How to Pick a College: The Parent's Role

Carol Katarsky Updated on October 7, 2020

Your years of PTA fundraisers, attending ball games and recitals, and playing chauffeur, are almost over. But before your child finishes high school you still have one task looming ahead: helping choose the right college.

It’s an exciting and scary time for both of you. For every daydream about fall afternoons on the quad your child likely has a related anxiety: What kind of school is best for me? What should I study? And how do I pay for it all?

As a parent, your job is to be an all-in-one coach, cheerleader, and logistics manager. You can’t make the choice for them, tempting as it might be. But you can help them navigate the maze of applications and deadlines, weigh gigabytes of information, and do some self-reflection to figure out what they want their future to look like.

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It’s a big job. We’ve got some ideas to make it smoother sailing for you and your teenager.

College Visits

The campus visit is you and your child’s best chance to get a sense of the vibe and culture of the campus and surrounding community.

For the time being, many campus visits are going virtual. Check out this guide to which schools are offering virtual vs. in-person visits and learn more about how to make the most of them

Regardless of how you tour, the information your child needs is the same. But teenagers often aren’t sure what to look for. You can help by crafting a list of questions to help your soon-to-be grad weigh the pros and cons of each school. Everyone’s list will vary, but include basics like class size, costs, etc. You’ll should also consider the following:

  • dorm-life vs. off-campus housing options
  • support services (academic, career counseling, medical and mental health, transportation, etc.)
  • college culture (Is it a commuter school? What are the most active organizations on campus?  Do most students stay on campus for socializing or head into town?)

For some of these, talk to at least one current student or recent alumni. They can give you a better sense of the campus life than even the best college admissions pro. 

If you’re visiting in-person, you and your kid should split up for some solo exploring and compare notes later. You’ll cover more ground, interact with more people, and likely notice things the other might have missed.

Practical issues like costs, academics, and safety are important but try not to undervalue the importance of the “culture” questions. College is a time of huge personal growth and exploration. Your child will spend at least four years at school and build life-long connections. If your kid’s heart is set on joining a Greek organization or having a lively local arts scene, identify appropriate schools with those features. And if an otherwise perfect-seeming school just doesn’t feel right to him or her, it’s important to take that into consideration. 

Money Matters

In an ideal world, money wouldn’t be a barrier to your child attending their first-choice school. In reality, it’s a challenge. The good news: There are many resources to help you make the numbers work.

First step: create a realistic budget. Total the expected costs of tuition, food & housing, books, transportation, etc. Account for variations at each school depending on:

  • Transportation/visits – Will your child need a car on campus or is there accessible public transit? Is the school close enough to drive/take a train home for holidays or are you looking at several flights per year?
  • Living arrangements —For close-to-home schools, would your child be willing to live at home or is the on-campus life experience important to them? (And how would you feel about a not-yet-empty nest?)
  • Cost-of-living — day-to-day expenses in a big city will be very different from a small, rural college town. Adjust budgets for things like pizza, gas, etc., accordingly for different schools.
  • Time — How likely is your child to graduate in four years? (This varies a lot, by school and course of study.)

Don’t panic! These are ballpark figures until you know your financial aid and other options. This exercise helps you and your child understand your realistic out-of-pocket costs when those acceptance letters come in from Dream University and Second-Choice State School. 

Financial Aid Resources

You don’t want your child to feel like they have to settle for second best over price – and they shouldn’t! But it’s good to have the conversation early to help them understand the financial aspects of the decision. Play your cards right and it could motivate them to submit a few more scholarship applications or work more hours over the summer.

With those budgets in hand, it’s time to start looking at your options. First step: Take a look at the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). That’s the form your child must submit to be eligible for federal need-based grants, federal loans, some state-based grants and loans, work-study programs, and many school-based aid programs.

Skipping the FAFSA can close the door on tons of opportunities for your child to get financial aid for school, so it’s vital to submit. We’ll be honest — it’s a lot. This checklist can explain how to get started.

After that’s done, help your child look for scholarship opportunities. Our scholarship database has options to suit all families and students. (Read: You don’t have to be broke and your child doesn’t have to win a Nobel by 17 to qualify.) Heck, we even have our own scholarship offer you can sign up for.  

Major Headaches

Choosing a school goes hand-in-hand with selecting a major —and just as anxiety-provoking. Unless your child is one of the lucky few who’s been laser-focused on a specific career, chances are this is a source of major anxiety.

You may have strong opinions on which path your child should take, but you can best serve him or her by listening. Let them throw out ideas and get your feedback. It may be hard to watch them toy with career paths that seem less stable, but college is a time for young people to explore and figure out who they want to be. And remember: Plenty of kids enter college with no declared major or change it part of the way through college. It’s not the end of the world.

If you think your child is likely to change their major, give extra weight to schools/programs with more flexible requirements. They make it easier to change majors. You can also help your child make more clear-eyed choices by exploring how the options look in our Nitro Score. This tool lets you plug in a major, school, and other data to project what your student’s post-graduation finances would look like. Seeing anticipated loan amounts and take-home pay can be eye-opening for students. 

Selecting a college is nerve-wracking for everyone. But with the right tools and a little preparation, it can be a rewarding experience and help you and your child gain a better understanding of the adult they’re becoming. 

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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