7 Steps for Having the College Costs Talk
The last thing any parent wants to do is tell their child that their dream school is too expensive.
Unfortunately, sometimes you have to.
Jackie Plante Collari, a Massachusetts mom and former engineer, had just that dilemma with her daughter Gina, who had her heart set on Northeastern University.
“You know how they show you in the movies when a student walks on campus and they just know it’s the one? “ she asks. “That’s how Gina felt about that school.”
However, it was over $20,000 more expensive than other schools she gained acceptance to after merit awards were accounted for.
In addition, she didn’t know what major she wanted to declare or why it was a better school for her.
Gina protested for two days, but then gave in to picking a school that was less expensive.
She even thanked her mom for looking out for her future.
Three years later, she’s happier at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in the honors college, and feels comfortable with just the debt from the Stafford loans she was awarded.
Here’s how the financial talks progressed:
1. Gina was told she could apply anywhere she wanted, but she also had to apply to a financial safety school
Her mom said she could apply to her dream school, but despite her pleading, she couldn’t apply early decision.
Applying early decision, where the student has to accept if offered admission, meant she was more likely to get in. However, schools are more likely to offer less financial aid to students they don’t have to compete for with other colleges.
Instead, she requested early action, where the school makes decisions as soon as possible instead of the student having to. Her financial safety school was the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
2. Then she visited the top colleges on her application list
While Jackie had a state school in mind the whole time–University of Massachusetts Amherst’s honors college–her daughter went on college visits from New Hampshire to DC while waiting to hear which school accepted her.
The visits gave her daughter an opportunity to learn more about the various schools, so she could tell her parents why each one made academic sense for her.
Both Gina and Jackie visited the University of Massachusetts together.
Gina wasn’t thrilled, but she she did talk to a few girls from the dorm who told her how much they loved their experience.
3. Jackie looked at the Net Price Calculators at the schools her daughter applied to and she put the results into a spreadsheet
While they were waiting for acceptance letters, Jackie looked at Net Price Calculators for all the schools Gina applied to and estimated how much aid she was likely to receive.
Her initial offers ended up being close to what was offered at each college.
At most of the schools she applied to, Gina scored in the top 25 percent of their incoming class on ACT scores. Jackie also entered the all-around costs into the spreadsheet.
For instance, she anticipated spending more on extras if her daughter ended up attending and living at Fordham University in New York City.
For other schools, she allocated money for trips home.
Gina was shown these expenses and also told at every step of the way the maximum amount of debt that was acceptable for herself and her parents.
Jackie’s sister had gone to Columbia and always regretted the amount of debt she took on.
4. Revise numbers based on real offers and do a new review
Gina was rejected by Harvard and Yale.
She was waitlisted at Tufts, and accepted to several schools including American University, Catholic University, Fordham, Northeastern, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Each school offered Gina varying amounts of merit scholarships and grants.
At this point Jackie gathered all the information from the financial aid award letters into a spreadsheet.
The goal was to show Gina how much money each school was offering, and the final net cost beyond Stafford loans for each, all on one sheet.
5. Jackie asked Gina’s dream school for more cash
Jackie didn’t want her daughter to have to give up on her dream school if there was any way she didn’t have to.
She knew of students who majored in engineering who easily recouped tuition just from working in co-ops throughout college.
Any work experience for sign languages she could find was unpaid.
She called the financial aid office at Northeastern to see if they could offer more aid. They did, but they couldn’t give enough to make a difference.
She was also told about a community college alternative for the first two years that fed directly into the sign language program at Northeastern for the final two years.
Gina wanted the full college experience.
And, she wasn’t committed enough to sign language translation as a career choice to attend a community college first.
6. Offer your student a chance to justify decisions
Jackie let Gina state her case as to why each of the three top schools could be a good fit.
But, ultimately, there weren’t enough academic reasons in Gina’s argument that could have justified making an annual commitment of at least another $15,000.
Jackie might have been swayed if Gina had made a case for a specific major at a school where top-quality professors wrote books and helped get internships for their students.
7. Gina and Jackie picked a final school together
Jackie and Gina picked the University of Massachusetts Amherst where Gina is now a junior in the honors college.
She’s an RA this year, a pre-dental major, a math tutor, plays field hockey, goes sailing, and is in the ski and snowboarding club.
As an added bonus, they later learned that Tufts has accepted University of Massachusetts students into their dental school.
To pay for some of the costs, Jackie is borrowing money through a private lender because the interest rate was lower than with Parent PLUS loans from the government.
Conclusion: Applying to and picking colleges is an important decision. Make finances part of the conversation, but not the whole conversation, at every turning point
This article is sponsored by College Ave Student Loans. To fill in gaps after other aid is awarded, check out their private student loan rates and see how they compare to parent PLUS loans.