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Our oldest daughter was a member of the 2021 high school graduating class. She had the unfortunate task of navigating choosing a college during a global pandemic. With most colleges and universities shut down for most of the year, we had to get creative.
Our daughter knew what she wanted to study, so we had a head start on many graduating seniors. She’s known for a long time what she’s wanted to do in terms of a future career.
Trying to plan your future as a teenager is tough enough without throwing in a pandemic and all of the mental, emotional, and physical challenges that occurred during that time. All of our kids were handling the pandemic differently. With all that was going on, our daughter wanted just to shut everything down and not think about the future. And I couldn’t blame her because what these high schoolers endured was a lot more than you or I have probably ever faced, especially at that age.
Creating a list of potential schools
With that in mind, we decided to be proactive with her college search to help her find the motivation to look at schools and what they offered, create a shortlist of schools to visit if possible, and where to go from there.
She decided to go into occupational therapy and also knew she wanted to stay close to home but not too close. We started searching online for schools with occupational therapy programs within Ohio and the surrounding states and created a list in Google Sheets.
The list included the school name, location, and undergrad costs. We also included columns for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. We noticed some schools only offered a generalized bachelor degree program like Health Services, Allied Health, Exercise Science, or similar, so we included those schools too. Some schools only offered programs for occupational therapy assistants, which isn’t the same, so we left those off the list.
Researching colleges on her list
As mentioned, most schools and universities were closed down while we were searching, at least towards the beginning of our search. Because of that, many were offering virtual tours, zoom meetings with admissions counselors, and various other long-distance options to get a sense of what the schools were all about despite being shut down.
To help her out, I created a Google Doc with a list of questions to answer and other information to gather about each school on the list. I made copies of the doc for each school to keep track of them separately. Information gathered from each school included:
- School web address
- Degree program/department web address
- Annual costs (broken down by tuition, room and board, and other expenses)
- Degrees offered in the desired field
- Campus organizations/clubs of interest
- Campus tour information
At the end of the doc is a section where our daughter could list the pros and cons of the school. We wanted her to take the information she obtained and think about the school on her terms. What did she like? What was a red flag? Again, since visiting the schools was off-limits towards the beginning of her search, we came up with this. I’m not sure this works for everyone, but it helped us think of each school in concrete and measurable terms instead of an abstract thought in the future. It wasn’t about the school’s name or who else was attending but about the school itself and what it offered.
Want your own copies of the college resources we created? Scroll to the bottom of this article for more information.
Visiting colleges during the pandemic
Initially, she attended some virtual college tours online. Between the virtual college visits and the information gathered, she narrowed down her list to a few specific schools. Later in her search, some of the colleges on our list started offering in-person visits again. However, many of them were not the traditional guided tours or extensive visits they had previously offered. Either way, it was a chance for us to check out the campuses, dorms, student centers, dining halls, and academic halls at several schools on our list. Barb and I took turns visiting the schools with her, talking to school staff, and making sure that she got to see everything she needed to see to help her with her decision.
Making a decision
Eventually, our daughter made her decision on where she would attend college this fall. Her choice was evident early on after visiting the campus. One of the perks of deciding early is that she could focus her energy on applying for scholarships and finding financial aid before many of her classmates. She could also enjoy her last year in high school instead of worrying about her future school. She was also able to connect with her future roommates earlier and become friends.
There’s nothing wrong with taking more time to make a college decision. It’s one of the biggest financial decisions a young adult will ever make and to do it at 17 or 18 years old is absolutely insane. Some people choose a school based on the name, family tradition, or other reasons. Nothing wrong with that, but in the end, it’s about the return for your investment. Does the value of what you leave with match the school’s price tag?
Resources to help your child choose a college
I originally created the previously mentioned documents to help our daughter during a difficult period, but these resources could be helpful in almost any situation. Our oldest son is starting to think about college, too, so he will soon be going through the same process.
The more I think about college decisions and hear horror stories from other parents, the more I think resources like the ones I created could help other families. They aren’t pretty by any means, but I wanted to share them with you in case they might be helpful for your children.
I think sometimes we get caught up in the dream of attending college without sitting down, gathering our thoughts, and actually researching schools based on what we value. These resources aren’t all-encompassing either. There’s a lot of factors that go into deciding which college to attend or whether to attend college at all. Perhaps a trade school is a better option. You could certainly tweak these resources to fit those needs as well. Maybe school isn’t the best option. That’s ok. I think taking time to look at all options will help you and your child find the right path, or at least the path for RIGHT NOW.
Hopefully, your family finds the resources helpful, even if they are just a jumping point for the college discussion.
What do you think are the best ways to narrow down college choices? Let us know in the comments below.
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Kevin Payne is the co-founder and budgeting and family travel enthusiast behind FamilyMoneyAdventure.com.
Kevin is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance and travel. He is a regular contributor to Forbes Advisor, MoneyGeek, CreditCards.com, Credit Karma, Money Under 30, and Student Loan Planner.