Fox Business News
March 25, 2009
By Kathryn Elizabeth Tuggle
If you have a child headed to college this fall, you’re all too familiar with application process and the agonizing wait that follows. Fortunately, the wait is over for most students, who should have the last of their acceptance letters in hand by early April.
Many parents may think the hard part is over, but the toughest questions are yet to come…
We checked in with the experts to find the top 10 things every parent should do once the acceptance letters arrive.
1) Look at ALL the offers.
Even if your child has decided on a particular school, look over all the offers received to determine your best option, said Steven Roy Goodman, Educational Consultant and Co-Author of College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family.
For example, if your child has received scholarship offers from one school but not another, those offers can be used for leverage. It is possible to go to a comparable school and say, “Your competitor school offered me this, can you do this?” said Goodman. “That’s perfectly appropriate; just be sure you don’t treat them like used car salesmen.”
Once you’re clear on any assistance that might be offered, then you can break down your applications into two piles, ‘doable,’ and ‘not doable,’ said Bob Friedman, University Director of Student Finance at Yeshiva University in New York City. Because students apply to five or six schools on average, there may be several schools that look good, and several that are impossible, Friedman said.
2) Visit the school again.
Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to two colleges, it’s a good idea to go visit the school again, said Goodman. Walking around the campus and getting a feel for everyday life can be a real asset to students conflicted in their choice, he said.
While you’re there, visit with someone in the student financial-aid department, and make sure you have everything accounted for in your budget.
“Most people forget to count travel and miscellaneous expenses, and that can add up to another $15,000 to $20,000 per year,” said John Pearson, a CPA and Certified College Planning Specialist in Connecticut. Someone in a college’s financial aid department should be able to tell you how much the average student spends on those types of things, Pearson said.
3) Discuss who is footing the bill.
Now is the time to discuss with your children who is paying for what, according to Adam Carroll, author of Winning the Money Game, and Chief Education Officer at his company National Financial Educators in Des Moines, Iowa.
“This is a time of year when families need to have an open and honest conversation, get the student involved and make a decision that the whole family can live with,” said Friedman. “It’s not just the student that has to be happy going to college, it’s mom and dad too. The entire family has to be able to realistically afford this.”
A lot of parents do take the financial responsibility on themselves, but in reality the students will take their education more seriously if they help pay for a portion of it, said Carroll.
4) Consider buying a home in the town where your child is going to school.
It may seem counterintuitive to extend yourself on a mortgage while extending yourself for college tuition, but it can pay for itself in the long haul, said Carroll.
“It really minimizes what you are spending in room and board fees,” Carroll said. In some markets, “you can buy a home for $150,000 to $250,000 and your child can act as landlord and get friends to come live with them.”
Essentially, this type of arrangement would offer the parents a mortgage deduction on their taxes, and open up the possibility of the child getting free room and board depending on how much rent was charged to other occupants of the house.
“You’ll probably spend a year’s worth of tuition putting money down on the house, but you’ll make that back in full with the appreciation of the house over time,” Carroll said.
5) Ask about starting salaries of graduates.
Ask the administration what the starting salaries of recent graduates are, said Carroll. “This will give you an idea whether or not it’s worth it to go into debt.”
Most college administration offices keep track of how much graduates make when they first enter the work force.
Though some schools may offer much cheaper tuition, a student could stand to make $5,000 to $6,000 per year less than he or she would with a degree from a more expensive school.
“It’s important to know where your kids will stand with the rest of the college graduates their age when the time comes,” said Carroll.
6) Consider Work-study programs.
Many schools offer work study programs that can offset the cost of tuition, room and board according to Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, author of Zero Debt for College Grads.
“For instance, the student might work in the library or the computer lab, and get paid or get a tuition reduction for that work,” said Khalfani-Cox via an email message.
It’s important to ask your child if he is willing to work his way through school. Though some children may be opposed to it, work-study programs are still often better than working 20 hours a week at a diner.
Work-study programs also offer children a taste of what it’s like to go to work in the field of their choice, helping them to hone their decisions as to what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
7) Look for paid internships.
“In years past, students interned without pay, just to get valuable work experience and make connections. Today, with sky-high tuition, students don’t have the luxury of working free of charge,” said Khalfani-Cox. “So seek out paid internships where you get a decent paycheck, along with work experience and access to professional colleagues/mentors.”
Paid internships are available in most any field, and though they most often do not provide a student with health benefits, they can be a steady source of income for all four years of college.
8) Be honest.
Do not shield your child from the realistic financial situation of the family.
“You may think there is an advantage to shielding them and not burdening them with all the gory details of how you’re going to pay for their education, but you’re really doing them a disservice,” said Freidman.
“For a 17- or 18-year-old, there is no better way to learn about the ways of the world than to show them what it means to balance a checkbook, have debt, and be on a budget.”
Friedman said that although parents may not want to bring the child into heated financial conversations, a realistic conversation about what it takes to support a family is necessary.
“What happens if you pay for years one and two, but then can’t afford to pay for years three and four? In this day and age, it could bankrupt you,” Friedman said.
9) Consider taking a gap year.
“Maybe your 529 plan is not as robust as you thought it would be, or maybe you lost your job and need college savings to pay the mortgage,” said Friedman. “This is where your kid may think, ‘Maybe I need to take a year off and help mom and dad out.'”
For these reasons and many others, more students than ever before are taking what is known as a “gap” year and working before enrolling full time in college, said Friedman.
“Kids can defer their admission for one year, 100%, no questions asked,” said Friedman. “They just can’t go enroll somewhere else, and they have to put pen to paper and inform the admissions office of their plans.”
However, parents should be cautious that students don’t forgo college altogether after taking a year to work.
10) Don’t forget your tax credit!
Beginning in 2009, taxpayers with up to $2,500 worth of education expenses are entitled to a tax credit in that same amount, as per the American Opportunity Tax Credit signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“A lot of people will just forget to claim it,” Pearson said.
Parents can get their $2,500 tax reduction when they file their tax return, using an education deduction.
“Over the course of four years, you could be banking an extra $10,000 on that one,” Pearson said.