Countdown to College

The Essential Steps to Your Child's Successful Launch

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After all the testing and touring and applying, your child has been accepted to college. Congratulations! Now what?

Every new student grapples with making a successful transition to college—with remaining healthy, happy, grounded, and in school. Indeed, the national statistics are sobering: One in three freshmen will not come back for sophomore year, and less than 50 percent will graduate on time. A student’s adjustment is key, especially during the period starting with the lazy summer months before move-in and ending at the dizzying close of a student’s first semester. Distilling lessons and sharing stories (some cautionary, some entertaining, all helpful) from her long college advisory career, three-time Ivy League dean Monique Rinere presents a unique month-by-month road map to a college experience that is rich, rewarding, and successful for teens and parents alike. Taking parents from the moment the acceptances arrive to the end of the first college semester, her expert advice covers:

• assessing the right fit among your child’s options: who and what to ask to get the real scoop on campus and academic life
• understanding actual costs: considering hidden expenses, financial-aid and scholarship fine print, loans, and work-study opportunities
• parenting through the senior slump so that students don’t jeopardize their hard-won college spot
• talking to your child about freshman culture shock and their new freedoms around parties, food, finances, and sleep
• what your child needs to know about working with an academic advisor, interacting with professors, and creating their own community of advisors
• how to help your rising freshman create a conceptual bridge from what they are, a graduating high school senior, to what they want to be, a college alum
• time-management and class-scheduling tips to help your child pick an appropriate class (and extracurricular) load
• advice for parents facing the emptying nest: letting go of your anxieties about your child’s autonomy and seizing this opportunity to reinvent your life in new and intentional ways

“A valuable and comprehensive guide for parents of college-bound students . . . The months between high school and college are a critical time, but Dr. Monique Rinere gives you confidence that everything will be all right.”—Marvin Krislov, president, Pace University

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Countdown to College

Part I

Choosing Wisely

When you make the right decision, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks.

—Caroline Kennedy

Now that your child has been admitted to three, four, or all of the ten, fifteen, or twenty schools on their list (you would not be alone if this is the number you ended up with), how are they going to decide which offer to accept? Before accepting a spot in the freshman class, there is a whole new set of questions to ask and answers to consider. Sure, since the college application process started, you have been comparing and contrasting one college with another. But now, with the acceptances in hand, a deeper dive will make the final decision as clear and easy as possible. After all, a lot of time has passed since your child began constructing the list of potential schools. Maybe not in terms of the actual number of days that have gone by, but surely in terms of what they have thought about and learned about themselves and the colleges. Students who visit campus on Admitted Student Days always seemed to me years older than the college-touring prospective applicants, as if the process itself had catapulted them into a new level of maturity in record time.

This section leads you through a thoughtful consideration of the most important aspects of each school’s offerings, some of which you have probably breezed over in the initial research phase. They fall into two main areas. First and foremost are the financial considerations. Unless you can pay full freight, it is imperative that you have all the information you need to avoid falling into the college debt trap, the pernicious result of what Temple University professor of education Sara Goldrick-Rab calls “the new economics of college in America.” Then you will launch into the ultimate investigation of the essential college fit: geography and demographics, academic and nonacademic offerings and support, social and residential life, and parental engagement. This will help you avoid the pitfalls that many families fall into. You may say, “But I asked all of these questions in the application process!” Still, your child is changing and the college application process changes people’s minds, too. So it’s worthwhile to pose these fundamental “fit” questions anew as you assess the options you now know that you have. After all, the most important thing is that the final choice is the best school for your child and your pocketbook.

What If You Did ED/EA and Are Done?

First, congratulations. You have been lucky. Your child chose a school, and the school chose your child. You belong to a small but fortunate minority who have escaped months of work and turmoil.

Second, knowing what the coming years will cost is still important. Chapter 1 will help you figure that out.

Third, Chapter 2 will ensure that you align your expectations and your child’s on the academic and nonacademic fronts, so give it a whirl.

Chapter 1

Financial Considerations: What’s It Really Going to Cost?

Let’s face it: money is always complicated. For college-bound families, it can be the most complex part of the whole equation. About two-thirds of students end up taking out loans to complete college, and the average national debt load per graduate hovers in the tens of thousands. It takes decades to pay the money back, unless students get very well-paying jobs immediately after college and prioritize getting out of debt. Loans made to parents and students will carry different interest rates and require that repayment start at different times. Lenders may or may not require you to start repayment while your child is still in college. Some will offer a six-month grace period after graduation, but interest will begin accruing as soon as you watch them walk across the stage. Most loan programs have a deferment option if you find yourself unable to pay at any given time, but the interest will likely continue to accrue during that period. Parent loans usually require that monthly payments be made toward the principal and interest while the student is still in school.

Why am I going on and on about this? Because many parents and students just sign financial aid forms, loan agreements, and other important documents without reading them! This is a mistake. When I ask a parent or student how much they have borrowed and at what interest rates, they should know the numbers right off the top of their heads. Since most people do not talk about financing college, much less read the fine print, they are unaware of the repayment terms for any of their debts. Let’s make sure you go into this with your eyes wide open.

Federal statistics suggest that the overwhelming majority of degree-seeking students receive some sort of aid, whether in the form of grants or loans. About nine of ten first-time degree- or certificate-seeking full-time undergraduate students at four-year institutions receive some sort of financial assistance. In other words, almost no one pays full price. (Likewise, what it costs the institution per student is always far more than the sticker price. The rest is paid by income from state and federal sources, fundraising, and the universities’ endowments.)

If you are the parent of one of the 90 percent of students who will receive support of some sort or another, you have already filled out the FAFSA and will continue to do so every year. But the college cost landscape is complex, so the answers to several key questions will interest you. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to aid. There are, after all, many books, not to mention not-for-profit and for-profit consultants, solely dedicated to helping you understand the best ways to pay for college. What follows is a quick guide to some of the most important issues you’ll face if receiving financial assistance is important to you.

The Real Net Price of College

All colleges publish a cost of attendance, also known as the “sticker price.” From that number, subtract all aid offered to get the “net price.” Since the average student pays only about half of the advertised total cost, you will often hear the advice that you should only pay attention to your net price for any given school because this is the amount it will cost your child to attend this college. In other words, it is the figure you will need to come up with after taking into account the grants and scholarships the school has decided to offer. If a college receives federal funding, and almost every single one does, there must be a net price calculator available on their website to make the calculations as clear as possible. Remember, though, that since your financial situation is unique, your number will be different from those of the other families unless you are all paying full freight.

But you aren’t done yet. The actual cost of four years may be much higher, based on course choices (because books and course fees can add up), transportation costs, laundry and dry cleaning habits, groceries above and beyond a meal plan, extracurricular activities, and your child’s downtime preferences. If your college student is pre-med, owns a car, travels home frequently, loves to shop for clothing and shoes, does laundry and dry cleaning weekly, buys groceries daily, and enjoys skiing, the final cost is going to be significantly more than for a student who studies literature, doesn’t own a car, tends to stay on campus on the weekends, hates to shop, never buys groceries, and only attends cultural events on campus that are discounted or free for students. So you will want to consider the estimated expenses in each of these categories: potential courses of study (books, fees, and travel), transportation to home and work, clothing, food beyond the dining hall, extracurriculars, and leisure-time preferences.

The Ins and Outs of Work-Study

If your child checks the box indicating they would like to be considered for financial aid and if the college ultimately decides to direct some of their funding toward your child’s education, then work-study will almost certainly be part of the overall financial aid package. Ultimately, it will be up to your child to find a federal work-study job on campus and earn the amount stated in the award letter. Students are not given positions automatically. Pay particular attention to the amount, divide it by the number of weeks a student will likely work in that term (remember that it will take a few weeks to settle in and find a job), and you will have the amount they need to earn weekly. Work-study pays by the hour, but the amount will vary. It will be no less than the minimum wage but can be significantly higher, depending on the position.

Let’s run through an example. Let’s say your son’s financial aid package includes $1,250 per term of work-study. The semester is fifteen weeks long, but you estimate it will take your son five weeks to acclimate to campus and find a campus job, which would be completely reasonable. So he will work ten weeks in the fall. That means that he has to earn $125 a week. If the position he finds pays $12.50 per hour, then he will have to schedule ten hours of work per week, which, by the way, is pretty doable, so long as he is mindful of this when creating his fall schedule.

A good rule of thumb is for your child not to plan on more than ten to twelve hours of work per week in the first term, if at all possible. Think of it this way: the college adjustment process itself should be counted as one full additional course. Students may be able to find jobs that allow them to increase their hours in the spring, once they are acclimated to their new lives, so that they earn the whole amount granted for the year.

Colleges typically have long lists of work-study positions available. Every department loves these jobs because the federal government bears the overwhelming majority of the costs, so having a few work-study students on staff doesn’t have a negative impact on the budget. Some things to be aware of:

Some work-study positions, like checking IDs at the library or working in the dining hall, are on campus. Others are off campus—at offsite research facilities or stadiums that may be a bus ride away from the main campus. Remember to add travel time and costs to and from the job into the calculations for your child’s weekly schedule.

Many work-study positions are very flexible; others require that students be present at particular times.

Some supervisors know that students will disappear during finals; others are less accommodating.

Some will let students work over fall and spring breaks, and others will require it. Still others will not permit students to work during break periods at all.

All of these factors will affect the student’s ability to earn the full amount listed in the financial aid package.

When a student has earned the total work-study amount listed in the award letter, that’s it. The limit is set by the federal government’s calculations, and there is no appeals process. So that job may very well come to an end because the federal subsidy has run out. To keep a student worker beyond that would mean that the employing department would have to pay the whole salary. If an office has a limited budget, as most do, they will not be able to afford the additional cost. So it’s important to keep in mind that a student will not be able to earn more than the amount listed on the aid letter unless the office where they work is willing to hire them outside of the federal work-study program.

If you know your child will need more money than the amount designated in the financial award letter, the most important thing is for the student to have knowledgeable and trusted advisors to help figure out the next best step. When sudden expenses arise, the college might have emergency funds, but your child might not qualify; those funds are usually reserved for family tragedies. The likeliest outcome would be for the student to take out a small loan to carry them to the summer, when they could start working full-time. Note that some students work off campus in local coffee shops, restaurants, or retail shops, but I would not recommend this for most freshmen. They really need to focus on adapting to their new home, adjusting to the academic demands, finding their social niche, and staying healthy.

The All-Important EFC

Your child’s financial-aid-package-award letter likely includes a line item for the Estimated Family Contribution—the EFC. Since this piece of the puzzle is widely misunderstood, let’s spend a few minutes on it.

Let’s say a college costs $50,000 per year, that the financial aid award letter indicates a grant of $25,000 (some monies from the federal government and some from the institution itself), and an EFC of $10,000. What this means is, first, the school is expecting you to pay that $10,000 in cash. Second, there is still a gap of $15,000. Most families assume that the school will somehow fill in the remaining dollars. But the truth is that the school is expecting you to find that money elsewhere—usually in the form of loans. Some people turn to grandparents and other relatives. Parents often consider a second or third mortgage. Parents and students alike can take out private loans, but many offer notoriously bad repayment terms. If you find yourself in this position, ask yourself: Is this really the school I want to send my child to? If so, think carefully about what that is going to mean in terms of your debt and your child’s, both while they are in school and then years down the road when you all have to pay the funds back. It may feel like it’s too late to turn back. But until you have made the deposit, it is not. This is the perfect time to consider all of the options. Note that even at the very few colleges that boast they meet full need, students end up taking out loans. Take a look at the website for the Project on Student Debt (see the Additional Resources section) for revelatory reports on the national student debt landscape and detailed college-by-college data.

Financial aid offices can be pretty tricky. They are trying to make the college appealing so that you will say yes, but their bottom line is fixed. So you may find that from year to year they increase the “self-help” portion of the aid package. That means that students will need to work more, during the year and in the summer, to “help themselves” to meet the costs of tuition, room, board, and fees. In a case like this, the grant dollars aren’t being increased, but the student’s responsibility is. It can really feel like a shell game.

- About the author -

Monique Rinere was a first-generation college student, earning her B.A. from Hunter College and then her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University. She was a residential college dean at Princeton and the dean of advising for Columbia, and she founded the advising programs office at Harvard University. She is now the associate vice president of The New School, leading academic advising, career development, academic integrity, and student health services, among other student-centered initiatives. She lives in New York City.

More from Monique Rinere

Countdown to College

The Essential Steps to Your Child's Successful Launch

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Countdown to College

— Published by Ballantine Books —