Friday, April 8, 2011

The College Decision Deadline..Oh Where Oh Where will I go?

It's that time of year when college seniors, having received either the "thin or thick" envelope, are faced with the decision of which of their accepted colleges to attend. How easy it would be if all that had to be considered was which college do I like more? Unfortunately, due to the financial times we live in, the "which college do I like more?" becomes the least important question and is replaced with,which is the least expensive?  How much will travel to and fro be? and most importantly, how much financial aid did I get?

Your perspective college student may still be stuck on question one. They are looking through the prism of college life and an image they have created in their head of already living in the dorm, lolling about on the campus, and perhaps joining a fraternity or sorority whose house they saw during the college tour. They have a favorite, and are stubbornly sticking to the fantasy they have created for themselves to go to that college and that college only. Much to your chagrin, this is the college that is the most expensive, has given no financial aid, and is the furthest away, making traveling home for spontaneous weekends impossible. Your heart is breaking. On the one hand, you want so much to be able to give your child what he/she wants. You have bought their fantasy, and perhaps over the year participated in discussions that gave your teen the message that you supported this choice for them if they were accepted. But now reality has met fantasy.

Most high school seniors are really clueless about the financial costs of college, unless from the very beginning they have known that they will be financially responsible in some way. But for a majority of kids, college is just something you do and don't really give much thought to the dollars and cents of it. And for parents, many tend to not talk about the money aspect, feeling uncomfortable sharing their financial information with their children. But when those envelopes appear in the mailbox, the reality of what the next four years are going to cost hits.

The fighting begins. You assume your senior will understand the hard facts, be grateful to you for paying for college at all, and though disappointed that they can't go to their favorite school, understand that this is reality, and know that they can be happy somewhere else. Ah, if it were just that easy. No they won't understand, and in this moment are not thinking about you and your financial pressure, or the two sisters coming up behind them that have college in their future and need your financial support. They are selfishly thinking only of themselves. And understandably so, meaning I get why they are seeing the world so selfishly and self-centeredly.

You will probably see the worst side of your teen during these next 5 months. They have a lot on their mind.  They are faced with an ending, a new beginning, leaving home, leaving friends and all that is familiar to them. They are sad, clutching on to their old friends for dear life, not wanting to be separated from them even for a minute, knowing that they will be saying goodbye, some of them for good. Believe it or not, they are sad to be leaving not only home, but to you and the unconditional love and support you give them. Who else would do their laundry at midnight so they could wear their favorite jeans for their project presentation? So rather than being extra-specially nice to you as the end draws near, they are hostile and angry and uncooperative. This being a front for their real feelings. So much easier to leave thinking that your parents are annoying than feeling overwhelming love and sickness at the thought of living without them. All this angst,  and excitement contribute to this self-centeredness, and the inability to think rationally.

Your job is to understand how stressful this time is for them. "I get you have so many things on your mind. Its gonna be hard to leave your friends, and start over. Even though we annoy you, I know you will miss being home, and starting somewhere new is both exciting and scary. We get all that, and know that this all plays into your decision about which school you want to go to. In order to make this decision together we have to get past just the emotional piece of this decision which is how much you love school X and look at the reality of it."

It is at this point that the financial piece comes into play. If distance is an issue, have your senior go online and find the price of travel back and forth to this school. Have them look at how many times they anticipate making this trip and put that dollar amount on the list. In addition add in tuition  and room and board costs, spending money costs, etc. Go through this same procedure for all accepted schools, including any financial aid that has been awarded.  Look at these final amounts together, and put down the dollar amount that you feel you can contribute. Where there is a shortfall at a school, perhaps at the "favorite" school, ask your senior how they propose to meet the difference. This is an important discussion and process to go through with your teen. They don't live in the real world, they live in an emotional world, and need help seeing the forest through the trees. Rather than just saying something is to expensive, or too impractical, include them in the financial nuts and bolt by making them an active participant. Many teens see college and its costs as an entitlement, and don't get the sacrifices most families have to make for their kids to go to college. This whole college ordeal is almost over, and this last piece may be your most important. You are teaching your teen to take ownership over this very important decision. Probably the biggest decision they have ever made. How this decision is made will very much impact the next four years of their life, do it with compassion, understanding and education.

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