Many of us see no choice other than to take the Parent PLUS loans, cash-out or borrow from 401(k)s, remortgage our homes, pull from IRAs, decimate savings, squeeze our monthly budget, or take a second job to pay for our children’s college education.
But parent to parent, I’d like to tell you, there are some other options, tactics, and best practices that help.
The college admissions and paying for college system is broken! (Understatement of the year.)
And what’s worse, not enough of us are aware of the things that can help minimize the financial impact of paying for college on our families.
Help With Paying for College
This is why I love the Paying For College 101 Facebook group. I have learned so much here that saved my family real, actual money. Significant money, if I’m being frank.
For example, early on, I learned the importance of and difference between choosing schools that meet a high portion of demonstrated need vs. schools where my children’s stats make them eligible for merit scholarships. (This can dramatically change how much any school will actually cost.)
I learned to enter our information in the net price calculator (NPC) of any college my child is even considering—long before visiting or applying.
I learned to what extent our parental savings, assets, and income will actually impact our children’s financial aid offers. (Hot tip, put as much as you can into 401(k) or retirement savings because whatever you already have saved up in retirement funds won’t be counted as money you’re able to pay like money sitting in a savings account would.)
[Read more in How FAFSA Calculates Your EFC]
I learned to create a list of schools which at-a-glance revealed key facts and NPC estimated costs for colleges my children are considering.
Most of us realize that affordability isn’t based on a college’s sticker price, but it’s really based on how much we have left to pay after all institutional financial aid is offered.
The key to actually leveraging this information is too often overlooked.
Figuring out how to pay for college has as much to do with how strategically you approach the college admissions process as it does with how much money you have to pay for college.
Don’t Fall in Love With a College
Don’t risk falling in love with any college in the first place if it will require overly drastic measures for you to afford it!
This might be the biggest takeaway that too many parents and students struggle with. And wind up making crippling, expensive, hamstringing financial decisions as a result.
For example, in my case, there was a really great, prestigious college that my daughter (a rising college freshman) and I really liked. It had all the things we were looking for.
It has a fantastic program for her major. The school is set on a beautiful campus. It has a high four-year graduation rate. It is geographically within a few hours of our home and it has a great job-placement track record. Plus, my daughter was eligible for one of the top merit scholarships.
The school offered her a fee waiver to apply and a free weekend to visit the campus and stay in a dorm. Sounds great, right?
Who wouldn’t jump at this free opportunity?
Thankfully, we didn’t. And it was because of a strategy I learned from members of the Paying for College 101 group.
I ran the NPC first and discovered that even with the biggest scholarships, this particular school would still wind up costing us more than double our EFC every year.
So she didn’t take the free visit, didn’t apply, and didn’t risk falling in love with that school.
Instead, she focused on other great schools that had a net price estimate that would be at (preferably far below) our EFC.
My Top College Advice
I thought sharing what I’ve learned might help some parents and students who are entering the process right now. As a parent who went through this in 2016 with my oldest son, in 2018 with my daughter, and again in 2019 with two more children, this is my advice:
Be selective about which schools you’ll even consider. And remember, it’s the net price (and whether or not it includes loans) that should be the determining factor as to how affordable any school will wind up being.
You can’t choose which schools your student will love but it’s a whole lot easier to choose which not to love from the beginning of your selection process vs. the end.
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HOW TO PAY FOR COLLEGE
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