Dear Roadie: Do Parents Need to Become College Admission Experts? I’m So Lost

Woman looking out a woman, finger to her mouth, looking concerned

Dear Roadie: Do Parents Need to Become College Admission Experts? I’m So Lost

Published July 7, 2024

Woman looking out a woman, finger to her mouth, looking concerned

Dear Roadie, 
I’m the mother of a 10th-grader, and I’m realizing I need a crash course in college admissions. I just read that Ivy League schools can cost $80,000 or more per year and don’t even provide merit scholarships. Is that true? After seeing that article, I feel like I don’t know anything about paying for college these days. I don’t even know where to start. Can you help?
— Concerned About Money Already

Dear Concerned About Money Already,

I understand the sticker shock. Paying for college can feel daunting and certainly overwhelming, even if you consider your finances better than most people’s. The cost of college has simply skyrocketed in recent years.

Recent figures show Ivy League schools like the University of Pennsylvania are up to $90,000 per year for full-time, undergraduate students. Multiply that by four years, and that’s just about the price of the average home in America.

To help you wrap your head around college costs, let’s start with your 10th grader. Is your high school sophomore an exceptional student with unusually high GPAs, test scores, and a challenging courseload that includes several college-level classes? If they are, great, he or she is on their way to being a potential Ivy League candidate, but keep in mind that even then, the chances of being admitted to an Ivy League school are slim. Most have acceptance rates well below 10 percent, and several have overall acceptance rates that are less than 5 percent (Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale). This means exceptional grades and scores alone aren’t going to cut it. 

Ivy League schools also do not generally provide scholarships based on merit or athletics, but several do offer free tuition if the student’s Student Aid Index (SAI) is below a certain threshold. That said, many other scholarships do provide aid based on merit and athletics; you’d just have to find and apply for them on your own. 

The First Step in Paying for College

Before we dive any deeper into Ivies, it sounds like your concern is about paying for college in general, so let’s assume your student will also be applying to other schools as well. 

The first step is to consider how much you’ll be able to pay, regardless of where they attend. Once you know that, assess whether there is likely to be enough money set aside for the type of school your student wants. For example, the average cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year schools is somewhere around $11,000. The next less expensive option would be community colleges, which is an excellent path for many students as they get their general education requirements out of the way. Private, four-year colleges average about $42,000 per year.

The second step is to make a likely college list and include a mix of:

  • safety schools where they exceed admission requirements
  • target schools where the student is right on par with admission requirements 
  • reach schools with lower admittance rates or those where your student falls below the average range for admitted students 

It’s OK if your student is still a high school sophomore and isn’t entirely sure where they want to go to school.  Even just listing a few possibilities can help you realize what those scenarios are likely to cost, so you’re not surprised in two years when the time comes to make decisions.

Now comes the money part. Too many students and families wait until they’ve taken a few more steps before they even begin considering the financial part, and that is where they get stuck.

Look at your list of targets, safeties, and reach schools, and make note of the Cost of Attendance (COA) at each of those colleges, then eliminate any that are far beyond your affordability. Affordability means you can pay for it with little to no outside assistance, including scholarships. Every school has a breakdown of its COA on its website, so it should be relatively easy to find. 

Start Difficult Conversations Early

If your child is set on Ivies but can’t afford it and you’re not likely to be able to demonstrate extreme need, now is the time to start a conversation about the unlikelihood of this option. If your child insists they’re willing to take on debt to make it happen, use online student loan calculators to demonstrate what those payments will look like when they graduate relative to what they are likely to earn — and for how long. 

Then demonstrate the likely scenario if they attend a more affordable college, especially if they plan to attend graduate, law, or medical school. The difference is eye-opening.

If you’re not likely to be able to afford even a local in-state school or community college, that’s OK. Many families are in the same situation. Here’s where having two years of high school left can work in your favor. Once your child and you understand what types of schools they are likely to apply to and what they’re likely to cost, you can make a plan. 

Perhaps your student can pick up a part-time job over the next two years to help save for college. They can also have plenty of time to spend researching potential scholarship opportunities. School counselors are a great starting point, so consider making an appointment. Also, more than 30 states have some type of free tuition program based on everything from need to test scores and GPA. Now would be a good time to look into what programs your state may offer (remember, you’re going to need to have safeties on your list). 

When the time comes, be sure to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The requirements for federal student aid have changed recently and you never know who may qualify. If you do end up having to take out loans, the federal loans program offers some of the lowest interest rates, which is another reason why it’s worth applying to the FAFSA.

Finally, less selective colleges tend to offer more scholarships and merit aid, so they shouldn’t be overlooked. This doesn’t mean they’re not great schools. It just means they’re easier to get into than some other schools but they’re well-funded and resourced. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to offer scholarships and merit aid, especially to out-of-state students.  

The difference between your SAI and the COA is the gap you may need to fill. Knowing that now when your student is still a sophomore puts you ahead of the vast majority of other families, so consider yourself farther along than you think!

Have a perplexing college question? Email Dear Roadie for advice at dearroadie@road2college.com


Use R2C 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.  

👉 Looking for expert help on the road to college? See our Preferred Partner List!

Other Articles You Might Like:

Dear Roadie: Should I Tell My Daughter Not to Bother Applying to Unaffordable Dream Schools?

A Parent’s Guide to the Pros and Cons of Community College

How Many Colleges Should You Apply To? Use This Method




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