Lee Schafer
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One reason to pick up a book described as a “field guide for college preparation” for the parents of high schoolers is for insight into what always seems like the biggest challenge, and that is somehow paying for it.

The advice is there, in this book by Cold Spring author and educator Jon McGee, just not in a way you might expect. McGee framed it as advice for helping a family decide what is worth paying for.

It is approaching the high season for college visits for prospective students, and parents tagging along need to understand that they probably have a different role in the college search than they once thought — particularly in helping define what choices seem like the best value.

One theme in McGee’s work is that parents of kids aiming for college could start by relaxing a little. There is not one correct choice, not with more than 4,000 colleges and universities to choose from, and almost all families have limits to what they can afford to pay.

While college isn’t right for all kids, it is the choice for about seven out of every 10 Minnesota high school graduates, more than half of them enrolling in a Minnesota four-year college. The kind of college McGee clearly knows best is a place a little like St. John’s University, where he has served for years as the vice president of planning and strategy at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, a sort of Minnesota Twins of Catholic liberal arts colleges.

McGee is now the head of the St. John’s Preparatory School, also at St. John’s. He is also a father of four who expects to have kids in college into 2027, and for the past several years he has been right in the thick of helping sort out college options and figure out how the family’s going to pay for it all.

In a recent conversation, he talked about how he had been asked by a mom what would happen if her child made “a bad choice.” What could she mean by bad? How would she even know? The only bad college choice, he said, “is an unconsidered choice.”

McGee notes that colleges and universities are great at pumping out data like faculty-student ratio, but less great at helping prospective students understand what might be important in a number like that. Colleges also publish lots of information about tuition, fees and so on, and they all have a net price calculator on their websites.

And, just to remind everyone what higher education now costs, the price of undergraduate attendance at Minnesota State University, Mankato, is now north of $21,000 a year. At the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business, the cost for undergraduates is more like $31,000. Even families at the top end of upper-middle-class might look at $125,000 and think there is no way to fund that, yet it is a bargain compared to the list price at private colleges. At St. Paul’s Macalester College, the all-in cost for one year now approaches $70,000.

It is never smart to reject an option based only on list price, McGee advises. As for how to pay for it, his advice starts with saving whatever you can and as early as possible, even during the newborn phase. Money set aside increases the options when the child approaches the college years.

It is sometimes said that having savings just penalizes the family in the financial-aid process, but McGee said it doesn’t really work that way. The most likely outcome of not having college money saved beforehand is much higher student borrowing.

The rest of his advice is difficult to lump under bullet points, but it includes the wisdom of having an ongoing family conversation on what the financial limits really are, what things really cost, who has to pay and what’s really of value.

McGee knows that the money talk often doesn’t happen, because for years he looked at survey data at St. John’s and St. Ben’s in which first-year students estimated their parents’ financial situation, and then compared that to the facts in the financial-aid forms. Students were just as likely to overestimate their parent’s income and net worth as underestimate.

“The saddest cases are parents who only sort of cobble together, and I mean only sort of, the first year,” McGee said. “And there’s three more years.”

One problem with borrowing money for college is that the loans are simply too easy to get, “the easiest of the easy money, if you are eligible for it,” McGee said. Loans would be easier to turn down if there were something tangible at risk, some pledged asset like a house securing the mortgage. All the student has to mortgage is the future — hard to envision at age 17.

And what do the students want that can be worth this kind of risk? This is how parents can be really helpful, helping their prospective college student with open-ended questions on what kind of person they think they are. Get the kids talking about why they want what they say they want out of a particular kind of college experience.

What do kids really need at college? It might be small classes or specialized technical programs. It might mean the opportunity to keep playing music or sports, for kids not skilled enough to audition into a top-flight ensemble or join a Big Ten team.

Training for jobs and careers must be part of the discussion, but McGee always advises to look at college as something far more than a financial transaction. Students are supposed to try something they haven’t tried before, read books they have never heard of and hear ideas that never came up around their house.

Not long ago McGee talked to a group of kids and parents, reminding the juniors and seniors within earshot of their parents that over the next year or two they are going to be asked repeatedly about what major field of study they will pursue. They need to resist answering the question.

Just ask the parents, he said, if they knew with certainty at age 18 how it was all going to work out.

And if people my age, the parents, are really honest, they would have to say they didn’t have the first clue.

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302