1How Do You Get Started?

We are doing this all wrong. College gets more expensive and more competitive every year. Kids lose sleep over where they're applying and whether they'll be admitted. Parents are anxious and increasingly wonder whether college is a worthwhile investment. Those same parents ask a lot of important questions. Will my child will get into a “good” college? How long will it take her to earn a degree? Can we afford tuition—not to mention room, board, and other expenses? Will she get a decent job after graduation? Will she be happy? The problem, in most families anyway, is that we take the questions in the wrong order.

Brandon Busteed, the executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, describes this process well. We start searching for colleges by thinking about attributes like size, selectivity, and location. We look into what majors are offered at the institution, and we may even consider sports programs or campus life. We probably look at the list price for tuition, room, board, and expenses, but because our system of education finance is so complex, those figures often bear little resemblance to what it will cost to attend. We build a list of colleges that meet our criteria. We visit some of those institutions to get a sense of how they “feel.” We narrow the list and begin the arduous task of preparing and submitting college applications. By having focused our attention on list prices instead of the actual cost of attendance, we may ...

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