10 Tips for Helping Parents Pay for College

Man writing a check

10 Tips for Helping Parents Pay for College

Published September 6, 2019 | Last Updated July 20th, 2023 at 01:25 pm

Man writing a check

I wish I could say that if you followed everything we suggest here you would never have a problem paying for college.

If that were true, we would certainly become national heroes!

Unfortunately, we can’t solve all the problems with college admissions and rising tuitions, but there’s a good chance we can help you avoid some debt and anxiety over paying for college.

Follow the 10 tips below for helping parents pay for college AND make sure you start this process early to become an educated consumer of higher ed.

Some Advice on Paying for College

1) As soon as possible, find out your EFC (Expected Family Contribution), as shocking as it may be.

Thinking About How To Pay For College? You Must See This Chart!

Learn How Your EFC Is Really Calculated

2) At the start of high school, explain to your child that doing well academically in high school will help in many ways. Grades in each year of high school contribute equally towards creating their GPA. So, getting higher grades in 11th grade doesn’t override not such good grades in 9th. It’s best to give it their all from the beginning.

Which Hurts Your Chances More: Low Grades or Low Test Scores?

3) Although more colleges are going test-optional, a lot of schools (even test-optional ones) still give merit scholarships based on test scores. So, doing well on the PSAT, SAT, and ACT isn’t just for increasing their chances of admissions, it’s also for trying to get more merit money to put towards tuition.

4) Learn everything you can about financial aid – how the EFC is calculated, what year will be your FAFSA base year, possible strategies for shifting income, when to maximize retirement contributions and when not to, how much to put in a 529 plan in your name vs. a grandparent’s name, and more.

Avoid These Common FAFSA Mistakes

10 Income Strategies To Reduce Your Cost Of College

5) Research, research, research, and target colleges that are more generous with need and merit aid BEFORE your student applies.There’s lots of data to help with this: % of financial need met, % of students receiving financial need, % of students without need receiving grants, average grant size, and more.

Using Data To Find Merit Scholarships

Top 30 Colleges With the Largest Merit Scholarships

6) Have a serious conversation about money and how much you can afford to pay towards college BEFORE your student starts the college search process.

7) Use each school’s net price calculator to see what your family’s net price will be for all the schools your student is interested in.

Figuring Out How Much Financial Aid You’ll Get

8) Make sure your student applies toseveral “financial safety” schools, where you know you can afford the tuition based on the school’s net price calculator.

9) Stick to the idea that the only loans your student will take out are the Direct student loans from the government, which total $31,000 after four years of school. This should limit their debt to a manageable amount after they graduate.

10) As much as you’d like to be able to pay for more, DON’T cosign on a student loan, DON’T take out a Parent PLUS loan, DON’T take out a home equity loan unless you absolutely understand the ramifications of each one of these. And under no circumstances should you touch your retirement savings.


Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

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