget/plan to pay for college. Depending on the age of your child, this might be an estimate or it might be an actual budget. Even though my children aren't quite ready to apply to college, I've run some numbers just to estimate how much I think we'll be able to pay out of pocket without going into debt. This will be hugely helpful in creating a college list.
- Talk honestly with your children. Be upfront about your financial situation, how much you're willing to pay, and what their responsibility will be. Talk about shared goals, like graduating without debt, and explain why debt can be a debilitating burden. You and/or they might have to take out loans anyway - but at least have the talk so everyone goes in with eyes wide open. The situation you want to avoid, if at all possible, is telling your child out of the blue that they can't go to their dream school because it's too expensive.
- Keep researching. As this pandemic year has shown, the college admissions process can change in an instant. Many schools have suspended or eliminated the standardized testing requirement, tours are canceled, and many families are questioning what the right thing to do is right now. I'm even convinced that things won't be "back to normal" even when my older son graduates from high school in three years, because the budget cuts that are happening now will have reverberating effects down the line. The best we can do is take in as much information as possible so we can make the best decisions possible when the time comes.
What else should be on this checklist?