The cost of college, and who is paying for it, can be one of the most difficult conversations to have with a teenager.
Why? To start, money simply isn’t a topic of discussion in many families. Secondly, there can be a wild disparity between what a teenager thinks is a reasonable cost and amount of debt versus what his/her parents think.
Full sticker price at some colleges is over $300,000 for four years, akin to purchasing a home. This is a decision that takes great care, and the first step is to start talking.
The good news is, very few people pay full sticker price. The better news? Open and honest communication about college costs and expectations can go a long way in reducing stress as you navigate the college process.
Here are five things to consider when discussing the cost of college with your teenager.
#1: Be Transparent
Choose a good time to sit down with your child and be very clear with your numbers. While this can be an emotional conversation because it’s addressing the “elephant in the room,” set aside any guilt over not saving enough (very few people feel as though they have).
The goal here is to align expectations and then do your research. Be transparent on the following points:
- Exactly how much you have saved
- How much you’re willing to borrow in loans
- The amount of any other contributions (e.g., from grandparents)
- What your expectation is for their contribution (“skin in the game”)
- Expectations for student employment to cover extra expenses
- Everyone’s pain threshold for debt
- The degree to which these amounts are fixed
#2: Knowledge is Power
You do not need to be blindsided by the cost of college. There are three reliable ways to predict the cost and get a sense of aid potential:
- FAFSA4Caster. Enter basic financial information and this tool will help you estimate your eligibility for federal financial aid. Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will give you a good idea how much colleges will expect you to pay.
- Net Price Calculators (NPC). Visit any college’s website and locate this tool. Enter basic financial information and the NPC will estimate your eligibility for institutional aid, both need-based and merit-based.
- Common Data Set (CDS). Google any college’s CDS and you’ll find a wealth of information about institutional aid, including what percentage of students receive aid, the average amount of financial aid awarded, average needs-based scholarships and grants, etc.
#3: Consider Future Earnings When Assessing Level of Debt
There’s the cost of college, and then there’s the value. A critical component to conceptualizing the value of college is comparing debt to future earnings.
What will the return on your investment be?
When trying to assess whether the expense of a certain college is worth it, research both individual colleges and general salary data for a chosen field. The U.S. Department of Labor’s careeronestop can help you compare the standards of living associated with the earning potential of a chosen field.
The CollegeBoard report “How Much Debt is Too Much” suggests that students should not devote more than 8 percent of their gross income to repayment of student loans.
#4: Explore the Possibility for Merit Aid
Think your student needs to be ranked at the top of the class to receive merit aid? Think again.
Of the private colleges and universities in the United States, 94% offer merit scholarships. In addition, 100% of public colleges and universities offer some sort of merit scholarships. (Ivy League colleges do not offer merit aid.)
If maximizing the possibility of merit aid is a goal, your child should apply to schools where he/she would be in the top 20% academically of students accepted. Use the Net Price Calculators to see what the chances for merit are.
You can also check out our College Data Spreadsheet which helps families identify colleges where their student is in the top 20% percentile academically at the schools that are more generous with merit scholarships. Finding colleges that give out the most merit aid is key.
#5: Strategize and Keep Communicating
Now that you are discussing how much you are willing to pay and exploring what colleges of interest might cost, download our Financial Aid Toolkit to keep you and your student on track with everything you need to do to get the most financial aid you can.
Learn more about your loan options and compare interest rates as well. Seeing how a loan equates to a monthly payment can bring this conversation into sharp focus. Taking care to do your homework at the beginning can save a lot of grief in the end.
Your teenager may or may not be able to comprehend the magnitude of what college costs, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a source of stress for them.
“Apply and hope for the best” is a terrible financial strategy. Luckily, in a sea of college-related grey area, there are a wealth of tools at your disposal to make it black and white.
Keep the channel of communication open through the process. The goal for your child is to find a college that’s a good fit from an academic, social, extracurricular, and financial standpoint.
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