As if college weren't expensive enough already, many of us who have high school juniors and seniors are dismayed to discover another potentially huge college-related expense: the cost of choosing the school our offspring will ultimately attend.
We enroll them in Scholastic Aptitude Test prep courses (in the hope that more colleges will want them), buy college guides and other informational materials, sign up for individualized counseling, apply to many schools, visit others and have available scholarship aid "searched" for us. The amount of help to be bought and other things we can do to facilitate our eventual choice is virtually unlimited--and much of it is costly and often unnecessary.
We learned these five budgetary lessons in the process of sending our eldest off to the University of Michigan last year. All have helped us cut the cost of enrolling two more children in as yet unchosen halls of ivy next fall.
1. Defer college visits until after your child has been accepted.
Visits to non-local campuses are probably the most expensive element in the selection process. But it is unnecessary to spend, say, the approximately $500 it costs for you and your high schooler to fly to the University of Wisconsin just to decide whether or not to apply. The application fee at most Big 10 schools runs about $25, so if you are considering Wisconsin go ahead and send in the application form. When decision-making time comes around, your list of possibilities will probably have shrunk from nine or 10 schools to two or three, and a trip to Madison, if your child has been accepted and still wants to go, will be much more meaningful.
If you think a trip is necessary just to get the feel of a school and an area, try to combine it with a vacation or business trip. Or contact a reputable college tour group such as College Caravans, which operates out of the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. (It recently offered a three-day "package" to Boston University, Tufts, Brandeis and Brown for approximately $200 plus airfare, and is planning other trips in the spring.)
But except for those few schools that require personal interviews, regard pre-acceptance visits as options, not necessities. You get very little information not available from local sources and may come away with misleading superficial impressions.
2. Be wary of computerized scholarship "searches."
According to Robert Leider, president of Octameron Associates, Alexandria, the nation's largest publisher of financial aid materials, these searches are "basically a rip-off."
"If your name is Rapunzel," says Leider, "such firms can probably dig up a small grant for you provided you want to go to East Arkansas State College." Other awards are apt to be so general that thousands may be eligible, like those offered by trade unions and professional associations. Leider's belief, confirmed by our own experience, is that you can conduct your own scholarship search at considerably less expense and with more success.
3. Watch your dollars on SAT prep courses.
Such courses can cost a great deal and seem to have a negligible effect in significantly raising either verbal or math scores. As parents of college-bound children quickly learn, the most competitive schools (Harvard, MIT, etc.) require SAT scores of around 1300 for admission. If your child tests in the 1000 range, it is highly unlikely that any course will raise that average enough to gain entrance. Whether you pay $300 for private tutoring or $30 for school-sponsored sessions, most experts caution against expecting more than a total pick-up of about 40 points--which many students can do on their own with a SAT prep book.
If your child has a B average in math and scored only 450 on that part of the SAT, a short, inexpensive course might be in order, but otherwise probably not. Though coaching can't hurt, we take the viewpoint that since it probably won't help much either, there is usually no reason to spend the money. You might discuss the specific situation with your child's high school guidance counselor.
4. Resist--if you can--paying for specialized college counseling.
The cost of professional advice on such matters as high school course selection, writing the "personal essay" on application forms and narrowing the list of college possibilities to those best suited to your child generally runs from $150 to $300. Even those who have used and are pleased with the results admit the counseling added very little to information available from such sources as high school guidance offices. The professional counselors' prime purpose may be to save time and to defuse emotional strain by having an impartial, knowledgeable third party help resolve conflicts--typical on college decisions--between parents and child.
Clearly, a high school guidance counselor can't give a great deal of personal attention to any one student. However, if you have the time to evaluate the information available and don't mind an occasional pitched family battle, there probably is no need to include professional counseling in your college shopping budget.
5. Don't apply to more than five schools.
Most counselors advise applying to one "safe" school (where admission is virtually guaranteed) and one "long shot" (some people do get into Harvard with SAT's under 1300). If you have done an intelligent job of narrowing your options prior to this point, you should be able to come up with several your offspring likes and to which he or she stands a good chance of being admitted. So why spend $300 on application fees to a dozen schools when you can achieve the desired result--a school that is "right" for your child--by applying to five for about $125?
Families who start their college hunting when their children are high school juniors can easily spend up to several thousand dollars before the chosen institution's first bill arrives. But it is possible to make an intelligent choice for much less money through fully utilizing the many low or no-cost resources available and recognizing that many items are options and not necessities.