Paying for College

Advice for Mom of No-Need 9th Grader

Question: My husband and I are making a priority of saving for our son's college education. We will be able to fund all the costs of whatever college he chooses to attend. How should our finances affect his search process? The only relevant information I've found is that some schools with "need aware" admissions may give preference to a borderline candidate who does not need any aid.

I doubt he will have the credentials for an Ivy or equivalent. He is a freshman at a very competitive public high school. Students like him with a "B" average and just a couple of honors courses are considered underachievers there. He recently was required to take the PSAT and had high scores on the math portion and average scores on the reading and writing sections, as compared to sophomores who have taken the test. Many thanks for any guidance you can provide.


How wise of you to plan ahead for your son's education and to be thinking about the entire application process now. There's always a fine line to walk, of course. That is, you need to keep college goals in view, but you also want to enjoy the high school years and not just view them as the road to whatever lies beyond. Sounds like you're doing everything "right" so far.

The fact that you and your husband will be able to fully fund your son's college education may have some small impact on where he chooses to apply but perhaps a far GREATER impact on where he actually enrolls.

I always advise students and parents to approach the college search with cost as a low priority ... at least at the start. Your son should look for colleges that meet his preferences ... location, academics, size, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), extracurriculars, etc. These preferences will surely evolve over the years, but I'll talk in a minute about what you can be doing NOW.

Yes, you are correct when you say that SOME need-conscious colleges will give your son preference at decision time when they see his check mark next to the "No Financial Aid" question. Being a "full-pay" student can sometimes push a borderline applicant from the "Maybe" pile into the "In" stack, but it won't spawn quantum leaps. In other words, if your son's "stats" (grades, rank, SATs, etc.) put him within a college's "admit" range but not at the top of the heap, then he may catch a break because he won't need any dough.

How does this affect his college search? IF he falls in love with a college that he views as something of a "reach" but not out-of-reach, and IF that school does not practice "need-blind" admission, then he can count his full-pay status as a very small "hook." Note, however, that I've seen some families put way too much stock in their full-pay status and view it as a springboard into otherwise unrealistic choices. It doesn't work that way.

One thing you can do right now--and for the next couple years, before the college process heats up for your family--is to start taking your son to college campuses. Of course, you should heed what I advised above ... that is, avoid making college the focus of the high school experience. But there are plenty of reasons to visit colleges that aren't directly or obviously tied to the college search. A sporting event, museum, or play can be a good "excuse" to visit a campus, whether near home or while you're on the road. Don't worry at present whether the school you're seeing is likely to be a wise choice for your son. The important thing at this point is for him to simply see what college campuses look like ... and how very different they can be.

Often, when a student visits a campus for the first time, he or she has one of two diametrically opposed reactions. The first is, "Wow! This is great! I want to go here!" spoken effusively when Junior eyeballs the snazzy gymnasium, the brand-new apartment-style dorms, or the Pizza Hut smack in the middle of the quadrangle. Most teens don't realize that many schools will share these attractions. On the other hand, some high schoolers will reject the first campus they visit because it looks nothing like the one they remember from "Dawson's Creek." Once they've seen several, however, they'll start to put preconceptions on the back burner and to realize that the range of campus styles is wide. They'll also start to hone in on what they may want in their own top-choice institution.

You seem to already have a sensible grasp of where your son's stats will take him. While it seems ridiculous to place ceilings on a student's college aspirations while he's still a freshman, it's also smart to recognize that the Ivies aren't everything, and that a solid "B" student will still have many great options, but probably not Harvard, Yale or the like.

When it's time to apply to colleges, your son's guidance counselor will be asked to indicate on his applications if his course load is "Most demanding," "Very demanding," "Somewhat demanding," etc. when compared to other students at his school. The more competitive colleges and universities will be looking for the "Most" or at least "Very" designations, but students whose loads are less daunting will certainly have options, too.

If your son's record indicates a passion for a particular academic subject or outside activity, this will be a plus in the process, too. Sometimes 9th grade can be a time when students are saying goodbye to earlier pastimes and choosing news ones--or focusing more specifically on old favorites. As your son makes his plans, your top concern should be to stick with endeavors that he most enjoys, but also consider that atypical undertakings will get more attention at admission-decision time than the standard high-school fare (math club, chess club, debate, yearbook, Key Club, etc.) Colleges also applaud applicants who hold down jobs, so even running the fry-o-lator at Mickey D's will "count" as a meaningful activity.

Finally, just because you and your husband will have your son's college costs covered, it doesn't necessarily mean that you need to spend all of your savings. Many colleges (though NOT the Ivies) award "merit aid." This is scholarship money that comes from the college itself in order to entice top applicants to enroll. Some colleges give huge merit awards to a handful of students; others give out less money but more liberally. It's hard to figure out which colleges offer the best merit aid. There are no master lists; policies change all the time; and Web sites can be vague about who gets what. However, as a general rule of thumb, if your son is applying to a college where his "numbers" (grades, SATs, rank, AP results) put him at the high end of (or above) the usual admitted-student pool, then he is likely to receive some sort of merit grant (assuming that the college does give merit aid and, these days, the majority do, although many of the most well-known colleges don't ... at least not yet).

If you want to start playing around with college options just for "fun" (well, it's SOME folks' idea of fun, I suspect :-)), try this:

Go to the College Board online search mechanism at http://www.collegeboard.com/splash

Click on "College MatchMaker," which you'll see on the left side of the page, just below where it says "College QuickFinder."

Next, respond to the series of questions that follow. You'll be asked about various preferences (two-year vs. four-year school, location, size, etc.) and then about choices of majors and other activities. Under the "Admissions" rubric, near the end, you can plug in various projected SAT scores, GPA, etc. and then hit "Results" to see a list of colleges that your son might want to consider.

While it's certainly way too early to start hunting down colleges in earnest, this might be a good way to locate some campuses worth checking out, as I suggested above.

So, the bottom line is this: The fact that you CAN pay for your son's college is great. He won't have to make his final choice based on cost or financial aid. But as you forge into the fray, the money issue should take a back seat to other priorities.