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The 4 college conversations you need to have with your kid

The key is to start talking early—and know your stuff.

Parents are rightly stressed out by the college application process—and by the cost. My new online resource We Need to Talk: College is all about calming your nerves by helping you and your kid have open conversations about selecting a school where your kid will be happy, and one that you can afford. Here are the four key talks you need to have along the way—and a few pointers for getting the most out of these family sit-downs.

Starting the Conversation

It may be tempting to put off talking about the college process until you absolutely have to. But that would be a mistake. And while it might sound premature, starting these conversations early—at, say, the end of eighth grade—can relieve a lot of the pressure your kid might already be experiencing.

Before you talk to your kid, though, you need to get on the same page with your partner. Talk about what your family is able (and willing) to spend on college costs. Will your kid need to take out loans? (About 70% of kids who go to college have to borrow some money, so don’t feel guilty about not being able to foot the entire bill.) Use the government’s FAFSA4caster to get an early, ballpark estimate of how much federal financial aid (low-interest Direct Loans, Pell Grants, and work-study money) your family could get.

Armed with this information, share a bit of your financial reality with your kid. You don’t need to tell him everything, but he will need to know the basics, including things like whether you expect him to get a summer job to save for his share of tuition—or whether he’ll need to take out loans (try to stick to lower-rate federal ones). Overall, keep the money talk positive, stressing that you are in this as a team and you’ll figure the process out together.

Shopping for Schools

There are about 7,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Whittling that down to half a dozen schools that your kid desires and you can afford can seem daunting. But it’s doable. By the summer before your kid’s senior year, you should be browsing—and talking about what you’re looking for in a school.

But memorize this sentence, and repeat it often to yourself and to your child: There is no such thing as a perfect school. In fact, based on watching my oldest kids and their friends go through the college process, I’d argue that kids who went to their second- or third-choice schools were often just as happy as—or happier than—those who attended their top pick.

Here’s one tip: Start your search locally. You might be surprised by what your local college or your state’s flagship public campus has to offer—and by how much money you can save staying in-state. That includes room and board, if your kid can commute from home. Several states, including Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota, offer free community college programs. The New York Excelsior Scholarship offers full scholarships for tuition at two- and four-year publicly funded schools—if your family meets the household income limit and your kid takes on a minimum number of credit hours.

Paying for College

Here’s how to raise this tricky subject: “I’ve been looking into how much we can set aside to pay for your college. Now that you’re old enough, it’s time to talk about what I’ve found out.” No need to reveal every detail of your financial life—although much of this will be exposed when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in the fall of senior year, so be warned. Do tell her, though, what you’ve got and how much you’ll probably need to come up with. If you have a college fund set aside for her, let your kid know if you haven’t already. If part of her education is likely to be funded by loans, she needs to understand that, too.

I can’t stress this enough: As soon as it’s available on October 1 of your kid’s senior year, fill out the FAFSA. This is an essential step for receiving federal and state grants (money you don’t have to pay back) and low-interest federal student loans. If you and your kid need help slogging through the 105-question FAFSA, there are free resources.

When you mention the cost of higher ed, your kid will probably wonder how a degree could be worth all that money. So tell them: Over the course of a lifetime, your kid will make on average $1 million more if she graduates college than if she stops at high school.

Making the Final Choice

The acceptance letters have arrived. The finish line is in sight. But before you do a victory lap, there’s one more frantic sprint ahead of you. You’ll have just a few weeks to figure out what school works best—for all of you. Obviously money isn’t the only determining factor, but you should start by comparing costs.

Schools typically mail financial aid award letters in late March or early April detailing how much your kid will receive in loans, grants, and scholarships—and how much you’ll have to pay out of pocket. Now here’s the annoying part: The financial aid offers your kid receives might not all be presented in the same way, making them hard to compare.

The good news is that thousands of schools use the Department of Education’s Financial Aid Shopping Sheet format, which is designed to present award offers the same way. If one or more of your kid’s schools doesn’t send its offer in the form of a “shopping sheet,” though, input the numbers into the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s financial aid comparison tool to get a handy head-to-head comparison. Now you’re going to have to figure out if and how you can cover the net price of each school, and whether it’s worth the cost.

When you’re done deciding, it’s time to celebrate. You did it! You have a kid on the way to college!

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