How should families approach the college search?

New York Times financial columnist Ron Lieber and his wife had set aside money for their daughters' college education, and he'd used his platform to provide college saving and spending guidance.

But feedback from readers revealed they were seeking criteria by which to justify the level of outlay.

"I realized I had missed the question of 'What to pay for college?' and that was a question about value," Lieber said in a phone interview. "Parents started to ask me where is the big data set that explains why, for example, Northwestern's tuition is more than Champaign."

So Lieber set out to find answers. Those became the basis for his New York Times best-selling book "The Price You Pay for College" and his upcoming webinar on the topic at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 1, sponsored by the local school districts and D181 Foundation (see page 24 for details).

While a school's prestige, alumni network and job placement record can be important factors, Lieber said emotional and social considerations are also vital.

"It's not just, 'Is my kid going to get a job?' but 'What is my kid going to learn? 'What is the return on friendship going to be? Will they be happier and more well adjusted than when they started?' " he advised.

Of course, affordability looms large, as it does in making a major consumer purchase like a home or car.

"An undergraduate education is a sort of luxury product for people," Lieber said. "For some, your most efficient path financially is probably through community college first and then your local state university. And there's nothing wrong with that."

Lieber spoke with a number of college presidents about the challenges families have in identifying the best fit.

"(The presidents) are hearing that they need to work a little harder to prove themselves more," he remarked.

Lieber was surprised to discover the wealth of options available.

"There are all sorts of schools out there that most people have never heard of that do an incredible job of helping undergrads get smarter and giving them a credentials that are meaningful in many industries," he said. "It deserves more investigation and self-knowledge and emotional intelligence about what your child's needs really are."

Then at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, Lieber will present the webinar "How to Talk to Your Kids about Money," helping parents impart healthy habits.

"I want people to have a better sense of how and when and why to have these conversations and what to say when you do," he said.

He said how we manage money speaks to larger character traits: spending reflects our level of modesty, saving fosters patience and giving demonstrates generosity and gratitude.

"It's useful to reflect and become evermore aware of your own good fortune and privileges that can come with that," he said.

Instituting a 24-hour timeout before clicking the order button on that discretionary purchase, for example, can help counteract the on-demand mentality.

"We need to slow kids down dramatically, particularly the first 10 years that they are spenders," he said.

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean