It started off as probably my worst meeting ever. The student was angry and wouldn’t talk. The parents were anxious and overwhelmed.
The family had contacted me in April of their student’s senior year to help them choose the best college. I thought the meeting would be a cake-walk. I was certain I could help them set priorities and help them make a good decision.
After all, the choices were outstanding. He’d been accepted at Vanderbilt, Duke, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Virginia and UNC Chapel Hill, among others. What the parents neglected to tell me before the meeting was that they had no intention of paying for the most expensive options.
There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the student understands that up front. Unfortunately, in this case that didn’t happen.
The parents mentioned nothing about money concerns to their son and encouraged him to apply to any college he wanted and said they’d “deal with it later.”
They brushed off the financial discussion for two main reasons. One: They were uncertain of their financial commitment because they had other children coming along afterward. Two: They didn’t want to discourage their son from applying to prestigious schools.
Their plan backfired and created an emotional meltdown at a time when they should have been celebrating their child’s accomplishments.
When the parents did finally determine that they were only willing to pay for an in-state public institution, the son rightly charged them with “bait and switch.” They broke the news to him shortly before our meeting. He was angry because he thought he had choices, only to find those choices were extremely limited. He ranted about how unfair it was that he had worked as hard as he had, completed all the applications, written all the extra essays and gotten accepted, only now to be told he couldn’t attend.
I encouraged them to make second visits to the schools deemed affordable, with overnights, class visits, meetings with professors and some get-togethers with students from his high school.
The story does have a happy ending – he loves UNC Chapel Hill – but there are valuable lessons here for other families:
• Complete your FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid – www.fafsa.ed.gov) and calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) early in the process so you know if you can expect financial aid from the government or the schools.
• Share your financial expectations with your children. Don’t assume they know how much money you have saved in their accounts or your expectations for their personal contributions; i.e., loans.
• Make sure your child has a “financial safety” on the list. This is a college where you are certain your child will be accepted and that you know you can afford without loans or financial aid.
• Evaluate the likelihood of merit-aid scholarships; they are frequently based on grades, standardized test scores and/or athletics or special talents.