The Fundamentals to Launch Game Plan for a Four-Year College Degree (to be completed in 4 Years, not 5+)

Did you know Bachelor’s degree earners are taking five or more years to complete their four-year degree? Although there are a host of factors involved in this shift, I’m sure this isn’t what you expect as you and your family prepare your child for college.

I attended college as a non-traditional student – I was in my 30s, recently divorced, working full-time and eager to make some serious life changes.

I’d gone through a couple of certificate programs in my twenties because my focus was not on pursuing a professional degree. I graduated high school with spiritual interests in mind. I chose to go into missionary work and support myself part-time taking on whatever positions paid my bills, which allowed me to pick up lots of experience in a variety of areas.

After severing ties with my husband AND my religious community at the time, I set out on my own seeking full-time employment as an executive assistant. Landing a position with a decent salary was quite the challenge. Not because I wasn’t qualified, in most cases I was over-qualified; the issue was, I didn’t have a degree.

I had a decision to make. The decision wasn’t tough, I just had to make the choice and a commitment. What was challenging was venturing off to college as a non-traditional student. There were qualifying tests to take; applications to complete; funds to earn, withdraw and borrow; and more.

At the time, I was only focused on getting into school. I had no long-term plan. I just wanted to hitch myself to the college wagon. Destination: diploma, so I could climb the corporate ladder and get my dream job.

Whether you’re a traditional student (straight out of high school after typically living with parents or other caring advocates) or a non-traditional student (varied circumstances, which often include more responsibility and more life experience) prepping for college is no small task.

Many students and their parents don’t consider planning long-term. The focus is similar to what I experienced – figure out how to get accepted and pay for all of the initial costs to make that happen.

Even for those who think long-term about college costs, there’s still so much that’s overlooked that can result in a few extra years dragging through school or calling it quits altogether.

Taking more than four years to complete a four-year degree translates to more stress, juggling, time and money. And, typically after four years, lots of the opportunities to provide some type of financial or other kind of relief dry up. It’s a challenging place to be, which is why many students struggle.

Others don’t even get a glimpse of the finish line. During their first year of college right out of high school, because they’ve not been adequately prepared – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually – they stumble through that year and either end up on academic probation or they drop out.


This blog post is about helping you and your child plan for the dips, detours, potholes, traffic jams and bottlenecks on the road to your college launch.

I didn’t consider the following when launching and navigating my college journey, but if I had the chance to do it all again, I would follow these guidelines to the letter.

And, as a former college professor who’s served thousands of students as an educator, advisor, mentor and coach, I’ve observed, experienced and learned so much that I can’t help but share the lessons. As a fierce student advocate, it just wouldn’t be right not to share as much as I can.

Want this all whittled down into a FREE checklist so you can go ahead and get started? Simply click below…



Clearly, students can face some serious challenges to completing their four-year degree on time. We could explore some of those challenges in detail, but let’s just get to some of the success fundamentals to help you and your child steer clear of being part of the above statistic.

I want to address WHO, WHY, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW MUCH.

You ready? Let’s do this…

Start Early and Begin With Your Child (WHO)

It’s no secret that the process of your child being accepted to their college of choice depends on a variety of factors. Whether this road is paved or not depends on your child’s level of engagement in the process. The more prepared they are, the better their experience will be.

There’s SO much information to sift and sort through when it comes to making decisions about college, which is why it’s wise for your child to begin exploring during their first year in high school.

I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but it’s true. Let me clarify.

I’m not talking full on preparations that move you and your child into a stressed-induced stupor for 3-4 years. That’s not what I’m suggesting.

Please don’t allow your child and your family to get swept away in the wave of competitive games being played today on the educational front.

Just because education has become BIG business doesn’t mean it has to become BIG business for you and your child.

High school is fraught with enough challenges, why add a layer of stiff competition to further burden your child?

Learning should be fun, but we’ve turned it into the education olympics. The training seems to start earlier and earlier.

When I say prepare early, I’m talking about deepening your conversations with your child and encouraging them to deepen their conversations with themselves.

I strongly encourage that they start an education experiences journal about what they’ve accomplished, explored and experienced in high school; their reactions to these experiences; who they want to be; how they want to show up in the world and how they want to contribute in the wacky world of work. This is a much softer approach to helping them transition into college talk, exploration, experimentation and preparation.

A really fun resource that your child may dive into is Elle Luna’s book, The Crossroads of Should and Must. It’s an easy read I believe you both will enjoy. When I recommend a resource, I always add: Take a look at this resource on Amazon, read the description and reviews – favorable AND not so favorable; if it still sounds interesting, pick up a copy.

Know the Reason Behind What They Do (WHY)

Why go to college anyway? Everyone’s hopping on the college train and going into BIG debt to do it, but why?

Today more than ever, higher education opens doors of opportunity. In many cases, a high school diploma isn’t enough to get where and what you want anymore.

Even a Bachelor’s degree isn’t cutting it in some circles if you want to prop the doors of opportunity open to easily glide through.

Of course, there are examples of folks who dropped out or forewent post-secondary education altogether, which shows it’s not impossible to achieve your goals without a college education.

We’ve become a credentialed society. We’re uber impressed with education and perceived expertise. We’re also impressed with millionaires and billionaires and it’s important to note that some of them didn’t finish college either.

Although college is often a foregone conclusion, I want to stress that it should be part of the equation ONLY when it’s actually part of the equation.

Depending on what your child wants to contribute and/or their work of choice, there are other educational avenues and experiences available for your child to explore.


Sometimes taking a Gap Year or a couple of years to work and travel (which is strongly encouraged) is a great option to give your child some space to explore their inner landscape, expand their real life experience to get a taste for what else is available and to mature as a young adult.

Before making a commitment to college, encourage your child to engage in more self-discovery activities and career exploration opportunities, while working (of course).

Yes, I’m going to crazily advocate for exploration (inner and outer) and experimentation throughout this post, because they’re both SO crucial to your child’s success.

They can shadow you, your family members and/or your colleagues at your place of employment, and/or do a few informal interviews. They can take on a variety of part-time jobs or volunteer during the summers between their freshman and senior years in high school.

What I’m especially tickled about is the more exploring, experimenting and being curious part, but these activities also work in their favor when it’s time to share their story on an application, essay or cover letter – what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned and how they’ve contributed in the world.

This is going to help them really get a feel for how they want to show up in the world, what they want, where they want to land, the work they want to do, what their next steps can be, etc.

It’s all about preparing and choosing consciously, moving forward with awareness, even at their age.

All of this can make the college selection process fun and a little easier, versus the “I’m bored” or “I don’t know” responses that I’ve heard and continue to hear so often from students.

Going to college is a big decision across the board.

Before selecting anything, make sure this is the “right” next step at the “right” time for your child, and that it’s the “right” next step for what they want to learn more about and contribute via their work.

I know the pressure is on to go to college immediately after high school; the competition seems SO real. However, it’s best to ensure that the timing is right for your child so they can maximize the experience and get what and where they want rather than completing college still baffled about their next steps.

I can’t wrap up this section without a quick comment about what they want to do. There can be a lot of pressure out there for students, really all of us to pick that “one thing” you’re going to do for the rest of your work life.

I take issue with this because how we work is different from what we want to do for work. For example, I’ll use the ever-popular “I love to work with people.” Cool, you love to work with people, but what do you want to help people accomplish? This opens the door to a flood of other questions that may lead to your child working with people in the health industry, but they could also help people in the food industry, or the education arena.

My little-on-the-weak-side example leads to this strong point: What you love to do can be wrapped in a variety of different job structures. So, give your child and yourself (for that matter) some space to change your “job” or “position.” This takes the pressure off to find that ONE thing that you’re going to do “for the rest of your life.”

I was one of those kids who was interested in just about everything. I’m still interested in lots of things, which is why my work portfolio is so diverse. I love to be challenged. I need to be challenged. I need to be excited about what I’m doing.

Barbara Sher calls us “scanners.” If your child has lots of interests, like me, pick up a copy of her book Refuse to Choose. Another great book of Sher’s is, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. 

Both books are chock-full of great suggestions and info to help the “multipotentialite” love who they are and their varied interests. I’ve loved her work in this arena for years and these are two books I recommend over and over again.

Haven’t heard the term, multipotentialite? Take a peek at Emilie Wapnick’s TED Talk, “Why some of us don’t have one true calling.”

In fact, research suggests that “job switching” or “employment churn” will increase for millennials. Many folks probably won’t switch careers often, maybe not at all. But, the chances of your child and their peers moving into and out of a number of jobs is highly probable.

There are SO many opportunities today. The work landscape has changed since we entered the workforce and by leaps and bounds since our parents entered the workforce.

My dad worked for the same company for 35 years as a produce truck driver. When I entered the workforce, just the thought of doing the same thing and working for the same company that long was downright depressing and seemed like being cursed with a prison sentence. For someone whose core values include freedom, that would have been a recipe for the most unhappy life I could possibly imagine.

So, just a little reminder that their choices when they’re teens may shift and blossom as they gain more experience in life and learn more about themselves. You may have experienced this same kind of shift and blossoming.

With some upfront exploration and experimentation, your child can have at least a hazy vision of what he or she wants.


If they don’t even have this, I’m certainly skilled at helping them dig deep to reveal at least a few interests to begin the ever important exploration and experimentation process.


Your Child and Impression Management (WHAT)

In addition to grades and GPAs, gathering what needs to be collected to meet your child’s college(s) of choice requirements is important to consider as they move forward in this process.

Have your child create a digital portfolio (sometimes this is required in high school). This is a compilation of their senior experience in high school. Some schools require this grades 9 through 12, many focus on the senior year.

In addition to research, projects, assignments, etc. that make up these portfolios, I suggest having your child pull together their own showcase to include grades, GPA, activities, awards, volunteer experiences, work experience, etc. using a digital tool and referencing their education experiences journal. There are several tools they can use. Have them check out Easy Portfolio, KidBlog, or similar apps or sites. Or, they can use a very simple website tool like Squarespace, Weebly or WordPress to design and build their own portfolio.

Pulling all of this information together is helpful when your child is prepping for college. They’ll be telling their story via an essay or other requirements and a portfolio can be easily referenced.

It’s also not too soon to establish and build positive social media profiles. Students need to understand that what they share online can and will be seen by potentially “everyone” (school personnel, employers, mentors, sponsors, scholarship committees, etc.), which means keeping their profiles free from negativity.

Also, encourage your child to do a little digging on social media in their areas of interest and follow individuals and companies they’re curious about. Also, determine which social media platforms are best suited for their interests and spend the most time on those.

For example, a basic Facebook profile is for social purposes only, but there are other types of Facebook pages. It’s also good to know, according to Mediakix that about 88% of people who have a presence on only one social media platform are on Facebook. And, although Twitter is the least popular platform of the major four social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, it may be a great platform for their interests.

LinkedIn is a social media platform with a business focus and purpose to help people network professionally. I strongly encourage your child to create a profile. At the time of this writing, the minimum age to create an account is 16. Consider this a fun way to begin designing their desired lifestyle.

They can also begin creating a resume (if they’ve worked and provided volunteer services). Again, it could be a fun project to figure out how to create one.

The Internet is one gigantic public record. As such, it’s very important that they responsibly manage what they post, which means no negative posts by them or about them.

Remember, viewing social media profiles is part of just about every application process today, for anything. People have easy access to our online images and brand. It’s up to us to make sure these reflect where and what we want, and how we want to be seen. This is a simple reality that we must consider when moving and shaking in the educational and career arenas of today.

Selecting Their College(s) of Choice (WHERE)

Every year there’s a ridiculous flood of magazines and reports that come out where colleges vie for you and your child’s attention – it’s all part of their marketing plan to get you to invest in their college, and in return they promise they’ll invest in your child.

Colleges do some investing, but if they were making good on all of their promises – spoken and inferred, we wouldn’t have a mound of research asking if college is worth it, reporting on college debt and or highlighting students’ inability to secure jobs in their major after graduation.

Lots of students are dropping out of college. Lots of students are dragging through barely making it to the finish line. And, lots of students graduate with a degree, debt and no job prospects in their field of study.

THE TRUTH IS: There is no BEST college for your child to attend.

Again, don’t begin with choosing a college, begin by choosing your child.

Depending on what your child requires and desires, a number of colleges can serve as an incubator for their success.

Absolutely, consider their dream college, but also consider their in state college of choice – the difference in price can be substantial.

Launching with an in state college to take core or general education classes, then transferring to their dream college to complete the courses in their major of choice is a financially smart decision. Help your child to understand this throughout the process so you don’t get into a situation where you both believe they have to attend their dream school from the start.

Also, this whole process requires your child to be in the driver’s seat, not you.

My intention isn’t to challenge or offend here, it’s only to share what I’ve experienced.

When a child is in the driver’s seat, there’s some accountability and responsibility, which leads to their buying into the outcome.

As human beings, we’re wired to want to figure things out for ourselves. It gives us a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment, meaning and fulfillment.

Think back to when your child was just a toddler. Toddlers will pull away or push you away when they’re learning how to do something because they want to do it themselves. This doesn’t stop as we grow into adolescents.

Being responsible for our decisions is also part of being an adult. Teenagers are always claiming adult status, especially when they turn 18 years old. It’s part of the process to move away from dependence and move towards independence. This is a great time to jump start this transition by allowing them to create their own map and slide into the driver’s seat.

Many parents may say, “Hey, I’m the one footing the bill, so I’m the one doing the driving.” I get it. College costs a lot of money. Piddling around and not knowing what you’re doing can drag things out – more juggling, more time, more stress and more money.  You also understand the complexities associated with this process, so you want to ensure your child’s success throughout the application process.

May I offer a little piece of advice? Encourage them to take the wheel on this. I have been educating, mentoring, coaching, and advising youth for a few decades now, and I know they love figuring things out for themselves. We all do.

Because this generation of young people has been raised with more (obviously this isn’t the case with every young person) – more stuff, more money, more access, more coddling, more everything – than previous generations, they’ve been conditioned to expect their parents to do a lot for them, but that’s not what they really want, nor is this preparing them to succeed independently in the real world.

Commitment, discipline, persistence, patience, self-confidence and resilience take root and become part of our tool boxes through use and practice.

Can they learn to be responsible and accountable later? Of course, we can always learn new ways, new behaviors, take on new mindsets, but forming new habits and disciplines is even more challenging and as we get older. We become more risk averse and the fear of change seems to have a tighter grip.

True, no one is an island, but you know what I’m talking about here. Just imagine someone making every decision for you and me. I don’t want that and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.

They have to learn to solve problems, make decisions, stumble and make mistakes – that’s how they learn and soar on their own.

Plus, they need some great stories to pass on to their kids and grandkids. Great stories aren’t forged from having everything laid out and provided for you, they rise out of struggle, challenge and overcoming obstacles.

Above, I mentioned a dream school and an in state school, which may be the only applications your child needs to complete based on how engaged and prepared they are in the process. If that makes them (or you) a little nervous, select no more than a total of five (5) schools of choice. Any more can get really expensive.

NOTE: if you and your child are intentional and make conscious choices throughout this entire process, you probably won’t even need to apply to more than two schools. 

However, to expand their knowledge of the college culture, I suggest researching at least ten. Why? They’ve never gone through this process before (even if you have). I don’t suggest applying to all 10, but researching a variety of schools broadens their knowledge of what’s available, what they can expect and what they can request.

BUT, before your child does anything, please have them CREATE A LIST of what they REQUIRE AND DESIRE as a college student and what they require of a college.

Have your child move through this extensive list FIRST, then identify which colleges to research. It’s important that your child addresses WHAT, WHY, WHEN, WHO, WHERE AND HOW MUCH throughout this entire process. Again, make it a fun fact-finding mission.

College Require and Desire Questions

  • Do you want a urban, suburban or rural college experience?
  • Do you want to attend school in or out of state?
  • Do you want to attend a large or small school?
  • Do you want to attend a college with a strong sports program or not?
  • Do you want to participate in greek life, join a sorority or fraternity?
  • Are you interested in participating in student government?
  • Do you want to work while attending college or not?
  • Do you want to live on or off campus?
  • If you attend college close to home, do you want to live at home or on campus?
  • Are you a morning, afternoon or evening person? When is your energy at its peak?
  • Are you interested in joining any clubs or organizations? What are your interests?
  • If you live on campus, would you consider applying to be a Resident Assistant (RA)?
  • Are you interested in leadership programs?
  • Would you be interested in writing for the school newspaper or being part of their media staff?
  • Do you want to take early morning, afternoon or evening classes?
  • Are you interested in attending a college where some of your friends are attending or do you want to attend a college where you don’t know anyone, initially?
  • Do you want a car or are you cool using public transportation to get around?
  • Do you want roommates? How many?
  • How often do you want to visit home?
  • How often do you want your family to visit you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you love to do – hobbies and/or work?
  • Do you enjoy reading?
  • Do you enjoy writing?
  • What kind of electronic devices do you need for college?


This is a good list to get started. Encourage your child add to it. The more they know up front about what they require and desire to feel comfortable and equipped as they start college, the better.

Students can encounter a variety of emotional, mental and spiritual issues that may lead to physical issues. I’ve learned to skillfully detect and address these if they decide to work with me as their mentor.

Getting sidetracked by the external stuff can certainly derail students, but what’s going on inside their minds (beliefs and perspectives) and hearts tend to create the biggest challenges and obstacles to them successfully completing their college journey and doing so in four years.

Every student is different. Every college is different. You want your child to apply to the college(s) that will provide an experience that helps them blossom – nurture their interests, align with their personality and natural rhythm, provide support and a host of other considerations.

Here are a few questions to consider about the college and its culture to get them started:

  • Where is this college located?
  • What type of college is it?
  • How safe is the surrounding area (city)?
  • Is it a residential or commuter school or both?
  • Does the city have an intelligent transportation system of is it limited?
  • What kind of housing do they provide?
  • What kind of majors do they offer?
  • What resources are provided for transfer students?
  • What kind of activities do they provide – academic, sports, greek life, etc.?
  • What do they accept in the area of academic credit?
  • Do they give credit for CLEP (College-Level Exam Program) exams?
  • What’s the student population?
  • What’s the graduation rate?
  • How much is college tuition – in state, out of state, per semester, over four years?
  • What’s the percentage of financial need provided?


You get the point, there are so many factors to consider, which means asking LOTS of questions. You don’t have to consider every factor. Just consider the factors most important to your child and the ones that will have the biggest impact on your child and you. Notice that I put your child first. I will continue to advocate for your child taking the wheel and driving throughout this entire process.

Absolutely, ask questions, provide support and help when they get stuck, but long-term, the child will benefit most when she or he is sitting in the driver’s seat with their hands on the steering wheel.

Visit the top three college campuses of your child’s choice. Of course, this depends on where the college(s) are located and your budget. Lots of colleges have programs that give prospective students a taste of what it’s like to attend. For example, there are “fly-in” programs, which provide two – three day college tours for prospective students and the college may take care of the transportation, food and housing during that time. This is another big question to ask when doing research so you can take full advantage of a program like this for prospective students, if it’s available.

Why three? It doesn’t have to be three, it can be one, but three typically gives your child a grasp of each school’s process and a feel for some different campuses. Remember, this is a fun fact-finding mission.

Determine application fees, deadlines, and any other details related to completing the application. I suggest having your child keep a spreadsheet, or use some kind of tracking document or smart application to collect all of this information. This will prove handy when it’s time to make decisions.

Capturing all of this info is not only part of the initial decision process, it serves as training and practice going forward; it provides a solid info-gathering model for your child as they navigate the many processes along their four-year college journey.

Know the college’s requirements – GPA, test scores, essays, and other requirements. Reviewing the college application website page(s) and/or document(s) BEFORE they proceed can be quite helpful.

Depending on their college(s) of choice, there could be a variety of options and stages associated with applying. This is where doing the research, diving into the site, finding their FAQ page (for example), even making phone calls to staff in the admissions, financial aid and college of study departments to inquire can make all the difference.


Ready, Set, Go (WHEN)

In my humble opinion, having ongoing, informal and fun conversations with children about who they are and what they love to do is the best approach.

As they move into high school, these conversations can naturally deepen and increase, coupled with lots of fun experiences where they can explore and experiment with work and lifestyle design.

Freshman year in high school and freshman year in college are the best years to begin planning, when you start. To reiterate, encourage your child to take on odd jobs, volunteer, shadow, intern or informally interview others in their early teens. It doesn’t have to be about planning for college. Make it about being fascinated and curious about life, because it is.

We take all of this so seriously. Have fun with it. Choose consciously. Prepare early. Remember, it’s really all a game and we can choose to play the way we want.

It all has to start and end with your child. And, they have to be in the driver’s seat. They need to be allowed to have creative control over where they land and what they do.

They’re sowing the seeds of their adulthood, which is why it’s important that they take responsibility for this process. I encourage parents to sit in the passenger seat and imagine you’re in one of those driver’s ed cars, you know the ones that have a break on the passenger side as well.

When I was close to driving age, my parents arranged for me to take driver’s ed. My dad had already taught me how to drive, but they wanted me to understand what I was required to know to obey driving laws and pass my driving test.

The dude who came to take me driving had one of those cars that had a break on the passenger side. As I recall, he didn’t have to use it often, but he did have to use it a couple of times.

This is what I recommend during this transition. Pretend you have a break on the passenger’s side as a parent, but let your child buckle up in the driver’s seat. You can always push the break on your side when you feel it’s necessary.

Getting Your Bucks in a Row (HOW MUCH)

We can’t lay out a solid launching plan without talking about the money needed to fund this big transition.

Again, I encourage you to start casually chatting with your child about how much college costs and the ways to pay for it early high school.

Include them, don’t leave them out of the financial part of the conversation.

Here I go again with my humble advice: Encourage them to make a contribution in this area. In fact, they can start checking out college tuition on a couple of sites during their first year of high school. This gets them thinking about it.

Of course, many parents start saving for college when their kids are born, others may start at different times over the course of their child’s life. Others wait until college is upon them and then they start seriously thinking about it.

Check out a 529 college savings plan, which is touted as a great way to save for college with tax benefits. I urge you to ask lots of questions about this plan, as I’ve heard mixed responses about its benefits. This plan can be opened by anyone.

If your child decides to take on part-time jobs during the summer or on the weekends during school, perhaps encouraging them to save a small percentage of their paycheck is a good practice. We tend to appreciate things more when we have to use our own money to pay for them. I’m not talking about expecting them to foot the entire bill, but they can certainly contribute something.

Have them come up with some creative ways to pay college tuition. Again, the best way to tackle this project is to make it fun. It’s all in how it’s presented. You can make it a collaborative effort.

Regardless of when this conversation starts, 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade, it begins with numbers; how much?

Have your child do a little research about their dream school and an in state school. Have them find out what it costs to attend these schools per year. Then, have them calculate how much it will cost to attend for four years. They can create a simple spreadsheet to capture all of the numbers. I’m sure your child can find apps like College Fair or others to assist with college comparisons.

Going to college isn’t just about tuition. That’s the school’s portion for courses and on campus services. There’s still room and board; books and supplies; transportation costs (car maintenance, if they’ll have a car, gas and insurance, traveling home for holidays and visits, any time they need to get from here to there over those four years); clothing; food; recreation and other expenses.

I work with college student clients who’ve been attending college for 2, 3, 4+ years and every semester they struggle with how to pay for school and other expenses. It’s painful to watch. With a little more planning, much of the stress and overwhelm associated with this could be reduced or alleviated.

Many students overlook scholarships. They may feel it’s beneath them to apply for help so they take out a loan, which is still asking for help with years of interest attached. They may feel it requires too much work. Others just don’t believe they will qualify for any awards because they associate scholarships with merit. Scholarships are awarded based on a ton of different circumstances.

Billions of dollars of free cash for college are accessible for students willing to do the research, planning, applying and who meet the requirements.

  • No, you don’t need to be destitute to qualify for scholarships – many middle class and above families are eligible; what determines financial need varies greatly.
  • No, you don’t have to be a high school senior; there may be opportunities as early as middle school.
  • No, you don’t have to have straight As.
  • No, you don’t have to be an athlete.

I could go on; you get the point.

Many scholarships are in plain sight while others are hiding all over the place. There are scholarship awards for students with a single parent; for students who are hearing impaired; for students who are instrumentalists or vocalists; for students who live in a given state; for students who are in specific years in college – freshman, sophomores, etc.; for students who belong to specific organizations; for students in specific majors; for students attending community college; for students who live in certain communities; for female students; for male students; for students with children; for students who have experienced foster care or homelessness; for minority students; there are career-based scholarship awards; there are scholarships based on physical disabilities, the list goes on and on.

Where do you start? The Pell Grant. According to the Federal Student Aid site, Federal Pell Grants are typically awarded to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or professional degree, and they don’t have to be repaid, except under certain circumstances.

Did you know that billions of dollars of free federal grant money have gone unclaimed due to incomplete applications and those who opted not to complete the application. Many parents conclude they won’t qualify. How do you know unless you try?

Before your child completes the FAFSA, have them visit the Federal Student Aid website to create their FSA ID, which will serve as their legal signature. You’ll need to create one as well. Your child can only create their FSA ID using their personal information, for their exclusive use. The same applies to you.

FSA ID Image

After they’ve created their FSA ID, they should complete the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) for the 2018-19 academic year. Every student should complete the FAFSA. Even if you think your family income disqualifies you for funds, all I can say is ‘you never know.’ Many have been surprised. Changes in circumstances and income may have an impact.

For the 2017–18 award year (July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018), the maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $5,920. Be aware that amounts can change yearly. 

Starting in 2016, the FAFSA application became available October 1st, which is three months earlier than prior years. It is recommended that your child complete it as early as possible and include each college they plan to apply to. If you know there will be some changes in your circumstances or income soon, you may want to wait.

NOTE: It is very important that your child complete the FAFSA, not you. 

Take the time to gather all of the necessary documents so you have everything ready when you begin, which is why I strongly recommend reviewing the paper PDF version of the 2018-19 application BEFORE completing it online. Yes, you can go in and out of the application, your child just needs to remember their password and share it with you. It is very helpful to review what’s required beforehand before diving into the online version.

I also suggest having your child print out and complete the FAFSA on the Web pre-application worksheet, which will help collect and organize their and your financial information needed for the FAFSA.

REMEMBER: Before your child completes the FAFSA, you’ll both need to create a Federal Student Aid (FSA)  ID, which provides access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems and can serve as both of your legal signatures.

Here are a few additional things to consider:

  • It’s a good idea to apply for college and financial aid together
  • Print out a hard copy of the FAFSA application and review it together with your child before completing it online
  • Print out and complete the FAFSA on the Web pre-application worksheet before completing the FAFSA
  • Gather all of the necessary documents and info
  • When asked at the end of the Step One section if you are interested in being considered for work-study, check “yes” even if you plan not to; it shows the financial aid department that you need money; you’ll have the choice later to accept it or not
  • Don’t miss priority deadlines; a lot of schools award funds on a first come, first served basis; usually, all submissions are received equally up to the deadline; check for the admissions application deadline AND the priority financial aid deadline for your child’s college(s) of choice
  • Include every school your child is applying to attend (there’s room for four schools); you can always go back and add others, but start with 2-4
  • Only use your FSA ID to electronically sign the FAFSA when it’s ready for submission; remember, the FAFSA belongs to your child, the student, and should be completed by him or her
  • Read instructions and questions carefully; careless errors can delay processing and reduce or cause you to miss out on funding
  • Make sure your child’s name matches the name assigned to their social security number
  • Every situation is different; don’t compare you and your child’s situation to that of another family; if you have a question, go to the official site or call for answers
  • Patience with college financial aid departments and FAFSA representatives helps with any situation related to money and college; being impatient or short-tempered can make the process more challenging
  • Don’t procrastinate; give yourself a long runway to prepare and complete what’s required before taking off and submitting the FAFSA
  • Don’t forget to click submit; you’d be surprised to know that some miss out because of this simple oversight
  • Always print a copy of your application and your receipt for easy reference and your files
  • Follow up after you file; colleges have a lot going on and can lose forms, so please follow up to confirm everything you submitted was received and in order

For even more information, visit the FAFSA Help page. Because there’s so much information floating around, I suggest you stick with the FAFSA site or contact by phone to answer detailed questions.

Know that state aid may also be available. Refer to your state’s website for more information. For example, if you live in the state of Georgia, encourage your child to create a account and check out their Hope and State Aid Programs page. 

Again, there’s no shortage of free money available. It requires early planning, research, patience, commitment to mining for all of the funding you’ll need, persistence, creativity and a long-term vision of completing in four years.

Finally, encourage your child to create a calendar (paper or online) that notes deadlines for application and scholarship submissions, etc.; and reminders to make initial and follow up phone calls, send thank you emails and cards via snail mail, etc.

Because most folks want to take the most convenient approach with the least amount of effort, there can be great benefits in making your interactions personal.

Encourage your child to send a personal email, make a personal phone call, or send a personally written thank you card via snail mail that’s professional, honest and reflects their true feelings of gratitude (decide which approach is the most appropriate and personal depending on the situation).

Steven Covey in his Seven Habits for Highly Effective People is famously known for the habit: Begin with the End in Mind. I also love the phrase, “How you begin has a lot to do with how it ends.”

I could spout off quotes all day related to the wisdom of planning and giving your child a long runway in which to get to know themselves better (i.e. who they are, how they want to show up in the world, where they want to land, what they want, what they want to contribute in the world of work); research; plan; explore; experiment; and make choices.

If you leave it all to chance, there’s a chance your child won’t launch successfully, which may translate to a more challenging journey that jeopardizes how they finish.

Or, worse case scenario, you and your child invest all of that time, effort and money into the application and launching process, and they decide not to finish at all.


“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.” – Jim Rohn



Signup for your FREE College Prep Consultation and let’s discuss your biggest challenge right now. It’s a great way to jump start your planning process. I look forward to chatting with you!

RobbiCHeadshotRobbi Crawford is a fierce student advocate and professional mentor who is playfully serious about living, working, contributing and connecting intentionally. She loves helping students and their families set their own compass and play the college game better. Learn more about her NEW podcast, The Robbi Crawford Show and subscribe on SoundCloud,  iTunes or Stitcher.


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