Picking a college is one of the biggest decisions your child will have to make—several financial and personal factors are at play. As a parent, you want to be there for them and help make this choice a little easier. 

If you have a college-bound child at home, here are a few ways you can help them narrow down their options and decide on the right school.

Start With Self Reflection

Take some time to understand your child’s goals for their college education. If they already have a major or area of study in mind, that can help focus your attention on schools that offer supporting programs.

Use this as an exercise in goal setting, especially since college education costs have significantly increased over time. Keep the lines of communication open, and encourage your child to reflect on what they want to get out of their college experience.

Here are three ways to shop smarter for the right college.

#1: Ensure You and Your Child Understand The Budget 

Your child shouldn’t start dreaming of storied study sessions under an oak tree or grabbing a quick coffee with friends at the library without understanding the numbers. 

Remember, you want to help your child shop for college smarter, not harder, and a solid first step is understanding what they have to spend. Communicate what you can give them for school each year based on your savings efforts (529 plan, Roth IRA, a custodial account, brokerage account, etc.).

For example, say you’re confident you can spend $30,000 per year on college. You can use that number to help them see just how far that money would go at different schools they’re considering. 

From there, you can layer in other funding elements like financial aid, local and national scholarships, grants, student loans, and more to cover the difference if needed. 

Many schools offer a financial aid calculator to help you better understand financial expectations. A little tip: don’t rule out schools at this stage, especially by the sticker price. 

Research each school’s financial aid packages and examine merit-based aid and grant programs. You never know; the school with the highest initial tuition could offer your child the most scholarship money and financial support

We can work together to help you understand how much you can contribute to your child’s education. If you can’t cover all expenses, help your child make a plan for obtaining student loans. Going over the interest rates and rules is vital for your college student. 

They should be fully aware and comfortable with how their student loans work and the plan for paying them back before selecting the school and setting foot on campus.

#2. Narrow Down The Selection Pool

Once you have a better idea of the budget you’re working with, it’s time to start shopping!

Make a list of approximately 15 schools you believe are a good fit.

Include a variety of schools in your list like,

  • Safety schools: You will almost certainly get in; these schools rarely reject students with your child’s credentials (high school grade point average, ACT or SAT score, etc.).
  • Probable schools: Your child’s chances of being accepted are higher than their chances of being rejected; this is a good academic match.
  • Reach schools: Your child would really like to go here, but their chances of being accepted are low.

As you’re creating this list, an excellent place to start is with the location.

Does your student plan on staying reasonably close to home (within driving distance), or are they looking to relocate to another part of the country? 

Attending college out of state tends to be more expensive, and traveling home for holidays or breaks is more difficult when involving air travel. Not to mention, some students like the ability to drop by on the weekends or have their parents visit for a day.

On the other hand, your child might be ready for more independence. Attending a school out of state can be enticing for some students, especially if they’re prepared to branch out on their own.

Location aside, think about other factors like:

  • State school or private school?
  • Urban or rural environment?
  • Large university or small college?

Deciding on these major factors first will help significantly narrow down the list of suitable options.

#3: Identify The Most Important Factors

Once you cover the basics, look into the day-to-day factors that will impact your child’s quality of education and overall satisfaction. 

Start with you and your child’s biggest priorities. What are the “must haves” of their college experience? Here are some examples. 

Academic Rigor

What is the school’s attitude towards academics? Does your child thrive in a high-pressure environment, or do they need a more nurturing place? 

It’s crucial to pick a school that will match their personality and learning style. If they aren’t compatible, that can lead to a tough educational experience for your child. The education is, after all, the reason they are attending college!


It’s always a good idea to look into a potential school’s inclusivity and diversity efforts. 

  • Do they already have a diverse student and faculty community? 
  • What efforts are they making to increase diversity on campus? 
  • Are they welcoming of various religions and lifestyle choices? 

Meeting and learning from those with diverse knowledge and experiences is one of the most valuable parts of being a college student. 


What type of facilities are on your kid’s wish list? Does your shutterbug hope for a photography studio and dark room? Maybe they envision spending time in the library or long for creative freedom in an art studio. 

Many colleges and universities grant students of all majors access to incredible facilities. The options have only gotten more impressive over time, so dream big!

Social Life

A huge part of heading off to campus is creating unforgettable memories and forming friendships that last a lifetime. Help your child think of any activities they might be interested in: football games, dance team, Greek life, computer programming club, drama club, theater productions, etc. Establishing these interests will further help your student narrow down their options.


There’s nothing quite like cafeteria food, but some colleges offer more food diversity and accommodations than others. This is especially important to look into if your child has dietary restrictions or allergies. If the cafeteria isn’t quite cutting it, will their dorm or apartment have an area where they can cook for themselves?

Not having adequate dining options can be a major bellyache once your child is actually at school. Having cereal every night because the meal options aren’t suitable will get old fast!

Helping Your Child Choose

After you’ve determined the budget and start looking at possible schools, help your child assess their preferences and personality to identify programs that could suit them well. While there are various factors to consider (location, size, cost, academic programs, etc.), it’s important to see how your child’s personal preferences add color and context to the process. 

As hard as it may be, resist the urge to push your child toward a school that doesn’t suit them because of rankings, prestige, or personal preference. Your child will be the one taking the classes, spending time on campus, and meeting new people, so their college choice and experience should ultimately be up to them.

If you’re in the college planning process and could use a helping hand, feel free to reach out. I’d be happy to help you review your current financial goals and build a budget for contributing to your child’s education.


1How Many Colleges Are in the U.S.?

After a successful career in high-tech, Sheila McGinn, CFP® followed her passion and became a fee-only Financial Planner, where she helps clients navigate complex financial decisions and reach their financial goals.

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