How Grandparents Can Help With College Admission
If you’re planning on helping a grandchild through the college admissions process, know that the game has changed in major ways over the last several decades. Selectivity rates have gone up–in some cases shockingly so–in the wake of the pandemic. Yet even before the pandemic, acceptance rates at elite universities were decreasing dramatically. At the same time, the cost of college has been steadily rising well above the inflation rate. To cite just one metric: in-state tuition and fees at public schools has increased 212% in the last 20 years.
These statistics may look grim, but I want to give an accurate picture of the landscape. It’s a very different world from when your kids and you were applying to college! Still, there are meaningful ways that you as a grandparent can help shepherd your grandchild’s college admissions journey (beyond just financial help). Below are three ideas.
Encourage your grandchild to network with key people at their desired university
Working professionals understand the value of networking. Consider two applicants vying for the same job. If one can demonstrate that they’ve made personal connections with current employees, and how they plan to build on those connections in the future–they’re much more likely to get the job! The same dynamic applies to students applying for college acceptance, though students are less savvy to this reality.
You as a grandparent can encourage your grandchild to take advantage of this “secret.” Perhaps you can help your grandchild connect with someone they’d be interacting with if they were to attend their desired college. For example: if your grandchild is an aspiring engineer, encourage them to connect with someone in the engineering department, be it a faculty member, current student, or alumnus. Show your grandchild how to make an introduction, ask questions, and follow up with a thank you. Now, the student has a connection which they can leverage in their application essays and admissions interviews. I encourage students to grasp this principle: “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.” The sooner your grandchild can understand this reality and leverage it, the more successful they’ll be.
Help your grandchild find their X Factor
I tell my students that admissions officers are looking for applicants with an “X” factor: experience + expertise + exponentialism. Here’s what I mean by that:
-Experience: The student gains exposure to a particular activity to see if they like it.
-Expertise: If the student clicks with the activity–be it Model UN, choir, robotics, baseball, etc.–they delve into their interest and show a certain level of mastery. For example, a student might write a research paper or a series of blog posts, perform a recital to which they invite community members, or arrange a conference for students with the same interest.
-Exponentialism: This is where the student gives back their knowledge and experience and makes a reverberating impact on many other people’s lives. Note that exponentialism goes beyond mere “community service” that is not tied to the student’s interest. To truly stand out to an admissions committee, a student should demonstrate how they’ve helped others in a way that’s aligned with their interests.
For example, my student, Mike exponentiated his attractiveness to his chosen college by taking a bold step: writing and self-publishing a book. Mike took his love of writing and ran with it–yet Mike didn’t do it alone. Mike formed a peer group to review and edit his work and keep him accountable to his self-appointed deadlines. Rather than join an existing writing club, Mike initiated his own; his peer group, in turn, got a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to write and publish a book.
You as a grandparent can help your grandchild think outside of the box when it comes to determining their “X” factor. Presumably, you have connections and spheres of influence beyond your grandchild and their parents–i.e., your place of worship, anywhere you may volunteer, business organizations, etc. Consider: is there a crossover between your social networks and your grandchild’s interest? Think creatively about how your grandchild can identify their “X” factor and stand out.
Offer financial help
Help with tuition is where most people’s minds go when the topic of grandparents and college admission assistance comes up (and for good reason). If you’re planning to help your grandchild financially, here are some things to keep in mind.
First, to avoid gift taxes on financial gifts over $15,000, make your financial gift directly to the college rather than depositing it in your grandchild’s 529 account or to your grandchild directly. Due to new changes on the FAFSA, a student will not be penalized if their grandparent helps pay for college (good news!), so your financial contribution will not impact the amount of aid your grandchild is eligible for. (Note: the new FAFSA regulations will not come fully into effect until the 24-25 school year.)
If you do wish to make a contribution directly to your grandchild’s 529 account, you may be eligible for a tax deduction–if you live in a state that offers a state income tax deduction for 529 contributions. Do your research and see if you’re eligible for this benefit.
One last note about 529’s: if you have one established for your grandchild, be strategic about when you draw out the money. When you withdraw, the money is counted as “untaxed income” for your grandchild, which means they’ll be eligible for less financial aid. (This will remain true until the new FAFSA form is fully phased in.) One way to avoid this is to transfer the 529 to your adult child: the money will then be counted as a parent asset, which will not impact your grandchild’s financial aid eligibility as much as “untaxed income.”
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Whether or not you’re able to contribute financially, you can play a significant role in helping your grandchild through college admissions. Take this opportunity to deepen your relationship with your grandchild. Remember that in a potentially fraught time, you can provide a steadying, wise presence.
Dr. Aviva Legatt is the author of “Get Real and Get In: How to Get Into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self.” She is the admissions expert and founder of Ivy Insight, the gold standard in college admissions consulting for undergraduate elite college applications. An in-demand leadership and college admissions speaker with a fresh perspective, Dr. Legatt has been hailed by the New York Times as a trustworthy expert on college admissions and recognized as an expert in corporate culture and diversity as a faculty member for Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania.