My oldest son, Yosef, has to start thinking about life after high school. I feel lost about how to help. When I was his age, my college planning process was not really a process at all.
I knew I wanted to leave home. I also knew the University of Iowa was only 20 miles away. And, I rooted for the black and gold in football. On top of that, my best friend from high school had already made up his mind to become an Iowa Hawkeye.
Case closed. This college planning stuff was easy, right?
Twenty years removed, I am scrambling to figure everything out.
When should Yosef take the SAT?
Should we be road tripping to check out campuses around the country?
What does Yosef know about how to pay for college? (Student Loans, grants, and/or scholarships)
All this worry and obligation for a kid I still cannot believe is old enough to drive. At times, parenting high school kids feels like standing in the middle of a freeway: You’re dodging speeding cars to evade a disaster that may be completely out of your control.
Before I succumb to my own doubts about the ability to appropriately help Yosef navigate the college application process, I tell myself to take it piece by piece.
Step 1: College, trade school, or none of the above?
Before trekking down any path toward my son’s future, we needed agreement about the direction Yosef sees himself going.
In our household, we insist our kids chase post-high school education of some kind. I should not assume, though, that Yosef’s path is the same that I took. Maybe trade school is an option. Does Yosef have to attend school right away, or would a gap semester be helpful?
The answers to these questions will shape the way the rest of our college planning will go. I have to get them.
Step 2: Money, money, money
I hate that we will not be able to feed his checking account and completely cover his tuition bill. That, though, is our family’s reality. Having a big family, in fact, has subtly reinforced the need for Yosef to self-fund a portion of his future education, I think.
But before I sign him up for a lifetime of student loans, I plan to talk to him about how this all works – mostly based on my own experiences.
After all, no one ever talked to me about how to pay for college. I keenly remember having a check arrive at the mailbox of my dorm for a student loan overpayment for my first semester. I should have sent it back. Instead, I ate and drank well for a few weeks with that $500. I was a financial idiot leading up to and through college. Yosef will be better informed.
I help him understand the magnitudes of the money needed for school. To do so properly, I plan to pair this with a discussion about the career path he might take. In a perfect world, I would decouple a discussion about career path and loan payback, but I just cannot in good conscious. Sure, I would love for Yosef to follow a passion. I do not, though, aim to sign him up unwittingly for a lifetime of debts for a career that provides a meager salary.
Step 3: The work
Finally, I can help Yosef to position himself for college admission and then success once he’s in.
First things first. He must make good grades. Like REALLY good as kids in his class have cumulative GPAs above 4.5.
Next, the SAT will become an important differentiator. The good news for students now is that high-priced prep courses of the past are not the only way to prepare to earn higher scores. Our school district provides free resources – like Kahn Academy – that allow Yosef to better prepare for the SAT.
Lastly, I am told activities outside of grades and scores can make a difference in admission to big-time universities. I’m not convinced. However, I will be using the argument when I continue to plead with Yosef to volunteer in our community or join philanthropic clubs at school.
Step 4: The fun
I may have been clueless about college planning and making dumb financial decisions but, man, was I having a great time! Whatever Yosef ends up doing, I hope he can look back at his post-high school days as favorably as I do. I want him to have the time of his life at school.
Then again, just writing that phrase makes me nervous. Will he be responsible? Can he wake up for class after going out mid-week? How will Yosef deal with big classes taught by professors who do not care whether you show up or sleep in?
I will help him learn by talking to him about finding the right balance between having a good time and taking school seriously.
Step 5: Turn ‘em loose
However, working to arm Yosef with more insights than I had before leaving for college will not help me sleep any better. I will not worry less about him since I will have less influence on his decisions. Helping him wade through today’s financial and scholastic realities also does not mean I am not cheering for him to do whatever it is he feels passionate about. All this effort, in fact, should show Yosef that I want him to succeed.
I will figure it out and so will he. Hopefully, he takes his first step toward a bright future differently than I did, and select a course without regard for his buddy down the street’s opinion or a football rooting interest.