College Planning 101: A Parent’s Quick Guide

October 21, 2021 by Chevron Federal Credit Union

If you have a college-bound high schooler, then you’re probably aware that it’s officially “FAFSA season.” That’s right, the 2022-23 Free Application for Federal Student Aid opened Oct. 1 — and there are good reasons not to wait to complete the form. Here are two:

It pays to be an early bird. There’s an application window for each academic year to fill out the FAFSA (2022-23 Academic Year form is open from Oct. 1, 2021 to June 30, 2023). But it’s best to submit the form promptly. That’s because states and schools often distribute limited student aid funds on a first-come, first-served basis according to the date that students apply. Plus, some states and colleges may have their own deadlines.

FAFSA and college enrollment are linked. It turns out that filling out the FAFSA is one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior goes on to college, according to data from the National College Attainment Network. Seniors who complete the form are 84% more likely to enroll in postsecondary education immediately.

The FAFSA is a key step in the college planning process because it can be a gateway to need-based federal aid, as well as grants and scholarships from states or colleges. But it’s certainly not the only one. Making the college goal happen for your child is often a multi-year, multi-step journey. Here are a few things you’ll want to keep on your radar as college comes into view, along with resources to help guide the way.

Make an action plan and do some homework

Putting all the information about colleges at your fingertips would be great, but where do you start? Preparing for the big decisions in front of you and your child begins by getting a sense of the timelines and the priorities. The parent section of the College Board’s BigFuture website is a good place to start because it offers action plans for parents based on a child’s grade in school.

Next, you’ll also want to spend some time with a free, easy-to-search tool produced by the National Center for Education Statistics (a branch of the U.S. Department of Education). CollegeNavigator.gov is a treasure trove of information about more than 7,000 colleges all in one place. Admissions, affordability, athletic teams, financial aid, graduation rates, majors, tuition and campus safety — it’s all there for parents to compare and contrast, side-by-side.

Build and finalize a college list

Your child, no doubt, is doing plenty of college searches in their free time to find what they think are their favorites. The goal, naturally, is to develop a list of schools that they’ll be happy to attend — no matter where they end up getting in.

To align student fit and parent goals, realize that college fit boils down to a blend of academic, social and financial needs, too. To help build a college list that nets them the most financial and merit aid possible, check out  "Better Off After College: A Guide To Paying For College With More Aid And Less Debt" for a fresh take. Written by two former university administrators and founders of Edmit, you can use the chapter breakdowns — such as “junior year” or “senior year” — to create to-do lists and clarify what things you should prioritize.  

Attend college fairs and plan campus visits

Many high schools sponsor college fairs and school visits by college representatives — whether virtual or on-site — in the fall and winter months. Good for information-gathering, these events can also be valuable introductions on how to evaluate colleges and what they look for in students they accept. Make plans to check out the campuses once your student finalizes their target list.

Whether it’s a self-guided tour or a one-on-one visit, being on campus may help your child imagine themselves there — or not. To learn how to get the most out of these experiences, review this Campus Visit Checklist and Campus Visit Guide from College Board.

Get schooled on applications and deadlines

Most students start working on college applications in the summer before or fall of their senior year in high school. While most schools require similar application information, they may have different admission options, which affect the timelines. Generally, the four options are early action, early decision, regular decision and rolling admission.

Regular decision deadlines usually range from January 1 to February 1; early decision application rules will vary. Your child’s high school guidance counselor will help with this all-important task. You can review U.S. News’ application guide to get familiar with the steps in the process.

Preparing for success

Planning for college can seem like a whirlwind of activity that’s both exciting and overwhelming. So, as you navigate this important time together, it’s also critical to keep the lines of communication open. Look for our next blog post, where we’ll focus on three essential money conversations to have with your college-bound kid.


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