College is more competitive, costly, complicated and confusing than it was when we parents walked those hallowed halls of academia. Our relentless and seductive consumer culture has convinced us that college is a product, something with pretty packaging and a list of features a mile long that our kids can’t live without. As parents, we’re desperate to get the best product we can for our children.
But, we’re looking at it all wrong. College is a project, not a product.
College is a multi-year project that is 5 – 7 times more expensive than the average kitchen remodel. But like a remodel, it takes planning to pull it off successfully: an investment of time, expertise and money in advance.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks families encounter in planning for this project is they don’t have a clear picture of who is supposed to do what, exactly when or how it needs to come together. This is why as parents we have to step forward and become the project manager of this six-figure “mother of all projects.”
Just like a kitchen remodel, the project manager doesn’t install the plumbing herself, but knows the costs, who gets the job done and when it needs to happen. Planning for college is no different – there will be certain responsibilities and deadlines for parents, specific roles and deliverables that belong solely to the student and areas that will require student and parent(s) to collaborate.
Being a good college project manager means understanding the BIG picture, the timelines and the budget. I like to break the project called college into 12 critical components:
- Match qualifications to colleges – Your student’s GPA, their ACT or SAT test score and the strength of their high school curriculum will determine which colleges your student should consider targeting.
- Prep for college admissions – the student needs to take the lead and understand the important components of college admissions: test dates, essays, submission deadlines, etc., then they need to execute to the best of their ability.
- Gain self-awareness – When students understand their strengths, personality type, and learning styles, they can choose an appropriate career, a major(s) that support that career path and focus on finishing their bachelor’s degree in four years.
- Get the right mindset – The right mindset for college students can be the difference between success and failure. College Secrets of Highly Successful People by Lindy & Tom Schneider is an excellent resource on this topic.
- Estimate family contributions – What colleges expect families to contribute each year to their student’s college expenses can come as quite a surprise. Parents must understand how the financial aid system views their household before their student applies to college, so they can prepare an appropriate cash flow plan in advance of the application process.
- Apply for financial aid – Completing financial aid forms (FAFSA and CSS) is about as much fun as doing taxes, but it’s an important step in financing the major capital purchase called college. Merit-based aid (grants that are FREE) as well as need-based aid result from these forms so they are not optional in any situation.
- Assess retirement readiness – Far too many parents dip into their retirement money to pay for college. Parents must understand how to pay for college while maintaining their current lifestyle and staying on track for retirement.
- Calculate cash flow for college – This includes identifying tax efficient funding for college and the family’s collateral capacity (most often overlooked planning component!).
- Select right fit colleges – Strategically choosing colleges that are likely to offer discounts and incentives for your student to attend. This is the most critical component of the college project plan and the one area most families make the most expensive mistakes.
- Assess scholarship options – The vast majority of scholarship money comes from the colleges where your student applies. Focus on finding the best discounts and incentives based on your student’s GPA, test scores and high school curriculum.
- Compare award offers – Families need to understand that they may be in a position to ask for more money – depending on their student, where they’ve applied and what they’ve been offered. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to take the initial offer as many colleges offer as little as possible just hoping you’ll accept what’s been given in the first award letter.
- Transition successfully – As students head off to college, they experience a new level of independence. And as soon as the student turns 18, the institutions view them as adults – affording them the same privacy protection as all adults enjoy. This can, however, create some complications you’ll want to avoid. Legal documents allowing you to navigate HIPAA and FERPA regulations on behalf of your student are highly recommended.
The project manager for a successful kitchen remodel will keep all the expert subcontractors on time and on budget to produce a sparkling, beautiful new kitchen. The college project manager will also keep the family and their team of expert subcontractors on time and on budget so that the student attends a college that is the right fit – academically and socially – while mom & dad can maintain the family’s lifestyle and stay on track for retirement.
To learn more about the college project, check out my book Never Pay Retail for College.