4 key lessons parents of high schoolers must learn about planning for college

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Last week a former sailing coach at Stanford University became the first person to be sentenced in the college admissions scandal in which dozens of prominent parents allegedly bribed and cheated their kids’ way into brand-name schools. The scandal highlighted the pressures and anxieties families face as they navigate a torturous college planning process.

I’m about to confront all this too. Our daughter enters high school this fall, and our thoughts are turning toward college. (She and her friends are way ahead, having compared notes for some time.) So, I thought, why not share what I learn with you through a regular feature that deals with all aspects of college planning-academic, social, extracurricular and, of course, how to pay for it all?

No-Nonsense College will run about once a month in MarketWatch. I’ll interview leading experts to help guide us, and we begin with Kat Cohen, founder and CEO of IvyWise, a two-decade-old Manhattan-based college admissions counseling firm. I’ve combined her wisdom with my own thoughts into four key pieces of advice for parents planning for college.

1. It’s not about you; it’s all about your child. Unfortunately, many parents forget that in the rush for status and bragging rights. There are eight Ivy League colleges and universities and 50 to 60 altogether that have acceptance rates of 25% or lower; another couple of hundred selective colleges admit 25% to 50% of applicants. That leaves more than 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and three out of every four students attend institutions that accept more than half their applicants.

The overwhelming majority of kids won’t get in to the Ivies or MIT, but may well flourish at, say, Beloit College or Indiana University. “I think it’s important for families to do a broad search and make sure they are finding the best-fit schools for them,” says Kat Cohen. “They will find those schools, but it does take research because there are so many.” It also might mean parents need to check their egos at the door and look for what’s really best for their kids.

2. But it is about your money. We all want to give our children every opportunity-especially the ones we didn’t have-and keep them from having to start out with a huge debt burden. But no one “deserves” or “earns” a college education their families can’t afford. So you shouldn’t stop contributing to your retirement plan if it means stretching to pay private college tuition for your kids when they can attend a perfectly good state university for much less.

That’s why you should estimate what you can afford to pay early on. Parents don’t fill out the dreaded FAFSA form-which tells you what your expected contribution should be-until fall of their child’s senior year in high school. I’d recommend seeing a financial planner when your child enters ninth grade to give you the big picture of what you can pay for college amid all your other obligations. Kat Cohen advises families to visit the net price calculator on universities’ websites to see what they can expect to pay. And don’t give up on financial aid: Nearly 90% of freshmen receive some aid from private colleges and universities, she notes, and “they may actually end up receiving more financial aid at the private colleges” than state schools.

Read: Interested in attending a private college? Your chances of getting a discount on tuition are higher than ever

3. It’s not just about vocational training. Our winner-take-all job market, plus the massive debt many kids take on, has made college overwhelmingly about preparing for a career. And the political correctness that pervades the humanities makes them, in my view, less attractive than when I went to school long ago.

But college should be about a lot more. “Living on campus, gaining independence, responsibility, the ability to learn from people who are different from you, all of that I think has a tremendous value,” says Cohen. And it’s value that may not pay off directly in future earnings.

Read: Your career trajectory is set in the 5 years after graduation

4. It’s about all of high school. It’s show time from the very first day, so students shouldn’t wait until 11th grade to buckle down. “Everything from ninth grade on counts on your record,” says Cohen. Although academics are the top priority, that’s also true of extracurricular activities, whether it’s a sport, community service, or scientific research. “Students should spend ninth grade exploring a variety of interests…and then through the rest of high school they should focus on those things that really matter to them,” she adds.

“Don’t let high school happen to you,” she concludes.” Make sure that you are making the most of those four years. Make sure that you go in with a plan.”

I hope this feature will help you plan, too, starting even earlier with college savings. Please tell us what you want to know about college planning, and we’ll use your best ideas for future columns.

Howard Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. Please email us with questions or ideas at mktwatchcollege@gmail.com.

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