How to Pay for College – Learn From Other Parents’ Mistakes

Paying For College

How to Pay for College – Learn From Other Parents’ Mistakes

Published March 20, 2018 | Last Updated April 24th, 2024 at 08:57 am

Paying For College

The college admissions process (and the high school years leading up to it) are arduous and stressful, but we mustn’t forget to appreciate how exciting a time this can be as well.

Most parents will feel a sense of relief by May 1, the official Decision Day, when their child makes the final determination about where to attend college. Unfortunately, for many parents, that relief is short lived as their worries turn to figuring out how to pay the college bill.

I feel particularly sad when I get phone calls and messages from friends and readers asking for advice on different options for loans and where to find the best rates. In many of these conversations, my friends will admit they should have started earlier understanding how to pay for college and they should have done more research.

It’s frustrating knowing I could have helped these friends and readers more, but I couldn’t get their attention at the right time. I know, people want to avoid dealing with topics that are difficult and unpleasant, but that doesn’t prevent the inevitable – that your child is going to college and you’ll have to pay for it, somehow.

I recently posted an article with a chart that gives parents a quick look at what their SAI might be based on their adjusted gross income.

The flood of comments from the parents in our Paying For College 101 Facebook group should be a warning to parents of 9th, 10th & 11th graders – don’t delay in understanding the financial aid process, figuring out your SAI, and how to do research to find affordable colleges BEFORE your child applies.

If You’re a Parent of an 8th – 11th Grader, Read These Comments…

“You basically have to go into it expecting nothing from FAFSA. Make a list of schools you can afford so there are no surprises. Look for schools that give good merit awards. Some will even post it on their pages.”

“My daughter got into a school she wanted. Our responsibility was nearly $170,000 for 4 years. This. After she received good grants and aid. And, oh yeah…we have 3 kids! Unless you have the cash sitting there, it’s just no longer possible. I’ve been sad for days.”

“It’s so sad when you see First Time In College FTIAC* Parents…first generation students. The shock on their faces when you explain the student loan cap to them. Then the Parent Plus Loan…it is just awful!”  *FTIAC – First Time In Any College

“We have done some research and have learned that if my daughter becomes a teen mom or goes to prison, college will be virtually free. Hmmm.”

“I just burst into tears. We will have 2 in college in two years. We’ll be living in a van down by the river for sure!”

“My daughter got accepted to the #1 college of her choice… But can she attend? Um, No… It’s 67K per year and we really don’t have that kind of cash lying around. Sad part is FAFSA thinks we do! It just doesn’t pay to be hard-working middle class folk trying to make an honest living!  Forgot to add — this school does not offer ANY merit-based scholarships, so basically if you don’t qualify for financial assistance, you get zilch!!”

“This is all so sad and disheartening. I am sick of high school always promoting ‘getting in,’ but not having the conversation about ‘how to pay for it.’ And not everyone is a valedictorian.”

“The SAI provided by FAFSA is not a reality, it’s a joke! Each college my daughter applied to, our true out of pocket expenses were nearly 3 times our SAI.”

“I did everything wrong when it came to playing the financial game for college with my high school senior!! If we could come up with our expected contribution we would need to live in a shoebox and we didn’t get a PENNY of $.”

10 Tips for Helping Parents Pay for College

I wish I could say that if you listened to me and read everything I suggested you would never have a problem paying for college – then I’d be a national hero! I can’t solve all the problems in the comments above, but there’s a good likelihood you could avoid some of these issues by starting early to become an educated consumer of higher ed.

Here’s some quick and dirty advice, that if some of the parents above had followed maybe they wouldn’t have ended up in the situations they did…

1) As soon as possible, find out your SAI (Student Aid Index), as shocking as it may be.

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. Best to give it their all from the beginning.

3) Although many schools are 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 aidhow the SAI is calculated, what year will be your FAFSA base year, possible strategies for shifting income, when to maximize retirement contributions and when not to, the ins and outs of 529 plans and how much to put in one in your name vs. a grandparent’s name.

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

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.

8) Make sure your student’s list of colleges is “financially balanced,” and includes schools with tuition you know you can afford 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 max out at $31,000. 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, KNOW THE RISKS of cosigning a student loan, KNOW THE RISKS of taking out a Parent Plus loan, KNOW THE RISKS of taking out a home equity loan, and DON’T touch your retirement savings.

If you’ve read this far and you don’t want to be like one of those parents behind the comments above, check out our R2C Insights tool.

This will help you organize all the data you need to do a thorough college search. 

It combines data from IPEDS (government data) and Common Data Set information in ONE place to sort, filter, and compare colleges the way you should to find affordable colleges and those that are generous with merit or need-based aid.

In addition, you will be able to :

  • Compare the average net price of over 1,500 schools
  • See which school offer the best financial aid
By using the information in R2C Insights, my middle child was accepted to the first 3 schools she applied to and received merit scholarships ranging from $5k to $30k per year!


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:

Understanding College Costs: The Role of the Net Price Calculator

How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps for the Answer

Dear Roadie: My Son Told Me to Butt Out, Then Got Rejected by His Top Colleges. What Now?








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