Is It Time to Start College Hunting With Your Child?
Junior High is a Good Time to Start

You did what you were supposed to do and started saving for your child’s college education the day he or she was born.  Now that high school is imminent, you have no idea how to navigate the complexities around choosing a college. Panic sets in as you start hearing other parents discuss their child’s resume or college counselor.  Or better yet, you are completely unaware that now is the time to start thinking about college choices for your child. Where do you start?

Been There Done That

After successfully navigating the college process with my twins (who are very different and graduated in 2015) and my youngest who is graduating this year — I can certainly say that I have built up some expertise in this area.

Additionally, my husband’s son graduated from college in 2015, his daughter is also graduating this year and his youngest is currently a freshman in college.  Whew!  Six kids and six adventures. When the three oldest graduated in 2015, we felt as though we received a cash bonus!  Their colleges ranged from large public universities, medium public ivy-league colleges to private Jesuit universities.  Some are in larger cities while others are in small college towns. Although each child has had a different experience, I can honestly say that each found the best fit for their particular needs.

Get an Early Start

The most important piece of advice that I can give to anyone with a child in junior high or freshman year of high school is to start early.  At the end of 8th grade or early freshman year, purchase the latest edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges.  For more than 30 years, this guide has been the leading source for 320+ four-year schools, including quotes from real students and information you won’t find on college websites.  It is updated and expanded each year and includes a quiz to help you understand what your child is really looking for in a college. Here is a short list of some of the data included in the guide.

  • Lists of strong programs and popular majors at each college
  • Overlap listings to help you expand your options
  • Vital information about how to apply
  • Test requirements
  • Acceptance rates
  • SAT/ACT scores
  • Price
  • Ratings on academic, social and quality of life

Have your child start reading about different schools by geographic location, size and any other factors that may be important to begin building an initial interest list.

Another helpful tool is called Tuition and Fees, 1998-1999 Through 2017-2018. It can help you identify schools by price in categories such as private colleges, public colleges, two-year public colleges, two-year private colleges and for-profit schools.

Hire a Private College Counselor

Most public high schools will not assign a college counselor to your child until junior year, which can be a big mistake.  You can manage the process on your own with discipline and organization.  However, there are private counselors available in most communities who can guide you and your student through this arduous process. Beginning in freshman year, they can help you select a high school curriculum that will include the necessary pre-requisites most universities and colleges require for acceptance.  Outside counselors will help develop robust resumes and suggest outside activities such as sports, after-school clubs, charity work, etc. that will look good on a college application. They also will help determine if your child’s favorite school is really a good fit in the long run.  Finally, they, not you, will push your child to complete essays and applications when the time is right.

Or Do It Yourself

For the Do-It-Yourselfer, another good source of information is Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s website “The College Solution,” which provides blogs and online classes on all topics related to college planning.  It’s a good place to start researching.

The Bottom Line

Another reason to start early is to determine how much of the overall cost of college you will be expected to pay. Wait, you mean I don’t pay the rack rate?  Absolutely not. For most schools, the amount that you are expected to contribute depends on two things.  First, how badly the school wants your child to attend.  If your child has special talents, skills or areas of study that the school is seeking out, then they may be more inclined to offer grants, scholarships and other sources of financial aid.

Alphabet Soup of Financial Aid

The second factor includes your household’s assets and income, family size and the number of dependent children enrolled in college in a given year. This factor has a deep effect on how much you will pay for your child to attend.  This figure, known as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), can be obtained by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  Most private colleges require the supplemental CSS Profile instead of the FASFA. If you think you have too much money to apply for financial aid or fill out the FAFSA, think again.  Schools require this information in order to determine federal loans, grants and scholarships, whether you require financial aid or not.

Many parents make the mistake of disregarding price when their children are finalizing their college lists.  If costs are an issue, this is a dangerous approach when applying to schools.  Every college and university that participates in the federal financial aid system, which is most of them, will have a Net Price Calculator posted on their website.  The calculator will give you an idea of the true costs of attending that college. The final number will reflect the price after federal, state and school scholarships are subtracted. You can also use this tool to adjust other numbers like SAT/ACT scores and GPAs to see how higher scores might affect the bottom line.

Schools treat home equity differently and the Net Price Calculator will assess the impact of these nuances within the final calculation. One note of caution:  Always double check your inputs and figures when using any calculator and reach out to the school’s financial aid office to determine the accuracy of their calculator. From this exercise, you will be able to develop a list of schools that will be financially reachable.

My final suggestion is to spend the next few years visiting some colleges during school breaks. Let your child see the differences between a large university versus a small or mid-sized private school; an urban versus rural campus; a school dictated by large sporting events versus one that isn’t; schools with a larger fraternal presence versus those whose imprint is negligible.

Watch your child’s reactions to these different scenarios and ask questions about what she liked or didn’t. Look at the type of students walking around campus and ask your child if she could see herself among them. This will help you begin to narrow down your list as junior year approaches and you can take meaningful trips to a handful of schools.  Finally, listen to your child and remember that what matters most is not where they go, but what they do when they get there.


Huber Financial Advisors, LLC is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. This material is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide investment or tax advice. Always consult your investment or tax professional for advice on your particular situation. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. This material is derived from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy and the opinions based thereon are not guaranteed. The opinions and comments expressed in this article may not accurately reflect those of Huber Financial. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal. Past performance does not guarantee future results.