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  • Writer's pictureJason Flurry, CFP

How to prevent your college dreams from becoming your worst nightmare

Updated: Jul 23, 2018

Learn practical, proven steps to avoid the student debt trap and get the best result possible for college.

For most people the thought of sending their kids to college summons a mix of emotions that have their roots in hope and fear.

The hope is that providing their kids with a great college education will one day allow them to thrive as successful, happy, and influential leaders. That hope has been fueled by a powerful two trillion dollar per year higher education industry that has convinced millions that they simply have no choice to ensure their children’s future success and security on their own. And for the last 30+ years, we’ve all drank their Kool-Aid blindly trusting their promises of a brighter tomorrow for ourselves and our families. In some cases, that trust has been rewarded, and in others, not so much.

So the first degree of hope is that our kids get into a great college, but we also embrace the hope that we will somehow be able to pay for their college education without ruining our financial lives. You don’t need me to tell you that having hope is not the same as having a plan. In fact, T. Boone Pickens said, “A fool with a plan is better off than a genius without one.” And yet, there is almost $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt in American today. That’s about $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt. And these student loans are spread out among more than 44 million borrowers. So, no matter how smart we may all be, as a nation we are not planning well for college.

So what should we do?

Many well-meaning financial advisors and high school counselors tell the families they serve to either send their kids to local colleges they can easily afford or take loans to spread out the cost of college, since you can borrow money for college but not for retirement. That sounds reasonable at first glance in a conversation, but I’ve found that it just isn’t congruent with most people’s values.

If you’re like me, you want to send your kids to the best college possible for the least amount of money possible. And it’s also important not to saddle them, or yourself, with debt along the way, which for the average student graduating this year exceeds $37,000! We need a better solution than just staying in state and take loans.

And that solution starts at the very beginning with a list of attributes of what you and your student desire most from their college experience.

Thinking time

Many very successful people attribute much of their success to the discipline of establishing deliberate, uninterrupted time blocks to sit quietly and think. This is how you begin building a solid college plan too.

Think about two main things during your thinking time sessions: 1) what major field of study will your student pursue and 2) where will they pursue it? I know these sound simple, but you’d be surprised how few people do this well at the start. It’s the foundation of everything else you’ll need to make your plan work well, so don’t cut corners at this stage of the process!

Picking the right major and the right college

Most kids don’t know what they want to do after college, so choosing a major is a very difficult process. It’s not as important that they make an ultimate decision on where they life’s path will take them while they are in high school, but it is useful to look at options and eliminate ones that clearly won’t work as early in the process as possible. In doing so, you often find areas of interest that give you direction. And by moving in those directions, you begin to awaken a process of self-awareness that is very helpful in finding your student’s ultimate path and in determining the right environments and opportunities to maximize his or her results.

Begin with a handful of attractive potential occupations, look at majors that lead to opportunities in those occupations, and then look to see which colleges offer those majors. Once you have those pieces in hand, you can begin looking to see which of those colleges your student qualifies to get into based on grades, test scores, personal qualifications, etc.

And once you have that list, you can move to the second step of determining which soft qualities, like location, campus setting, dorm layouts, school size, and campus opportunities, are most important in your selection criteria. You’ll likely refine some of these during the first part as your student becomes more self-aware, so there’s a double benefit by taking this approach in the way I’ve described.

Most people start with a list of colleges and try to make them fit, but that’s a recipe for disaster. The correct way to build your list is actually the exact opposite. That’s why making a list of attributes first and filtering your colleges by who has the most to offer you on your list of priorities gives you a viable list of colleges you know have a chance of working out in your favor.

Once you’ve this list narrowed down, you can begin to figure out what each option costs BEFORE your student applies for admissions. You can compare merit scholarships and a college’s track record of meeting financial need through financial aid to determine what your bottom line at each college will be. Then you can begin to calculate your own Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and use dozens of strategies to lower it morally, legally, and ethically, creating more financial need at the schools on your radar. With that information in hand, you can get your costs down to a point you can afford and enjoy the rest of the journey knowing that your kids’ college dreams won’t turn into financial nightmares for you!

No, it’s not too early to start planning.

Most people need time to process things when making big decisions and college is one of the biggest decisions anyone makes during their lifetime. Traditionally the junior year of high school is the planning year, but college admission and financial aid timelines have moved up in recent years. We are finding more and more people, especially if they have high achieving students, are starting the planning process with us in the freshman and sophomore years of high school to avoid the pressure and rush of waiting until the last minute.

The actual college application season begins in July each year, just before your student’s senior year of high school. And most colleges are making their admission and scholarship decisions based on grades and test scores from the end of the junior year, so waiting until just before senior year to get ready for college is just not wise any more.

With a good list of colleges in hand, a solid college resume that highlights your student’s academic and personal accomplishments, and a strategy that is tailored around speaking the college’s “love language” in your student’s application essays, you can get great results every time.

You’ll want to apply early too, since the people behind the scenes have the whole freshman class wide open at that point. They are also still in good spirits coming off of their summer breaks early in the season. That may not be the case as deadlines approach and they’ve read 3,000 essays with the same prompts you’ll be answering. Admission officers are regular people just like you and they burn out over time, just like you would if you had to repeat the same tasks over and over under pressure for months on end! Catch them while they are fresh and get the hardest part of your job done up front.

It’s worth it to be organized because the senior year doesn’t get any easier once it starts. You’ll love the huge feeling of relief you’ll have knowing this part is done and you’re results will be more rewarding too.

It’s not the “how” as much as it is the “who.”

I’ll share in my next blog post why it’s important to work with the right kind of advisor when approaching the college planning process. The tips and strategies I’ve shared with you here are not common place among those advising families on their educational needs. That’s unfortunate, because I have seen them work for hundreds of families I’ve advised through the years.

In order to be successful, you have to either commit to learning how to doing everything yourself, do it well in a very competitive environment, and do it right the first time - or choose the right person to help you get the results you want. Finding that “who” is often more important than learning “how.” Stay tuned for more on this next time…



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