As founder of College Liftoff, Aaron Greene has helped thousands of teenagers find a college that fits academically, socially and financially. Your Teen recently caught up with Greene to find out what parents should consider before starting the college admissions process.
How do you approach college admissions?
It’s really a lesson in consumerism. You are buying a big asset. We haven’t thought of college like that, but it’s too expensive not to. Look at it in three areas: academics, finances, and fit. Is this school really the best place for what your student wants to study? Will the money line up? What’s the best setting for your student?
Where should parents start?
Start with your student. What’s her interest? What are her goals for her education? That’s a tough question. Your teenager is 17 or 18 years old, so, the question isn’t, “What do you want to do with your life?” That’s not the right question to ask a teenager. It’s, “What excites you?” If you can find out what interests your teenager, what gets her going, then you can start to align that to careers and majors.
What do you think about parents suggesting majors for their kids?
Forcing your student into a particular major is absolutely the wrong thing to do. I understand parents want what’s best for their student, but pushing a student into something that he or she is not built for or is uncomfortable with is a waste of money. Your teenager probably won’t do it after graduation. But the real downside is that he’ll graduate disgruntled and prepared for something that is not for him. Listen to what your kids say about what they want to do and develop that. It’s not about what you want; it’s about your teenager’s best path.
How does knowing a major—or possible major—help with college admissions?
It helps you determine value. The student shouldn’t have more debt than her career can repay. For example, a $30,000 entry-level job doesn’t allow that student to repay $80,000 in debt, starting just months after graduation. So, if your student wants to major in English, then what are some potential careers? What are your student’s secondary skills? Maybe she has some business or technical aptitudes. Maybe it’s technical communication or marketing. These are skills we can put into real world career paths. Once you determine those interests, find schools that have outstanding programs, fit your student, and line up financially. Remember: big-name schools aren’t necessarily the best value. Say you have an extremely bright kid who wants to be an engineer and who gets into an Ivy League school. Well, those aren’t the best schools for engineering. The best schools for engineering are in the Midwest.
What is the student’s role? And the parent’s?
In addition to everything we’ve talked about, the student’s job is to complete all of the application materials and ensure they’re sent, including test scores and transcripts. The parents’ role is to be supportive and help answer the financial questions.
One important job for parents is to put together a budget. Before you start picking colleges, you need to decide exactly how much you’ll pay for your child’s education annually. Then figure how much debt your student can assume and how much can they pay themselves? We usually say they’ll pay $3,000 to $4,000, which is about the equivalent of a work-study.
Your budget needs to be a hard number, so that you can run the numbers as you start getting aid packages from colleges. If your budget is $18,000 a year and a school will cost you $22,000 a year after financial aid, well then the school needs to come up with $4,000 or it’s not viable. So you go back to the school, and you say, ‘If you want this student, we need that $4,000.’
In some families, this may be the first serious conversation about money.
Yes, and the conversation should be there from the start of this process. It’s a lesson in fiscal responsibility—not overspending when you shouldn’t be, especially with college because it’s so much money. Talk about the realities of graduating with a lot of debt. Teens appreciate it when you give them the reality of what’s happening to some students and what you’re looking to avoid. These are the realities of being an adult and making good decisions.