When it comes to paying for college, be realistic and do your homework

It’s that time of year when families are mentally processing their high school senior’s college financial aid award and quietly freaking out. I know I was doing that last year, and I had researched my patookie off to learn the costs of my daughter’s college choices in advance. We used net-price calculators to gauge financial aid, yet we still got caught up in hoping for a stratospheric windfall from one of her preferred schools.
A couple colleges were generous with aid — in fact, they met our “need” — but that pesky “expected family contribution” on our FAFSA was still ours to pay. We live in a state whose public schools don’t offer big scholarships to anyone, and our EFC equals the cost of an in-state college, so living at home and commuting was the only cheaper option. At least I was somewhat mentally prepared for the price tags of the colleges she had applied to.
But many families have that deer-in-the-headlights look right now because until they received the financial aid letters this spring, they had no idea how much college would cost. A friend recently posted on Facebook how angry she was that our state’s flagship school wasn’t offering her daughter any need-based aid other than a small loan. I remember that feeling from last year. My straight-A daughter was accepted to the same university, and of seven colleges, it was the only one that didn’t offer her a dime. I was mad. But it was kind of my issue. If I had dug deeper, I’d have learned that, as a rule, this school doesn’t give scholarships to in-state students, even those who are top scholars. The paltry scholarships it does award are reserved for nonresidents, and I could have told my friend her daughter wouldn’t get any money. Still, it’s hard not to hope.
That’s the crux of it, though. We can moan and groan about college costs, but it’s up to us to do our homework because hope isn’t a strategy. Deciding at the last minute — like this young man and his family did — to take on burdensome debt isn’t in our young people’s best interest. Or our families’.
The hard part, of course, is when no college is affordable. The sad truth is that college costs have increased so much, so quickly that many middle-income folks can’t keep up, even if we plan carefully. Because, you know, the cost of living.
But it’s us regular income folks, especially, who need to research cost. For most, that means not getting caught up in a brand-name school. Sure, if your kid is an amazing scholar who’s found a cure for cancer, there’s room for aiming high, but make sure their college list includes a few non-brand-name schools too. Don’t make kids crazy with stress thinking that those colleges that fully meet need are the only answer. Those are tough schools to get accepted to, so make sure they have an affordable backup plan.
In short, go where the money is. It won’t be at the highly selective colleges. It won’t be at those California UC schools either because those are hot and they’re public. It might mean a regional state school. It might mean commuting. That doesn’t mean kids should rule out selective colleges entirely. I know students attending selective colleges on good need-based aid, including my daughter. But her college still wants a quarter of our income (the same as the cost of a public in-state school), because that’s how our FAFSA rolls.
Information on college costs abounds; families just have to take the time to learn about it. Yes, families are busy, but this is one big enchilada you and/or your kid are paying for. And you can’t start teaching yourself about college costs in the spring of your child’s senior year. That’s way too late. I started reading up during my daughter’s sophomore year in high school because I’m like that. It still didn’t shelter me from the shock.
Colleges are under no obligation to offer our kids a hugely discounted ride just because we didn’t do our research. You can argue what you will about the insanity of rising college costs, and I’m right there with you, but we still have to do our homework.
If you have a high school junior, learn your EFC. Knowing what the feds expect you to pay is a huge head start to preparing, if only mentally. This calculator helps you predict both your federal EFC and your institutional EFC (for private colleges). Most people want to vomit when they see the number. But at least you’ll know it.
After that, tell your kid what you can afford, and give him parameters for his college search. Prestigious public or out-of-state universities likely won’t be your friend. Expensive private colleges might do a good job of meeting your financial need, but not if they reach schools for your child. Your child will do better applying to schools that want them. Look at schools where grades and SAT/ACT scores fall in the top third or quarter.
Use net-price calculators on the college websites to see what they predict (be aware, some are not great; the more they ask, the better they are). Play with grades and scores to see what kind of merit aid spits out. If it doesn’t ask for grades or scores, your child might be aiming too high. It depends on the school. My daughter’s school didn’t ask for academics and rarely gives merit aid, but she got a chunk of need-based aid because they wanted her. The net-price calculator did a good job of forecasting the award, although we didn’t count on it until the letter arrived. Be sure to learn about “gapping” (colleges offering admission without enough financial aid) and “front-loading” (a package that offers more for freshman year than later years) because college is a four-year (or more) plan.
The biggest challenge is figuring out how to start the search. It’s overwhelming, and your student probably has their own ideas of where to go. Mine sure did. Start talking to friends with older kids, especially friends in the same income bracket. Learn what their favorite resources are. I’ve included a list of mine below.
My second child is starting junior year of high school in the fall, and I’m not looking forward to going through the process again. The part that keeps me up at night is this: I do have a handle on college costs, and it still feels untenable. I’m kind of hoping for a gap year in our house. One that doesn’t cost any money.
Favorite resources:
Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting and family travel. Find her work atwww.joannanesbit.com or follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.

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