College Planning: Six Questions Every Family Should Ask

By Jay Tomes,

College and Career Planning can be an exciting time for high school students and their parents – but it can also be intimidating, time-consuming and costly. Even with the wealth of resources available today, academic and financial planning experts see millions of families who simply aren’t aware of the right questions to ask and fail to see the common traps that will affect their financial lives for decades.

Here are six critical questions college planning advisors recommend families explore.

What’s Your ‘Big Picture’ Plan?

Up to 50 percent of students enter college with an undeclared major, which has led to a 40 percent drop-out rate. Sallie Mae found that those without a plan (they simply pick a school at the best price) will spend up to three and a half times more for college.

Those who start with a big picture approach will dig deeper into many key areas, yet also end up saving dozens of hours and thousands of dollars just on the planning process alone.

Are We Really Focused on the Right Goal?

Often, students feel pressured to focus on getting into their dream school, instead of seeing higher education as a stepping stone on the road to their future. Families can avoid many traps and costs by ensuring their student’s first goal is determining their field of study and future career, then using that goal to drive the college selection process.

For most students, the right goal is to graduate job-ready in the career they studied for. Focusing on the wrong goal has led to 53 percent of recent grads being unemployed or underemployed and 50 percent or more taking up to six years to graduate. To avoid this trap try these resources: O*NET OnLine ( and PayScale (

Is College Really the Right Path to Success?

There are many jobs today that do not require a college degree. In fact, some of the largest employers are tossing out their requirements for college degrees and are focusing on upskilling certification programs that build the latest skills. Get creative in your big picture planning at sites like

How Much Debt Is Too Much?

Parents now owe $103 billion in PLUS loans and a new Fidelity study found many parents are shocked at the total final debt they owe. Too many end up raiding their retirement accounts to pay for their children to go to college.

A big picture, creative approach helps parents take the emotions (guilt, fear, ego) out of the planning process and evaluate critical “what if” scenarios before incurring debt. Avoid this trap and do your own forecasting with sites such as the Loan Simulator at

How Can We Cut Costs?

This is not a trick question. Yes, most families look at ways to reduce costs. However, there are dozens of ways to slash college costs dramatically that too many families don’t consider or simply aren’t aware of, including:          

  • Out-of-state schools at in-state prices    
  • Scholarships are available for just about any interest or specialization
  • New free college programs from employers 
  • Exciting new alternatives to the traditional college path  
  • Community College

What’s Negotiable?

So many families don’t know that the offer price listed in your child’s college/university acceptance letter is just a start. You can negotiate tuition, room and board, fees (there are lots of them), terms and so much more.

You can compare offers to other students from the same school with similar test scores and financial means using resources such as TuitionFit (, which gives you tremendous bargaining power. You’ve got this!

College Planning: Six Questions Every Family Should Ask

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