Parents have two fundamental questions about college:
1. Is my student ready for college?
2. How my going to pay for it?
My response is, “If you get your student ready for college the right way, you might not have to pay for it.”
There are many different definitions for a college prep track. Some think college prep is taking “AP” courses, some people think it is taking CLEP exams, or even doing dual credit courses. Others see “college prep” as simply the accumulation of specific high school credits and perhaps tossing in a token SAT or ACT prep course. My answer to this is “none of the above.”
The proper College Prep Track answers the two fundamental questions.
Is my student ready for college?
Exit Strategy. The first thing you need to consider is the Exit Strategy, where you are looking to place your student after high school. There are four exit strategies we use to help people plan for college:
• Competitive Colleges. These colleges have very high standards and very specific criteria, based on a “profile” the college has developed to seek what they consider their ideal candidate. Only students who meet that profile are considered and only those who rank highest on the standards and criteria are admitted. Ivy League colleges, the service academies, and top tier colleges like Stanford, Duke, Berkeley, and MIT are examples of colleges in this category.
• Conventional Colleges. These colleges establish their baseline qualifications. Many of these colleges, usually state-supported colleges, admit students who meet the qualifications. Some of these colleges are a little more selective; they will only accept the best qualified because there may be a limitation on the number that can be enrolled, which makes them somewhat competitive. Conventional colleges comprise the largest number of colleges in the United States. Institutions like Texas Tech, Louisiana Tech, University of California – Davis, Texas Christian University, and James Madison University are examples of conventional colleges.
• Community/Junior Colleges. Publicly supported community colleges extend to almost every square mile of the United States. In addition there are several public and private Junior colleges. Entry requirements are minimal and are ideal for students who need some help with basic academics or who want an easier transition to a larger college.
• Creative Colleges. Since the advent of the Internet, there has been an avalanche of programs available online or a combination of online and credit by examination. Many high profile colleges, including Harvard University, have degree programs available online, many with little or no residency requirement. Many of these programs are very flexible, affordable, and can be crafted around busy lifestyles.
Focusing on your exit strategy is the key to crafting a College Track.
College Readiness Plan. Once you have established your exit strategy, you need to establish a Readiness Plan.
• College Advice. I include this in almost every document I write about college preparation. There is no substitute for sound, professional advice. Thousands and thousands of families miss opportunities, pay way more than they need to, and often have to go into significant debt to send their students to college because they did not get sound counsel.
• Courses. The best way to determine what courses you should take in high school is to simply go to the websites of your prospective colleges and find out what courses they require. Also, I encounter a lot of homeschool families that think if they stack a lot of electives it will make their student more attractive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most colleges are essentially going to be looking at core courses, i.e., 4 English, 4 Social Science, 2-4 Science, 3-4 Math, and possibly Speech, Fine Arts, and Health.
• Rigor. Courses need to challenge and stretch the student. AP and IB courses are often the first place to look, but you don’t need to take every AP course. An emerging opportunity is the advent of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) provided by top universities like MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, etc., for FREE!!!! Students don’t need to take them for credit; they just need to be exposed and work though the courses. There is no better college prep than taking REAL college courses. Here are a few websites to start: Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/), EdX (https://www.edx.org/), MIT Open Courses (http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm), and Harvard Free Courses (http://www.extension.harvard.edu/open-learning-initiative). Many provide certificates of completion, which look very good on a transcript!
• Learning Skills. “Study hard” is something I hear a lot. In my 35 years and training and education I have never been able to observe someone “studying hard.” The key is to have a systematic process to Gather, Process, and Apply information and knowledge. College students are required to absorb and process huge amounts of information in a very short period of time. Without some systematic process with tools and techniques students can use, they become very quickly overwhelmed and become an academic casualty, coming home from college without finishing.
• Life Skills. Students who go away from home for college will have to learn how to live independently. In my experience, I have encountered students who did not know how to simply wash their clothes, change the sheets on their bed, cook a meal that did not come out of a microwave, or even some fundamental aspects of personal hygiene. Make sure your student has been taught how to live independently.
• College Testing. PSAT, SAT, and ACT testing is the single most important variable in college admissions and scholarships. I advise my students to start early (as early as the sixth grade), test often, and use a formal, customized preparation program. Most programs offered to the general public are not customized to the specific student’s needs and the preparation manuals you can purchase at the bookstore can be a great resource, but in and of themselves, they are simply a very generic solution and may not address the specific individual needs of your student.
• Technological Preparation. Students need to be savvy using a personal computer and navigating the Internet. With 95% of college courses today requiring some online component, the student who is not accomplished and experienced in programs like Microsoft Office and has not accustomed online courses and using the Internet for research will be severely technologically hamstrung when they go to college. There are many who have a great deal of hesitation about allowing their children access to the Internet. The Internet is a vital element of most college courses. When your child goes to college, your child will have to be able to operate in Internet environment. Your student can learn Internet discipline as your student or your student will learn everything he needs to know about the Internet by the guy down the hall who has the link to all the inappropriate sites. It is better to learn Internet discipline at home instead of at college.
How my going to pay for it?
Here’s a little reality check:
• The average cost of a college education for one student now exceeds the median cost for home in the United States.
• The average cost to send one student to college for one year exceeds the median annual household income in the United States.
• College debt the single largest segment of personal debt in the United States, exceeding all credit card debt, exceeding all automobile debt, exceeding the entire national debt from the nation of Canada, and twice the national debt of Greece.
Another issue that needs to be considered is what may be your best tax avoidance strategy may sabotage your college funding strategies. 529 plans and other similar private college savings programs may appear to be sound investment strategies, when, in reality actually work against you once you begin to seek certain types of college financial aid. But this is the scope of another article.
Furthermore, many so called “College Planners” are really insurance sales people in sheep’s clothing. My recommendation is never take college advice from anyone with “college (something)” in their title who sells a financial product or discusses refinancing your home early in the conversation. Most insurance and financial planning professionals will send you a professional college advisor… who doesn’t sell financial products.
THE SECRET: Ironically, the best financial strategy has very little to do with finances.
The best financial strategy is to find ways to reduce and even avoid a significant portion of the out-of-pocket expenses for college. As mentioned earlier, the most significant factor in obtaining college scholarships is the student’s SAT and ACT scores. Having helped over thousands of students pursue the top scholarships in the country, most colleges use test scores as the primary criteria for both admissions and scholarships. Many of the colleges will award scholarships on test scores alone. There is a financial “game” to paying for college, but that will have to be the scope of another article.
The bottom line… Get Advice, Select an Exit Strategy, Develop a Plan, and take the tests early and often.