Finding harmony in college selection

Head, heart and hand

08/21/2012  |  By Jeremy Turner
Helping Students Select Undergraduate Programs

Whether you realize it or not, there are a number of very powerful dynamics at work in when it comes to deciding on where to go for college. It is imperative that you be able to recognize these forces and tame them into proper balance. Otherwise, you are not likely to find harmony in your college selection process. The results of being out of balance in this way could be both emotionally unpleasant and quite devastating to your student’s financial future. Think of a stool with three legs and consider what it would be like to try and sit comfortably if one leg were much shorter than the other two, or completely missing altogether. These legs are called the Head, Heart and Hand and we’ll take a much closer look at them now.

The Head

This is the logical center and can be thought of as the Mr. Spock of the entire process. No fluff, no emotion, just the facts. The focus is on what seems to be the best school with regards to a proposed major or career choice. The information on which this decision is based can come from seemingly legitimate sources like magazines, news articles, websites, counselors or family members. The “facts” can also come from other sources that may seem less savory. It’s important to note that we are not judging the wisdom of said decision, only the motivation. Both the student and yourself are doing your best to make a very solid choice that will lead to the greatest chance of success after graduation.

While it may seem like a good idea to pick a school based on logic, the theme here is, once again, to have all things in proper balance. For example, ABC University may absolutely be the very best school in the nation at which to prepare for a career in physical therapy. However, if the out of pocket cost at this school is $52,000 per year and your student has neither the savings nor disposable income to fit such a bill and isn’t sitting on a mountain of merit scholarships, this school may not be a realistic option financially. Even if this school is affordable and offers the proper academic path, one can argue the importance of enjoying the upcoming years to be spent preparing for the future and having an emotional connection to the college of choice. Life isn’t just about money and college isn’t just about the academics.

The Heart

Mahatma Ghandi once said: “Culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart.” Respectfully, we beg to differ in this instance. Many times students are guilty of picking a school because they love their football team or because it had the prettiest campus of all that they visited. Parents sometimes push our students to attend a school because it was their Alma Mater or because it’s closest to home.

There is absolutely no doubt that the heart will play a major role in the college selection process. After all, we surely don’t want our student to be miserable while they’re in school. As such, there must be a certain measure of “feel good” when it comes to which school will be the big winner in the who-gets-your-student lottery. However, if your student’s proposed major is not offered at this school or the school is so wildly expensive that you cannot afford it, what will you do? You now have some very big and very difficult choices to make that will profoundly impact the future. Please choose wisely.

The Hand

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s all well and good that you’ve found the most beautiful school in the land with the most fabulous curriculum, but somebody has to pay for it. The Hand has run all of the numerous calculations and made all of the complex computations and has come up with a number. This figure is the total amount that a student can afford to spend on college without wrecking the family’s financial future.

Parents are world-renowned for their selflessness and sacrifice is a part of their moral fiber. At this point, though, unless they have been able to set aside a significant amount of money specifically for college while fully funding retirement, they simply cannot martyr themselves and throw themselves on the financial sword by paying too much for college. If someone does have to take on debt for college, as long as the debt is manageable and properly minimized, your student will be in a much better position to take ownership of it.

Financially speaking, the very best thing students can do in preparing for college is to find ways to reduce the out of pocket costs for school and then choose a cost-effective school. Luckily, there do exist some very legitimate and entirely underutilized methods for reducing the cost of college. For example, it is much simpler than you may realize to reduce the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) down to a much more realistic and manageable sum by shifting assets and sheltering them in FAFSA invisible vehicles where they are not counted against parents for financial aid purposes. For the sake of this discussion, EFC roughly equates to the amount the government says you can afford to pay for college each year.

It isn’t enough to simply reduce your EFC. Having a low EFC and then choosing a school that is not considered to be cost-effective is counter productive financially. Having a full understanding of the difference between sticker price and out of pocket cost for college may allow families to pay much less than full price. Realizing that many “expensive” private colleges are not necessarily more costly than their “less expensive” public counterparts due to the amount of free money they have to offer incoming students will also serve students well in reducing the total cost of college.

Jeremy Turner is President of SAFE College Funding. For more information, visit
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