Choosing a Financial Safety School

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Making college contingency plans is entirely antithetical to the passion-filled optimism pulsating through the average teenage brain. Counting on your son or daughter to make a post-secondary backup plan is like expecting Romeo and Juliet to respond to their parent-mandated breakup with an unemotional resolve to “see other people.”

Even if your child is focused on attacking his or her applications to Ivy League schools with military precision, he or she is unlikely planning for a less-than-ideal outcome of a safety school. For those without unlimited funds at their disposal, having what is known as a “financial safety school” should be of equal importance.

Financial Safety Schools Defined

The criteria for what constitutes a financial safety school varies based on your child’s unique academic profile, as well as your own financial situation. However, two tenets of a solid financial safety school are universal:

1. Your teen’s chances of acceptance at this college are pretty much guaranteed because of his or her standardized test scores, GPA and class rank are significantly above the averages for an accepted student — and even better than those in the 75th percentile at that particular institution.

2. You, as parents, are comfortable covering 100 percent of the tuition, room and board, and other fees. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have the cash on hand to cover the entire expense — few do. But it does mean that you have a plan to cover the cost, even if it means taking out low-interest government loans.

Who Needs a Financial Safety School?

All college applicants, even those at the top of the applicant food chain, need a safety school. But not every applicant needs a financial safety school. If you have more than $200,000 in your child’s 529 account or happen to be extremely well-off, you don’t need to pick a financial safety school.

The most expensive schools in the country, which include institutions such as New York University, Harvey Mudd College and the University of Southern California, all cost upwards of $66,000 dollars per year, translating to a grand total of $264,000 for a bachelor’s degree, significantly more than the average home price in the U.S. If that number doesn’t make you cringe, you can stop reading this column right now. For everyone else, read on.

Picking a Good Fit

It won’t be hard to find colleges and universities that meet the above criteria. The challenge will be finding an institution that meets both of those critical standards and is a school your student would genuinely like to attend. Here’s an example scenario.

Jenny lives in Delaware. Her parents earn a combined annual income of $135,000 but do not have much money saved to cover college tuition bills. Jenny has a SAT score of 1370, has taken seven AP courses and ranks in the top 10 percent of her class at her public high school. She wants to major in economics and stay on the East Coast.

Lehigh and Bucknell universities in Pennsylvania, Trinity College in Connecticut, and George Washington University in Washington D.C. are Jenny’s target schools, at which she is confident she has a 50-50 or better chance at admission. For safety schools, she will fill out applications for Rutgers, Syracuse and Iowa State universities. Let’s examine what is wrong with these choices.

Rutgers (out of state) and Syracuse (private) universities won’t come cheap, and while Jenny is likely to be offered some merit aid, this is an uncertainty.

The perfect financial safety school for Jenny is actually in her own backyard. The University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics has a strong reputation and admits two-thirds of its applicants. Her SAT score ranks well above the 75th percentile and the total four-year cost is right around $100,000, making the University of Delaware ideal from both an admissions and academic standpoint.

The Bottom Line

Planning for doomsday scenarios is not nearly as exciting as dreaming about receiving an acceptance letter from a dream college, but it can be a dangerous task to neglect. Students who thoughtfully select a quality financial safety school can breathe easier as they await financial and merit aid notifications from their top-choice schools.

While your young adult can and should be in the driver’s seat through much the application process, parental intervention may be necessary to ensure he or she doesn’t experience the college admissions-equivalent tragic fate met by the young lovers from the houses of Capulet and Montague.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions and co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at