The act of drawing up college contingency plans is entirely antithetical to the passion-filled optimism pulsating through the average teenage brain. Counting on your son or daughter to put careful thought into their post-secondary backup plan is like expecting Romeo & Juliet to respond to their parent-mandated break-up with a shrug of the shoulder and an unemotional resolve to “see other people.”

Trust us, your son or daughter is going to be focused on their top choice or choices with tunnel vision akin to that of the famed Shakespearean couple. Even if your child is of the Valedictorian/perfect SAT ilk, who is focused on attacking his or her applications to Ivy and Ivy-equivalent schools with military precision, they are unlikely to be planning sufficiently 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 will be of equal importance.

Conquering the thoughtful selection of at least one financial safety school is a hurdle that your child will, in all likelihood, need your help with—it is also a concept that few parents fully understand.

How is a financial safety school defined?

The criteria for what constitutes a financial safety school, of course, 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. Their standardized test scores, GPA, class rank are significantly above the averages for an accepted student and even best those in the 75th percentile at that particular institution.

2) You, as parents, are comfortable covering 100% of the tuition plus room & board plus other fees. This doesn’t necessarily mean that 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.

Does everyone need a financial safety school?

Every college applicant, even those at the top of the applicant food chain need a safety school but not everyone needs a financial safety school. If you have a wealthy relative covering all college costs, over 200k in your child’s 529 account, or happen to be extremely well-off yourself, then you do not need to worry about picking a financial safety school.

The most expensive schools in the country which include institutions such as NYU, Harvey Mudd, 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 (if graduating in 4 years), significantly more than the average home price in the United States. If that number doesn’t make you cringe, then you can stop reading this blog post right now. For everyone else, for whom reading that dollar amount likely set off a paroxysm of dread and anxiety, read on!

Pick a school that is actually a good fit

It won’t be hard to find to find an abundance of 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 that you would genuinely like to attend, considering for location, availability of majors of interest, extracurricular activities, etc.

Like any other phase of the college selection process, this will take time, research, and careful consideration. To illustrate we offer a realistic example…

Example scenario

Jenny lives in Delaware. Her parents enjoy a combined annual income of $135,000 but do not have much money stashed away to cover their daughter’s college tuition bills. She has a SAT score of 1370, has taken seven AP courses, and ranks in the top 10% of her class at the public high school she attends. Jenny wants to major in economics and would prefer to stay on the East Coast to be within a reasonable car ride from her family. Brandies and Colgate University, both known for their top-caliber economics programs, are her reach schools as she knows that her numbers are bit below their average accepted applicant. Lehigh and Bucknell in Pennsylvania, Trinity College in Connecticut, and George Washington University in Washington D.C. are her target schools, at which she is confident that she has a 50/50 or better chance at admission. Safety schools have been kind of an afterthought but Jenny is thinking that she’ll fill out applications for Rutgers, Syracuse, and Iowa State. So let’s examine, what is wrong with these choices?

As a Delaware resident, Rutgers won’t come cheap. Syracuse is a private school with exorbitant tuition costs and while she is likely to be offered some level of merit aid, this is a complete uncertainty and when we’re selecting our financial safety school, uncertainty doesn’t cut it. Jenny picked Iowa State because it is reasonably affordable and ranked fairly high in economics, but there’s just one problem—Jenny wants to stay on the East Coast and has little interest in spending four years at a school in the Midwest.

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, the school admits two-thirds of its applicants, her SAT score ranks well above the 75th percentile, and the total four-year cost would be right around $100,000, making Delaware ideal from both an admissions and academic standpoint.

CT’s bottom line

Planning for doomsday scenarios is not nearly as exciting as dreaming about an acceptance letter from your dream college, but it can be a very dangerous task to neglect. Those who thoughtfully selected a quality financial safety school, will be able to breathe a little 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 of the application process, parental intervention may be necessary to ensure that your teen does not experience the college-admissions equivalent tragic fate met by the young lovers from the houses of Capulet and Montague.

Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).