College Planning

By: Kevin Herman Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Inspiration

More Than Just Saving Money

College Planning

My daughter just started kindergarten this year, and it’s so much fun to watch her developing her love for school. Don’t get me wrong—recess is already her favorite subject, but she also loves her teacher and learning her words. Sometimes when I come home from work, she will greet me with one of her many books that she has created, and it makes all the stress of my day disappear. It’s truly amazing watching my daughter learning to learn!

As a father, I want to make every opportunity to learn available to her, and college is definitely one of those opportunities I want to provide for both of my kids. In 12 years I hope my daughter will be well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities so many young men and women experience during their first couple years of college. When my daughter is preparing to go to college, I will wonder about:

  • How will she pay for college?
  • What will her social life be like?
  • Does she have sufficient life management skills to succeed in a college environment?

I used to look at “college planning” just as a financial task. I thought all I had to do was determine how much I needed to invest today so that when my daughter graduated from high school, my wife and I would be able to pay for tuition, fees, and housing. But over the course of the last year, I have come to realize that college planning is so much more than just addressing the financial component and getting that acceptance letter. The statistics about the number of students who are dropping out of school and not getting a degree are alarming. Nearly one third of first-time freshmen do not attend the same college their sophomore year, and the five-year national graduation rate is just over 50 percent.

The combination of the high cost of college and the low success rate is a risky recipe threatening to burden young people with large amounts of debt and little chance for higher wages associated with that very important piece of paper - a college degree.

So, what can we do to improve the chances of success for our children, regardless if they are a newborn or in their senior year of high school? I believe we need to take an honest assessment of several important factors that will help determine their success in college. College planning needs to encompass not only financial aspects, but also social and general life management skills.

How Will She Pay For College?

All of us approach financing a college education differently. A few parents have the willingness and means to provide for their children’s education without loans. A larger portion have the willingness but not the means to provide for their children’s education and, therefore, take on debt to finance their children’s education. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents do not have the willingness to finance their children’s education and believe it’s the responsibility of the child to fully finance their own education if they want to pursue a college degree. In today’s society, nearly all young adults will need to assume some sort of debt to finance their education.

College affordability is clearly an issue today - just look at the headlines. The cost of education is rising at twice the pace of inflation, federal loans are often not covering the full cost of college, access to private loans is being limited due to stricter underwriting standards, and home equity that has built up over the last 15+ years is becoming smaller and smaller as the housing market continues to lose value.

With both national retention and graduation rates at less than 70% according to ACT, the importance of finding the right school is critical to paying for college as efficiently as possible. After all, the expenses of transferring schools a couple times and/or not graduating on time add up fast. Therefore, take the time to ask yourself or your child, “What are the things that are going to make me want to leave or stay in college?”

Approach potential colleges with the mindset that you want to get the greatest return for your investment. One way to do this is to find out what the school offers to ensure success. Many schools offer a multitude of services to help bridge the transition from high school to college, such as freshman orientation and first-year experience programs. Some schools also engage faculty and staff with first-year students through services such as early alert systems. These systems allow faculty and staff to identify students who may need a little extra help building that strong bond with the school. Taking time to review these programs will help you and/or your child find the school that offers the best return on your investment.

As you are looking for the right school, make sure you are taking advantage of the government resources that are available free of charge. For example, all students should fill out of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA

( during their senior year of high school. Use this form to apply for aid such the Pell Grant, federal student loans, and college work-study programs. After filling out the FAFSA, students receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) that outline the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for higher education activities. This EFC figure is the one that schools use to develop a financial aid package for your family. The package may contain a combination of grants, student loans, and work-study opportunities - from which students choose what aid they want to receive.

Here are some additional helpful resources about paying for college:

Another consideration is your probable future earning potential relative to the cost of your education. Most of us seek additional education to increase our earning potential in the workforce, and there are institutions all over the country that offer degrees varying from computer science to comic book art. When students are considering what degree they want to earn, consider that your investment might not result in your desired return. Sometimes the harsh reality of the world comes into conflict with our dreams and aspirations, but it’s so important to find out what you can expect before taking on huge amounts of debt that may take 10 or more years to repay.

What Will Her Social Life Look Like?

In addition to financing college, I want to make sure my wife and I are taking the right steps to ensure the college our daughter selects is conducive to a successful social life. With national retention rates at less than 70%, we want to make sure that resources are available to help my daughter establish a social connection quickly.

Many schools realize the importance of social connections and have developed many resources to facilitate these connections through programs such as living communities. For example, the University of Denver offers living and learning communities based on an interdisciplinary theme that creates purposeful links among academic, residential, and social components. Getting connected quickly into a social circle is so important for success at school.

Does She Have Sufficient Life Management Skills To Succeed In A College Environment?

Another critical component to success in college is the ability to deal with life and all the curve balls it throws you. Freshmen are faced with all sorts of life management challenges the moment they step on campus. I can almost guarantee that within 10 minutes of being on campus, students will be offered a free t-shirt for simply filling out a credit card application. Within the first week, many students will realize they don’t have to attend class. Then midway through the semester, they’re stressed out and their jeans don’t fit very well as the dreaded freshman 15 begin to show.

Dealing with financial, academic, social, and wellness issues is challenging for all of us, and many times we don’t recognize these issues until they become incredibly painful and loaded with consequences. Oftentimes, the students themselves are the last to realize the situation even though others noticed the issue weeks or months before.

Many colleges are addressing these issues through a variety of programs such as first-year experience courses that educate students about these life skills and the resources available for those who need help. Additionally, more and more colleges are implementing early alert systems that allow faculty and staff to identify students who may need additional help to succeed - whether it is financial, social, or academic. Attending a school where the faculty and staff are genuinely concerned about the students’ total well-being is key to helping students achieve total student success.

Watching my beautiful daughter move from baby to toddler to child has filled me with joy, happiness, and love, and thinking of her growing into a teenager, then a young adult, and eventually a wonderful woman fills me with excitement, hope, and anxiety. But one thing that gives me peace about her future is that I’ll do my best to pass to her the wonderful gift of a quality education, and I’ll do everything I can to fully prepare her for all the aspects of that amazing experience.

Kevin Herman is director of education services for Nelnet and is responsible for helping schools and students achieve success. He can be reached at 303-696-5551 or via email at