College Planning 101: 3 Tips for Parents and Students

Put simply, a college education is life changing. From the many friendships and connections a student will make over the course of his or her college career to the increased earning potential and job security a degree can provide, choosing a college or university can be an important milestone of young adulthood.

Of course, traditional college isn’t the only path available to students, nor is it always the best one. Alternatives such as trade schools or community college programs can sometimes be better choices depending on the skills, goals and needs of the student, as well as his or her intended career. And a gap year filled with travel or time spent gaining experience in the business world may make the most sense for other students. But, to those students who have decided to pursue a four-year degree or higher after high school graduation, proper preparation can reduce stress and improve performance. For these students and their parents, the latter half of sophomore year is a great time to begin seriously considering college and taking those initial planning steps. And, in the case of college savings plans, it’s best to start before high school even begins.

The following three tips can benefit students and parents during the college planning process by helping them think ahead, take a proactive approach and put their best foot forward when it’s time to apply.

1. Start a College Savings Plan

Given the ever-increasing price of tuition, starting a college savings plan early can take the edge off of those fees later on. A 529 savings plan, otherwise known as a tax-advantaged savings plan for future education costs, is available in some form in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. And, if a student sets aside some of his or her earnings from a summer or afternoon job for a savings plan, it can take some of the pressure off of contributing parents and family members while reducing future debt.

The plan comes in two varieties: a prepaid tuition plan and an education savings plan. Prepaid tuition plans usually carry residency requirements, and funds are used to buy credits at participating colleges, which limits usage to tuition costs and mandatory fees only. However, these programs offer incentives that include locking in the rates at which they are initially paid, which can make a big difference as tuition costs continue to rise. And some states will guarantee the money invested in a prepaid tuition program (in case something catastrophic happens to the college or university where the credits were purchased), but some plans are not guaranteed, so it’s important to know the difference before deciding.

Alternatively, education savings plans offer more flexibility in terms of what can be paid for with the plan’s returns, including room and board in addition to tuition and mandatory fees. And most don’t include residency requirements. However, the plan is structured as an investment, which means the risks associated with investment come with it, including the potential for small or negative gains and even total loss. So, before deciding on a 529 plan, do some research to find out which plan will best suit the student’s needs.

2. Get Involved

For students, extra-curricular activities can provide a break from the everyday routine of schoolwork and studying, and they also allow students to cultivate and diversify their own interests and talents. But what those students may not know is that those extra-curricular activities can also look great on a college application.

Volunteer work, school club memberships, student organization memberships and sports activities can all distinguish one candidate from another. And even at high schools where volunteer work is mandatory, there is no reason for a candidate not to use that experience to his or her advantage when applying.

Going the extra mile by joining organizations or participating in sports or other activities shows capability, dedication and drive — three qualities that can be especially appealing to admissions committees. But, it’s also important for students to remember that grades, studying and downtime should all have an important place as well.

If an extra-curricular activity makes the student feel as if he or she is being stretched too thin, it may be better to take that activity off the student’s plate, at least temporarily. An extra-curricular activity that creates stress and negatively impacts grades won’t be very helpful, so it’s important for each student to understand the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing and curricular responsibilities.

3. Do Your Research

Students who are unsure which career or field of study they would like to pursue, as well as which colleges or universities to apply for, can often find useful information from a high school guidance counselor. But there are also other sources of information to consider during the planning process, and students and parents should work together and do their own research to find out what makes the most sense in their unique situation.

“There are over 4000 universities in the United States,” explains Deborah Cooney, college advisor, DYC College Planning Services LLC. “Invest time in the research process to find the right-fit college. Common websites include Unigo; BigFuture; Naviance Family Connection, which is usually available from most high schools; Niche; and reading information directly from each college’s website. Resource books, such as the ‘Fiske Guide to Colleges’ and Princeton Review’s ‘The Best 385 Colleges,’ are very useful guides in helping one to learn about the culture of college and provide admissions statistics.”

College fairs can also provide a great opportunity to get to know more about the colleges on a student’s short list. And it can also be beneficial for students to take the initiative by contacting the colleges where they have applied (or intend to apply) and keeping in touch periodically throughout the application process. This shows admissions staff that the applicant is genuinely interested in becoming a student at the college, and it gives those potential college students the chance to make an impression as well.


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