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As promised in this April post, I plan on using my oldest daughter’s college search process to share our family’s experience and what we’re seeing on the current college landscape.

Here’s the latest.

At the urging of my daughter who, like her father, enjoys goal setting and plotting a course, we’ve formally started the initial steps of the college search process. While only preparing to start her sophomore year, we’ve quickly learned that, like a good financial plan, starting early has it benefits.

When I say we’ve formally started the process, I mean we’ve evaluated and engaged a college planning professional to help us with this process over the next few years outside of what college counselors do at my daughter’s school. I admittedly hesitated to take this step. Our school’s college counseling program has an excellent reputation. I have a good grip on the financial impact college will have on our family and how to help my daughter understand the impact choosing certain schools over others may have on her own finances as she gets started in her adult life. But as my wife and I talked more and more, I realized that these decisions are fraught with emotion and cognitive biases that can prevent good decision making even if you have all the information available. Just like with investing and financial planning, having a professional, experienced advocate serving as an independent voice of reason and provide checks and balances along the way was something we decided was important.

Then there’s the process itself. Forget dissecting the FAFSA or having all the financial tools in place, the entire process has become vastly more complex as schools have invested heavily in algorithms and data analytics to help them determine how best to shape their next class. Think three-dimensional chess vs. the maze on the back of a Denny’s kids’ menu compared to when I looked at schools.

With these changes in the landscape, knowing how to find the right fit at the right price for your child has become an increasingly difficult balance of art and science. Assessing scholarship opportunities, likely career paths to help with school fit, and guidance on which standardized tests to take or whether to take them at all are just a few more of the variables to consider.

Oh, right, we haven’t applied to any schools yet. This requires managing deadlines around applications and essays, building a solid resumé, seeking the right letters of recommendation, and preparing for the interview process in the case of certain schools or scholarship opportunities. Some of these deadlines are consistent across the board, others vary widely.

Even once you have your “short list” of schools and head out on college visits, what makes for a good visit? What questions should we be asking? What should we pay particular attention to on campus, off campus and in the surrounding area? After all, if you’ve spent any time on college campuses, while they all have their own personalities, a classroom starts to look like a classroom after a while.

The more we assessed this process over the next few years, the more and more waiting reminded me of the impact we can have as financial planners in starting to work with someone who is already retired versus still many years away. A college planner can help you with some of the details mentioned above senior year, but can they really impact how you’ve shaped your academic, extra-curricular and other choices to help meet your goals?

To Be Continued & Fair Warning

This won’t be the last time I cover this topic over the next several years. As my family navigates the process with our daughter, we’ll be sure to find areas where our planning pays off and some where we’ve miscalculated that others will hopefully find valuable.

That said, it’s worth the warning that, as with most things in personal finance, your mileage may vary. Our path does not fit every student or family’s need and should not be construed as a guide to the college search process. Rather, in sharing our experience, my hope is that it prompts questions and discussions with your own children and grandchildren. As always, if questions come up that need some outside help, your advisor at TAAG will be ready to help or recommend someone who can.

I can’t stress enough how quickly the time between a child’s arrival on this planet and surfing college videos and planning initial college visits passes. Planning for life after high school, whatever that means for you and your family, can’t start soon enough.


I referenced the following resources in my last college search blog but thought it might be helpful to cite them again. I’ll look to add to them in future posts.

I’ve been fortunate to have children at roughly the same time as author and New York Times columnist, Ron Lieber. It has prompted Ron to write first what I consider to be the go-to source for talking to your kids about money, The Opposite of Spoiled, and now one of the most comprehensive and easy to read manuals for considering your values around and how to think through making the best college decision for your family with The Price You Pay for College.

Check out The College Board’s Trends in College Pricing report. It’s a comprehensive look at the changing dynamics of college costs and worth looking back at the last several years’ reports to see current trends.