Everyone is interested in saving money on college expenses, right? You’re now looking at spending at least $1000 outfitting a dorm and your child with new clothes and books and electronics? The stuff financial aid doesn’t cover is hitting you hard? You’re finding it hard to breathe and wondering how saving money is even going to be possible?
I’m going to stop posting about the goings-on of adjusting to our new life in Key West having spent most of my life on Philadelphia’s Main Line, ignore the fact that a rather large crocodile chased my tween son home from the golf course last night, and remind you all that I am actually a serious academic professional with a career and lots of experience and some advice for you about launching your first year student successfully while saving money, time and aggravation.
I hope that your no-longer-little-one has graduated and is enjoying some much-deserved downtime before embarking on this next phase of life. Moreover, I hope that you managed to negotiate the best deal possible in terms of financial aid, and I hope my guide for negotiating it was helpful. However, saving yourself a lot of money, time and angst does not stop there. Nooooo. In fact, you will be able to save yourself thousands of dollars over the next few years if you are smart and remember that while your special snowflake (I can say that because I have a super-special snowflake of my very own) is, in theory, supposed to manage his or her college affairs independently as some kind of passage to adulthood, s/he is doing it with your retirement funds. Let that sink in for a moment. Here are some tips to make sure that you are not eating cat food out of a can while your child lives in your basement with the cat.
Download the College Handbook Right Now
It’s a PDF on their website. It’s long. It’s complicated. It’s bo-ring and definitely not light beach reading. Don’t mistake the Student Handbook; that’s a different document. You want that College Handbook, and you want whatever version is in effect for the 2017-2018 Academic Year (that is really important). There may be more than one version on the site if the college has updated it. Choose the one that will apply when your child is an entering freshman. Print it. Get a three ring binder, hole punch the document, and put the damned thing in a binder and keep it close. This is now your bible.
Why? It’s a legally binding document for the institution. It lists the courses that can be used to fulfill requirements, electives and the courses required to complete majors and graduate on time. It outlines the rules by which students can transfer credits in from other schools, how AP credits can/will be applied and how they can change programs. It’s the playbook. Moreover, it is the law. It is what, at some point, someone is going to use to audit your kiddo’s coursework to put him or her forward for a degree. Or not. Let’s just say, it matters a whole lot, and you, yes you¸ need to have a copy if you want to make sure that you are not on the hook for a fifth year of college. And that fifth year? The financial aid will suck for it if you get any at all. So, first things first, get yourself a copy of the catalog.
Take Placement Tests Seriously
Many schools administer Math and/or English (Writing) placement tests either before or during orientation. Take them seriously. TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. TAKE THEM SERIOUSLY. Doing poorly on one or the other or both can be the difference between needing to take a remedial or lower-level course that will not count toward the degree and will not transfer anywhere (we’ll get to that later). Suzy won’t need to take “College Math” if she studies for it and reviews her math. I know, she’s been enjoying staying out til midnight with her friends having “experiences” to remember with her friends before college. Nevertheless, sit her butt down in a chair before those tests and make her review like she did for the SATs. Because colleges will not play, and they will go with the results on that test as an indicator of her ability. And they will place her accordingly. And that will mean that she’s a course or two behind graduation schedule right out of the gate, which will mean either 1) summer courses (for which you will pay and which can be complicated – we’ll talk about them; 2) overloads during other semesters (for which you will pay big time – we’ll talk about them) or 3) an extra semester or two (oh, you’ll pay for that, too). Just because financial aid will pay for that course they say she needs does not mean that it’s college-level or that it will count towards her degree. Oh, no.
Google “college math placement test” and see what comes up. See if your child’s school has practice tests. Make them practice taking the Accuplacer, even if the school s/he’s going to attend doesn’t use it.
How will you know if the courses she’s taking will count toward graduation? You will have studied the College Handbook.
Understand How Advising Works at Your Child’s School
There are various different advising models that schools use, and all of them have advantages and disadvantages. Knowing how advising works at your child’s school is vital to ensuring that s/he is taking classes that are appropriate, count towards a degree and will transfer (I know that doesn’t apply to your child, but bear with me). We’re going to call that the “trifecta standard” for our purposes.
Faculty advisors are like faculty anywhere. Some love it, some think it’s a tolerable chore, some hate it and only do it because it’s a requirement in their contracts. It’s unpredictable. So is the degree of training they have about advising and what courses to recommend, what to say “Nope!” to, which will impact financial aid, etc. It’s a complicated undertaking. So, you are talking about the difference between an advisor who is going to talk to your child as if s/he was their own and put them in courses that meet the trifecta standard and someone who is going to sign whatever Jimmy Jr. puts in front of him, regardless of whether it meets any of the trifecta standards, so s/he can go back to prepping for the semester, which is the actual priority.
Professional advisors are usually a little better, but they are also usually incredibly busy and your child is one of many that is sitting in that seat in a day. They will typically have a formula for students that they will apply given what your child says they find interesting. In a 4 or 5-course load, there will be at least one English or heavy reading course, one math, one science and one social science. They do understand financial aid implications, but they are usually great referrers to other offices it’s easy for students to “forget” about, and it can be a quagmire when they do that.
Team advisors are a combination of faculty and staff members who take on advisees without majors. These folks are not professional advisors but come from various places in the school and typically like advising. They tend to be good at teasing out your student’s interests and fears and addressing both. These people serve as great supports for beginning students.
Chances are, your child’s school is using one of these models, and it’s good for you to know which one so you can understand what kind of academic advice s/he is going to be receiving.
FERPA is NOT Only About Financial Aid
FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. For practical purposes, this is why faculty can’t discuss students, post their grades on exams or otherwise give information that identifies a student and his/her performance to anyone, including you.
During Orientation, take your child by the hand, and walk on over to the Financial Aid office and have him/her sign a FERPA waiver so that you can speak to the office on behalf of the student. Otherwise, legally, they cannot speak to you about it. I know, right? You’re paying the bill, and they’re not going to speak with you? Crazymaking. Make your kid sign it.
THEN, and this is the part most parents don’t do, march said child over to the Registrar and have him sign an academic FERPA waiver so that you can call about information about grades and courses in which s/he is enrolled or has dropped in the middle of the semester. You want access to academic information. Every institution has a FERPA form for this, though they are usually not advertising it. Make your child sign one, make two copies of it and take a photo of it with your phone. Not even kidding. I know, they’re supposed to be adults, and hey, if you are willing to risk another semester or three’s worth of tuition rather than telling them to sign a form? Okay. My kid is going to sign the form.
I have spent 25 years in higher education, and I can guarantee you that nothing magical happens when you leave campus that matures your 17 or 18-year-old during orientation. In fact, they are around other goofy kids that age who convince each other that they can explain why they dropped a course after their grades are mailed or why they failed a course or did something else that they don’t understand has a longer-term impact. Whenever I had the conversation with a student about withdrawing from a course with a “W” rather than risking failing, I always insisted the parents be looped into that discussion, and I always consulted financial aid about implications for making Satisfactory Academic Progress and the registrar for options for making up the course. Dropping it may seem like a good idea mid-semester, and I have, at times advocated for the idea that a W is better than an F, or 3 C’s and a D. Yes, it’s possible, but unlikely, that without the stress of the problematic course, a student could end up with 3 A’s and a W. However, a D in a “trifecta course” still counts towards graduation at that school even if it won’t transfer, and if saving money is an issue? You need to think about these things because at some point, that course is going to need to be replaced, and you’re going to pay for it. This is about saving money by seeing the big picture, not reacting to every small “emergency” that occurs.
So, make them sign the forms. Make it a non-negotiable condition of attendance and payment. Yes, we want them to be responsible adults. Also, you also don’t want to be eating cat food in retirement while Annie finishes her seventh year of undergrad.
Freshman and Sophomore Year Courses
All of the courses that your child takes, absolutely in the first year, and probably in the second year, need to be general education courses that fulfill graduation requirements, will transfer anywhere and are not electives. Our trifecta standard. The only way you can ensure this is to keep tight control over that schedule. Left to their own devices, they will choose two courses that might count for some majors and two “electives” that start at 2PM on Tuesday/Thursdays, no Friday classes, no early classes and no classes that involve a non-favorite subject.
Look at that College Handbook. They need to get their graduation requirements done in those two years. English, Math, Social Science, Lab Science, Foreign Language. And the further they get from whatever subject they hated in high school, the harder it will be for them later, not the better. NO, she does not need a math break. She needs to get math the hell over with. Or French. Or Bio. Whatever it is. Do not let him put it off. First semester or second. It needs to be done.
I honestly do not care if your child is enraptured by the idea of “Aboriginal Culture and Storytelling through Food.” Neither should you. It’s an elective, it’s not going to do anything to help them, and it will not transfer as anything of use.
Intro courses in Psychology, Sociology, Biology, Spanish, English, Statistics or Calculus…these are the courses that fill the requirements (per that Handbook that you now understand why you need to read). Make sure that those are the courses that are being chosen because students tend to do well, faculty tend to know that first years are in them, and they will transfer. They will also apply to any major your student chooses during sophomore year. During the junior and senior years, the student can take major courses and electives. Few students get into trouble at that point, and they can enjoy the courses in their chosen field and take “Ornithology for Practical Survival in Cambodia” if that sounds fun or starts at 2PM on Tuesdays/Thursdays.
Some Majors Require More Planning Than Others
If your child is completely set or even considering an application to medical, veterinary or dental school, or a major in any science, the rules above need to change. That needs to be communicated to the advisor at the very first meeting. There is no easy first semester or transition for those students. They have to take Bio and Chem right from the start, or it will be almost impossible to complete all of the requirements for the major, and for the applications to professional schools, without adding semesters. It’s unfortunate, but those curriculums are very tight and pretty regimented. Look at what any medical school requires that applicants complete and then compare it to the Handbook. It’s doable, but it’s not easy.
Business is another subject area that you will want an advisor to know if your child is considering. MBA programs have some tough pre-requisite course lists. Sometimes taking those courses requires a lot of planning at the undergraduate level or your munchkin will have to take extra classes before applying. That is the last thing you want. So look at some programs and make sure that s/he can fit them all into the four years.
The Dreaded Drop/Add
Once classes start, students are able to drop/add for usually up to 14 days after the classes begin. If your child is thinking of that, be aware that statistically, students who pick up a class after the second meeting tend to perform very poorly. Going to the first day of the class is vital. That’s where the professor introduces herself and sets expectations for the course. He will review the syllabus, which is the binding legal document that should set forth the assignments, the grading policy and other course standards. Missing that means that you are always behind. You think, well, they can read all of that, right? No. Wrong. They cannot re-listen to how the professor describes things. They cannot hear the inflection or what is stressed and needs highlighting and what does not. They will never get the sense of the course if they are not there early on.
First year students tend to like to “shop,” because it’s the first time they can. It’s fine if they are hitting all of the first days of classes. However, deciding after three class meetings that they hate a professor and switching courses needs to be on your “Don’t You Dare” list. It’s like quitting a job after three days because you don’t like the boss. No one does that. They’ll also want to switch so they can be in classes with their friends who are raving, after a couple classes, about how easy/cool/interesting/hot/wild/funny the professor is. Remember when they were toddlers, and we had to say “no” a lot? Embrace your inner no. Get ready for, “I don’t care. NO.” Practice, “When you are paying for it, you can decide.”
And if you signed that FERPA form, all you need to do is tell them you are going to call and check, and even if you never do, they will never know you did not. You have to exercise some control over things at the start and let them feel their way. By junior year, they are typically responsible and set on a course. But make some rules before you drop them off.
I’ll Take It Over the Summer at Community College
I guarantee that at some point you will have this conversation with your collegian. S/he will try to convince you that s/he can make up a course or take an easier version or some other thing, at the community college. Here’s what you need to know. Federal law and accrediting agencies got together and told colleges and universities a while ago that they could not refuse to accept course credits from any other accredited institution (because some, like the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters and so on were refusing to do so). So that practice was halted and a now there is a more complicated process to transferring in credits at most schools.
First, the student needs to get prior written permission to do this. In some areas, the registrar will know how a course will transfer because enough students will have done. In other cases, there is a process. The student will need to get a form, either from a department chair or the registrar. Then the student will need to submit at the very least the syllabus for the course s/he wants to substitute for a course at their home college. Sometimes, more documentation will be required. Then the department chair will hand it off to a subject matter expert (a faculty who can compare the material, objectives, breadth, and measurements of the course) to the course at the home college. At the point, a decision is made about what the course will transfer into the home school. It could transfer in as a straight substitution for the course your student needs, but in other cases, it could count as 2 credits or 3 credits when your student needs 4. Or it could be counted as an elective. It’s not a sure-thing. All Intro to Calculus and Chem 101 courses are not the same. Do your homework. Student schemes like this can be very, very expensive for parents.
Why Do You KEEP Talking About Courses That Will Transfer?!?
Yes, I know that your child’s school was carefully chosen, and you’ve negotiated the best financial aid package you could and “OMG, lady, do you know what we’ve been through just to get her to this point????”
I do. I know all of that. I truly hope your child loves the chosen school and thrives and graduates in four years. But I also know that (for a variety of reasons) somewhere around 1/3 or 39% of students either drop out of an original school choice or transfer after their first or second year (and those are not numbers that include community college students). It’s hard to see into or predict the future. You cannot know what will happen. S/he may hate the school once there (I did at Bryn Mawr). Friendships may be hard to make. Homesickness may set in. The culture may be all wrong. There may be too many parties. Or not enough. Students can become depressed. Things change. There are many reasons that students transfer.
If your student ends up among that group that needs to transfer, you want the credits to be portable and able to count towards the next school’s graduation requirements, so you are not paying for a fifth year of undergrad somewhere else where the financial aid was not as good. See where I was going with those intro classes and no electives? Electives transfer in as elective credits. They are basically useless.
Colleges typically have some programs for parents before they usher you off campus to help your child acclimate. During those activities for parents, instead of weeping about your baby growing up and leaving, ask questions. Don’t get me wrong; you can cry all the way home and for a month after that. But that is your audience with academic officials. Ask about advising, counseling services, tutoring, and if they have an academic early warning system (they should) and if it’s effective. If they do, faculty should be reporting to the deans and the advisors when students stop attending, don’t turn in assignments or are in danger of failing. The advisors will reach out to students, and the students will usually hide from them if things are getting dire. I used to text messages like, “If you don’t come to my office, I’ll go sit outside your dorm room and wait for you to come back.” That worked surprisingly well. Not all deans or advisors operate like that, though. Some believe in letting students fail. But they’re failure, while perhaps an object lesson to them, is not saving you money; it’s costing you a fortune.
Get clarification on their policies about taking summer courses elsewhere. Write down what is said. All parents need to hear this because you will all be dealing with students who think this is a brilliant way to make up X or let them take Y instead or have Z be easier. See if their ideas are going to hold merit now so you can offer knowledgeable consent or dissent when they come to you.
Keep a finger on the pulse of your student. Ask about how assignments are going. Ask about tests. If your spidey-sense is tingling, get in touch with the advisor and ask them to let you know if all is well. Give your student some space; you do not need details. However, they can check in with them at your request if you signed the second FERPA for academics, and they can tell you if you need to be concerned or not.
Cut Textbook Costs
Whatever the school told you to estimate for textbooks is going to be about 25% higher if you are going to buy them at the school bookstore. So just stop. First, a lot of schools offer courses that are OER (Open Educational Resources), which means that recognizing the outrageous cost of textbooks, faculty have designed courses using materials that are available free. Those are awesome. Second, you can rent textbooks for next to nothing from lots of sites if you get a copy of the syllabus (often online or via a simple, polite email to a professor for the text(s) needed (and what editions s/he will accommodate) or a call to the bookstore). Edition is important. If you can use the one prior to the current, you can pay next to nothing for it. Places like Chegg have been in business for years and are very reputable.Third, everyone from eBay to Amazon to specialist sites sell them used. The earlier you can do any of this, the better the deal you’ll get and the less you will pay. So, figure out what courses your student is going to take and then arrange for texts. You can literally save yourselves thousands of dollars.
Sure, they can sell books back at the end of the semester for pennies on the dollar (if they can sell them at all because publishers change editions with great frequency). But the days of keeping them and cherishing them and moving them with you everywhere you go are long gone.
College is a huge undertaking, and I realize that all of this can be overwhelming to parents and to students who are worrying about everything from roommates to navigating a new place to living alone to what they want to be when they grow up. I also know that many parents think that financial aid is the only financial hurdle. But you have time to figure that out and figure out how you’re going to pay for it all. I hope that this drills down a little bit deeper into the four-year process of financing an education and gives you an overview of some of the pitfalls and hurdles that may come up during that first year. I’ll post again when I gather more ideas, and you’re always free to contact me with questions at email@example.com.
I’m going to go back to doing my job at my college and trying to get used to the idea that my life has become a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard novel as Murph snorkels miles from the coast at Reef Relief Camp.
These are some books I highly recommend for you (and if you can, follow Jeff Selingo on LinkedIn):
*I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Please see Affiliate Disclaimer page for details. I will never, ever recommend a product I haven’t tried or wouldn’t buy for myself. Also, to date, I’ve 0.49 cents with Amazon, which got eaten by fees, so I’m not very good at this!
If this has been of any help to you at all, please consider donating $5 (0r whatever you can) to The Kraken Fund to help keep the blog going and the advice coming! We don’t’ stay in academia because we’re getting rich; we do it because we love working with and for students.