Conversation Topics for Teens

As we make our way through the admission decision season, there is so much happy news to celebrate. Dreams are fulfilled, goals are achieved, all the hard work has finally paid off! But with this happy news there may also come some tough conversations about costs, debt, and compromise.

Many College Coach admissions advisors are also parents who have made it through the college selection process with their own teens. How did they survive? Through open communication and transparency with their children, not just in senior year, but early on. We hope their advice and insight is helpful to you, whether you’re currently debating financial aid offers for the fall, or just beginning the college conversation with your younger children.

Start Early

“Have an honest conversation with your child beginning in ninth grade, and continuing periodically throughout high school, about what you can/can’t do and what you will/won’t do. For example: We can’t afford to borrow loans, but we are saving. We know we won’t have the full amount, but are willing to cut some other expenses to increase our ability to pay. We will help you to the best of our ability, but we expect you to work in the summers as well as during the academic year (a few hours/week), and save some of your money for expenses like books, supplies, and pizza. We won’t borrow against our home or our retirement accounts. We expect you to get the best grades you can, and look for some scholarships to help with the costs. We want you to only apply to schools which will be a good fit, and then we can determine based on price, because you know you’d be happy at any of them. I call it the three-legged stool: one leg is mom and dad, one leg is the student, one leg is the college (scholarships or financial aid). We’re all in this together, let’s stick to the plan. DON’T WAIT until April 25 of your child’s senior year to have this conversation, and then drop the bomb that you can’t afford their dream school.”

Jeanne Mahan, college finance consultant

Share Responsibility

“I was clear before they left for college that personal expenses were on them. When my daughter chose to attend a more expensive, private college, she knew that she’d need to take out loans and would be responsible to pay them back upon graduation.  That was her choice, though a tough discussion. I also told my kids that if they chose to go far from home they would have to navigate the logistics of getting home (and help with the cost): schedule trains, flights, Ubers, put their name on a ride-share board, etc. I wanted them to learn to be independent and to start managing these everyday life skills and tasks. I have found that you don’t have the problem of having to say no if you set clear, straightforward boundaries and guidelines from the start.”

Amy Alexander, college admissions consultant

Use Data and Get Organized

“I can’t stress enough the importance of being transparent from the beginning. If a student must receive $X in scholarship/discounts/financial aid in order for you to afford a specific school, don’t keep that to yourself. It is MUCH harder to deliver that news when the student gets into the school but does not receive enough aid to make it feasible than if you shared this information before applications were submitted. We developed a spreadsheet with all the colleges on my son’s list and their full cost, then put them in order from least to most expensive. As the offers came in, we entered the actual cost and re-sorted. The amount that we could afford was part of the conversation from the very beginning, as was what would constitute a reasonable amount of student debt. I really think this made it much easier to eliminate schools that weren’t in range right away.”

Elizabeth Heaton, college admissions consultant

 Do the Math

“During junior year and summer after, we finalized my son’s college application list. He shared that he wanted to apply to two private colleges, as well as several public universities. I let him know that I supported his applications to the private colleges, but highlighted the price of each to him and let him know the exact amount of scholarship that he would need to receive at each school to make it a viable option. He was fortunate enough to be admitted to every school he applied to. Upon receiving the decisions, he knew immediately that the two private colleges were not options unless he took on considerable loan debt. Being a wise young man, he chose the public university that gave him a scholarship generous enough to graduate with zero loan debt. It wouldn’t have gone so smoothly had we not had ongoing conversations. In addition, we also had many discussions about how an education from a well-known private college was not necessarily better than an education from any of the other schools on his list. While it would be nice to go to a snazzy, elite school, it’s NOT the end all; each college on his list was a good fit and would have helped him reach his academic goals.”

Jan Combs, college finance consultant

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Written by Emily Toffelmire
Emily Toffelmire is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Prior to joining College Coach, Emily worked as an admissions officer at University of Southern California as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Thailand.