Reducing the Fear of Finding the Right College

By Howard Freedman, President
Financial Aid Consulting |

Why are many parents and students panic-stricken when confronted with the reality of finding or paying for college?

It is not like a phobia or anxiety disorder that cannot be easily overcome. It is a normal emotion that everyone experiences and can easily conquer. Most often fear and anxiety are more the result of what others may tell parents how they should feel especially if they found the process overwhelming or disappointing.

The good news is that this fear is often the result of what parents do not know or driven by emotion rather than by information based thinking. In other words, getting the facts to make the best decisions is much more powerful and less costly than those based on guilt or just to get things over with.

There are many ways to overcome these fears and worries. One of the greatest cause of worry is when there is too much idle time causing one’s mind to churn out just about everything that can go wrong rather than focusing on the positives that go right. This is just a waste of good energy that can be put to more productive uses

Set realistic expectations that can lead to positive results rather than setting goals too high. It is all right to dream about getting in to the best college and the most financial aid. The odds of that happening are not as high as finding less competitive and more affordable colleges that best financial aid packages.

Evaluate each college with the same criteria. I can always tell when families stray off course when they describe college they visit. Common descriptions are: “Liked It”; “Nice campus”; or “Can be with my friends” are signals that evaluations were based on how things looked rather than what it offered.

After visiting many colleges, students often forget which ones were which. Without a plan or criteria, college selection is a chance process that can be very costly especially of the fit is not there. A plan can be as simple as a spreadsheet listing criteria such as majors, dorms, size, transportation, costs, scholarships and aid money, test scores, acceptance and drop put rates, student services and so on. Doing this will provide an invaluable tool to rate each college (I suggest 1 to 10 scale) after the campus visit. Parents can do the same with their additional categories.

Scholarship searches are necessary to find merit-based aid. The problem is that there are so many it can be hard to narrow the field. Simply do a random Internet search for scholarships to get ideas of what is available and the criteria. Students should start the process in their junior year and during the summer before their senior year. Bear in mind that the Internet and scholarship books exclude thousands of local and college awarded scholarships for which the student’s chances are much better. One of the best sources is merely networking with people parents and students know from work, external organizations or by jut finding companies in the phone directory that may offer scholarships that can add up.

Determine if the cost of the college is worth the money. After selecting a major find out where the graduates will be working and the organizations that recruit them. For example, an elementary education major earning $35,000 may be best off attending a more affordable state college than a pricier private college resulting in more debt load upon graduation.

Look at the numbers. Ther are some colleges and for-profit institutions that offer scholarships that may seem generous but are not. Be mindful that if a scholarship is too easy to obtain, it is merely a small discount in relation to the total costs of college. Don’t make any quick decisions until you are shown the total costs of attendance less any scholarships. Don’t feel pressured but walk away until you are able to evaluate the merit and affordability of the offer.

Review family expenses to evaluate which expenses can be reduced or eliminated. Cell phone plans; student’s car insurance, the Internet, and entertainment expenses are some ways to cut costs. Add consumer credit card debt at high interest rates and home mortgage refinancing that can free up much needed cash.

Be open to other alternatives. There is nothing wrong with attending a two-year college rather than a mediocre four- year college. Many students may not be ready to take the big plunge into a four-year program. Moreover if they should fail at a four-year college, student loans will become due much faster. By just saying “no” or not worrying what others that don’t pay the bill think will not be the end of the world. Ultimately the student can still receive a four-year degree by just taking another path to get there.

Beyond two year colleges, the military, AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps and more provide excellent opportunities to gain real world experience, financial aid for college and relive the stress.

There is really no need to panic, now that you know the choices and better ways of dealing with this exciting adventure.

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