Gearing Up for College: What Every Parent, Student Should Know


I’ve written dozens of columns about paying for college; just last week I examined a recent survey by Sallie Mae which found that Americans place such a high value on obtaining a degree that they’re increasingly enlisting family and friends to help pay for it.

But there is only so much financial aid advice one can present in a format like this, but fortunately, the publishing arm of the American Library Association has assembled a gem of a book that ties it all together and ought to be on the shelf of every high school guidance counselor in the country.

How to Pay for College is only slightly larger than a paperback and a bit more than a half inch thick, yet the editors who pulled the information together manage to cover more material than books that are four times larger and twice as expensive.

And they do it in plain English. This is not only a book that parents should read, but they should also share it with their teenager. “These are stressful issues for people,” points out Jill Davis, spokesperson for Skyhorse Publishing. “We wanted to make them approachable and help [parents and students] focus on the things most important.”

Despite the title, How to Pay for College is about much more than your options for financing a college education. It points out criteria (besides where are my friends going?) that a student should consider when looking at schools: the pros and cons of large vs. small institutions, urban vs. rural, climate, distance from home, retention rate, and whether “name” schools are worth the extra bucks. It also exposes the myths associated with attending community college.

There’s even a section on how to make the most out of a campus visit. (One suggestion: eat in the cafeteria)

The book also provides a calendar for students and their families; it starts by outlining what needs to be done/submitted during the summer before students enters their senior year in high school on a month-by-month basis. (Hint: submitting a FAFSA in January is critically important as financial aid is often doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.) There are also helpful worksheets to help students do a side-by-side comparison of different schools.

What I really appreciate, (and I don’t even have kids), is the fact that topics are covered with just enough detail to inform you without overwhelming you. (Who needs a whole chapter on the ins and outs of 529s or pre-paid tuition plans if their child is already 16 years old?) If you want more details about something in particular, there are links and references to resources throughout the book, including the repeated suggestion to “Ask a Librarian.”

“This is help that’s available to you for free,” says Davis. “People don’t use their library as much as they should. You go to check out a book, but you don’t think about the fact that it also has computers, reference librarians, and people to help you with your [school] search.” Having trouble filling out your application?  Davis suggests asking a librarian for help.

Scattered throughout the book are unique tips I haven’t seen in other publications. For instance, students shouldn’t turn their noses up at smaller scholarships and just focus on landing the big ones. Not only are there fewer of the latter, smaller amounts can add up.

"Sure, $5,000 or $10,000 for school would come in handy. However, you can get that same amount by zeroing in on scholarships that renew each year… and there may be fewer students vying for that smaller scholarship, too.”

Parents will especially appreciate Chapter 6: “On Campus, Off Campus, Internships and Summer Jobs.” There are pointers on where to look for opportunities on campus, how to make the most of an internship (and how not to get scammed), how to dress for an interview, and how to write a resume. (Hint: Ask A Librarian!)

Ms. Buckner is a Retirement and Financial Planning Specialist at Franklin Templeton Investments. The views expressed in this article are only those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator identified therein, and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments, which has not reviewed, and is not responsible for, the content. 

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