Skip to main content


Choosing the Right College: 5 Questions to Ask

13 Minute Read

In the initial flurry of browsing college websites and discovering some of the fascinating fields of study you didn’t even know existed, getting ready to send your child off to college is an exciting time for both of you. But with the rising rate of tuition, that excitement doesn’t usually extend to the part where you have to figure out exactly how to pay for that education.

With each passing school year, the cost of a college education becomes even more of a major investment. And like all sizable monetary commitments your family makes, it requires a great deal of thought and discussion.

Here are five essential questions to consider as you and your child make this important decision together:


1. How Do We Choose the Right School?

Despite any aspirations you had for your child to attend a particular college, like your father’s Ivy League school or your own alma mater, keep the ultimate goal in mind—an education that leads your child to a successful and happy future.

To begin to map this out, it helps for both of you to create a list of objectives for the college experience. Objectives can range widely from size and cost of institution to strength in a particular major to whether the school is in “laundry distance” of home. Then sit down together and go over your separate lists to see where they match up and where they differ. This helps prepare both of you for a more intelligent discussion about which colleges best match the majority of objectives on your respective lists.

Despite any aspirations you had for your child to attend a particular college, like your father’s Ivy League school or your own alma mater, keep the ultimate goal in mind—an education that leads your child to a successful and happy future.


Steve Sherline, Managing Director and Head of Private Wealth Management for Union Bank in Southern California, also recommends that families center their planning within the context of some hard realities.

“The current trend has at least half of students not graduating in four years, and a third not graduating at all,” warns Steve. “Families aren’t typically aware of these grim statistics—and colleges and universities appear to be just fine keeping them in the dark.”

In fact, recently reported that 2018-2019 data out of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has just 41 percent of first-time, full-time college students earning a bachelor’s degree in four years, and only 59 percent graduating within six years.

It’s also important to keep in mind that not every successful career needs to start with a degree from a prestigious four-year college. “Studies show,” says Steve, “that the most important factors for a successful education are related to how engaged the student is with professors, projects, mentors, and extracurricular activities and organizations. It can really pay off to find a school that provides an all-around environment where your child can be both motivated and comfortable.”

This rich experience can also be found at two-year community colleges along with internships or apprenticeships. This track might be especially appropriate, for instance, if your child intends to ultimately join the family business and would most benefit from experience in the field. Alternatively, depending on your child’s career plans, a vocational or trade school might be more suited to both their needs.

“Bottom line,” says Steve, “there’s no advantage for either you or your child paying for a four-year education when experience in a particular field might be all that’s required—or even desired.”


2. What Is the Best Way to Pay for College?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, rising rates put the average annual cost for college in 2018-2019 at $37,430 for a public, four-year, out-of-state school and $48,510 for a private, nonprofit, four-year school. Factor in the fact that not every child will graduate in four years and those costs will only go up from here.

Whatever your financing plans, one of the best ways to save early is in a taxadvantaged account. Some of the most popular options for college savings include 529 plans, Coverdell Savings accounts, and Education Savings Bond Programs. As far as how much to save, you can use this gauge as a starting point: if you want to cover 50 percent of your child’s college costs, try to save at least $5,000 every year in your designated college fund. To cover 100 percent of college costs, you would need to double your savings each year. The later you start saving, the more you will need to put away. Also, total costs will vary greatly depending on choice of school and number of years enrolled.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, rising rates put the average annual cost for college in 2018-2019 at $37,430 for a public, four-year, out-of-state school and $48,510 for a private, nonprofit, four-year school.


Be aware too that you don’t usually have to pay the full price tag for a college education. If you and your child are willing to devote the time it takes, it can be well worthwhile to search for scholarships, merit aid and grants to ease some of the sticker shock.

For example, if your family is not eligible for Financial Based Need, there is a plethora of merit-based scholarships for particular majors, social group memberships, and other criteria. A great source is the Peterson Guide to Cash for College, which lists thousands of grants and scholarships for students of all types. The key is to start the application process no later than the early part of your child’s junior year of high school.


3. What Is the Return on Investment for My Child’s Education?

One easy way to put your child’s college education into perspective is to compare tuition with how much money they stand to make after graduation, and then factor how many years they would need to work to break even on the investment. This is also a good exercise to help them take at least a first cut at whittling down their list of candidate schools and fields of study.

Predicting your child’s future salary before they even graduate can be a difficult task, but it’s not impossible. Begin by talking about their aspirations and career goals, then estimate how much money they can realistically expect to make out the gate based on those projected goals. To research salary ranges for specific job roles in particular markets, you can refer to websites like and

“Although there is little doubt that making an investment in higher education leads to professional opportunities with larger income potential,” Steve says, he cautions that, “with the cost of college rising faster than the rate of inflation, another widespread myth that doesn’t hold up well under closer scrutiny is that investing in an expensive, yet popular, school will pay off in the long run.”

“Studies show that post-graduate salaries can vary widely depending on major,” Steve points out, “but not so much on whether the graduate went to an elite private school versus a public state university.”


4. Should My Child Help Pay for School?

This is a big question to ask before the school selection process even begins. What role—if any—will your child play in financing their education? If you decide to have your child pay for part of the investment, there are plenty of ways they can help fund their college tuition.

One of the more common ways is taking out student loans, but you will want to think hard about whether your child will be able to realistically absorb and pay off any student debt in post-graduate life or be left with an anchor of debt for many years to come.

“I think from a responsibility standpoint,” offers Steve, “it is really important to have your kids assume some ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to the cost of their college education, especially given the statistics that a third of students won’t even graduate and nearly 60 percent will take up to six years to earn a bachelor’s degree.”

If you want to avoid loans, consider having your child contribute in other valuable ways that aren’t strictly monetary. Paid internships, for example, can help students gain relevant experience while attending school. Have your child talk to an advisor or sign up for job notifications on school-run job boards.


5. How Much Should We Allow for Other Expenses?

The College Board is an excellent resource for parents hoping to gain a better understanding of what some of the ancillary expenses associated with college might be. For example, the estimate for books and supplies for an average full-time undergraduate student at a four-year public college is about $1,298. Food is also an essential cost to factor in since some estimates put college food costs at $4,500 for a three-meals-a-day dining contract that covers the traditional eight months of a typical academic year. Check with an institution’s bursar office or central billing office to find out how much it will cost to keep your child fed during the school year.

In addition to contacting your child’s school, try creating a budget with your child. This budget should not only include the essentials but should also allot an amount to extra spending money. To be even more proactive, you can also consider opening a joint checking account or a joint credit card with your child to ensure they will have enough money while away from home. Be sure to have a preliminary conversation with your child to make clear any expectations you might have for how they spend the extra money you plan to provide, so you both have the same understanding from the start of the school year.


We can help

Families who take the time to weigh all their options are more likely to make an educated decision regarding their child’s college selection and the financial responsibilities that go along with it. These five questions are a good guide to begin navigating this next step in your family’s life. The Private Bank is here to help. We will work with you to understand your unique situation and evaluate the many options that might be available to you and your child.

Subscribe to Perspectives

Get in touch with The Private Bank

Build a financial partnership to last a lifetime.

Connect with The Private Bank

Wealth planning strategies have legal, tax, accounting and other implications. Prior to implementing any wealth planning strategy, clients should consult their legal, tax, accounting and other advisers.

This is a publication of The Private Bank at MUFG Union Bank, N.A. (the Bank). This publication is for general information only and is not intended to provide specific advice to any individual. Some information provided herein was obtained from third-party sources deemed to be reliable. The Bank makes no representations or warranties with respect to the timeliness, accuracy, or completeness of this publication and bears no liability for any loss arising from its use.


Privacy Policy