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Laying the Groundwork for Higher Ed

6 Steps You Can Take Together

What do you want to do when you grow up? It’s a question asked of children from an early age. For many children, college may be part of the plan. As a parent, I’ve experienced the decision-making process around college with my own children, and I have also worked at GRASP (an organization that is committed to career and college access for all students) for twelve years. I have learned a lot about preparing for higher education. By definition, college is considered training or education beyond high school, so as you and your child think about what that future looks like, here are some thoughts to ponder. 

Consider the uniqueness of your child. For some students, a four-year college after high school is the right next step. But for others, that might not be the best fit right away – or ever. What is your child interested in? Does your child know what studies to pursue, or would your child prefer to get some type of workforce training to be able to get a specific job that will pay more than minimum wage? Not only is it okay, it’s important for our kids to think about what is best for themselves and not try to fit the mold of what others (parents, peers, teachers, etc.) think is best. 

In our family, one child completed a four-year degree, worked for two years, and then completed law school. Another child completed the first year at college, took a one-year break that included volunteering at an organic farm in Maine, helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity in Vietnam, interning at a nonprofit, and taking courses at a community college before returning to a different college for degree completion. The third child is currently at a four-year college and plans to stay for a fifth year to get her master’s teaching certification. Each is following her own unique path – and that’s okay! 

Paula with her daughter, Emma, who is enrolled in a master’s education program (above), and some of the students GRASP has recently helped find their higher education fit.

My work at GRASP has expanded my understanding about the many options available to students for their post-high school education plans. Some of the options include workforce training that is available through community colleges, technical schools, and businesses, which take a few months to a couple of years to get certifications. Jobs with these certifications often pay considerably more than minimum wage and can provide a career. Another option is starting at a community college to either attain an associate degree or to transfer to a four-year college. There are many jobs that require only an associate degree, which typically takes about two years to complete. For students planning to transfer to a four-year college, the community college provides the opportunity to take many general education requirements while paying only about half of what the tuition and fees cost would be at a public university. For other students, the four-year college is the preferred option. And with the multitude of ways that COVID-19 is affecting the education process, many students are making choices that weren’t part of their original plan, including taking classes virtually. 

Consider college costs early. Whatever option a student chooses, knowing how to pay for education is crucial. That said, it’s never too soon to start saving for college. Any amount is better than none. Some parents might have the ability to start saving for their child’s education as soon as the child is born or even before that. If you can, do it, because the cost of education has continued to rise. I can see that there has been an exponential increase in college costs since my twenty-something-age kids were born. If you have a child already in his or her senior year of high school, start saving what you can now. Savings options can include regular savings accounts, 529 accounts, Roth IRAs, Coverdell Education Savings accounts, CDs, or savings bonds. Set up a monthly automatic withdrawal from your paycheck to make the savings process easier. If you don’t have savings, there are options to pay for college that can include loans and payment plans, but you always want to involve your child in the process. Remember, in most families, student loan debt will be repaid by the student. The student should have a clear picture of what this means, and how it relates to career aspirations, the economy, and the foreseeable job market. 

Complete the FAFSA. (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s free and it’s available online for high school seniors to complete beginning October 1. The results from a student’s FAFSA are what colleges use to determine a student’s financial aid package. The FAFSA considers things like family size, income, parents’ ages, etc. Based on these FAFSA results, students whose families have low to moderate incomes may be eligible for grants, work study, and loans, while other students may only be eligible for federal student loans.

Be realistic. As your student considers college options, I urge you to be realistic about what the family financial support will be. It’s one thing to plan a family trip to tour colleges; it’s quite another to pay for the tuition and room and board at those colleges or require your child to assume the debt necessary to graduate with a degree. Let your child know if he will be expected to take out and repay student loans or work a job to help with the costs of living on campus. 

Merit aid (typically for a student’s academic performance) may be a possibility to help fund college, but it is not guaranteed. Many parents want to believe their child’s talent in a particular sport will result in a college scholarship to offset the cost of college. Realistically, only about two percent of students enrolled in college receive any scholarship money for playing a sport. 

Find and use resources. Students need to take the initiative and use resources to find the funding to go toward covering college costs. Scholarships are a great way to help pay for college, but students must do the research, apply, and get the scholarships. College websites have information about scholarships, including merit scholarships as well as outside scholarships. Students can also search the Internet based on their interests or what makes them unique to find other scholarship options, and there are also scholarship search websites. Looking locally for scholarships (i.e., civic organizations, businesses, churches, etc.) may sometimes result in more success, as there is a smaller applicant pool. Students can also work, both during breaks and while in school, to help with costs. Having a job while in college can teach time management, a useful life skill.

Ask for help. People want to help students succeed, but students need to learn to ask for help. College access organizations and school counselors can guide students and families through the financial aid process. Students can also call the college financial aid office and ask
questions or talk to other associates in the admissions office about their unique situation, especially if finances are a challenge or a family dynamic has changed (divorce, death in the family, etc.).

Remember, many different roads can lead to a destination. There are lots of choices – regarding pathways, costs, and amount of time spent traveling – to reach educational goals and careers. And the journey itself is a life-long learning experience for your child.

Paula Buckley is the director of outreach and public affairs for GRASP (Great Aspirations Scholarship Program), a nonprofit organization that assists Richmond-area students and families in obtaining funding for post-secondary education. She is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and lives with her family in Henrico County.
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