Paying for College 101: College Financing Best Practices
Sending a child to college is never easy—financially, logistically, or emotionally—but going at it alone is even more difficult.
To address these challenges, Road2College established its popular Paying for College 101 Facebook group, which defines itself as “a place for families to discuss and ask questions related to financial aid, college search, test prep, merit scholarships, private scholarships, college applications, student loans, college costs,” and much, much more.
Since 2015, the group, which has nearly 91,000 members, has provided the parents of college-bound children with a forum to share their struggles, offer advice, and enjoy each other’s company.
Just what have the group’s members learned over the past five years?
Completing the FAFSA
Paying for College 101 group member Faith launched a thread on college financing best practices.
She highlighted the crucial role played by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
“You should fill out FAFSA so your kid can obtain federal student and Parent PLUS loans (if you need them), work-study, and grants,” she said.
However, Faith was also quick to point out the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that FAFSA applicants receive can be misleading.
“Your EFC isn’t what you should expect to pay out of pocket for your kid’s college unless you end up at a true meets-need school (and they are tough to get into),” she said.
“Some people have really high EFCs and won’t spend that much per year, whereas others have low EFCs and will spend triple, quadruple, or more per year in college.”
Faith’s comments are an important reminder that, despite its central role in marshaling financial aid, the FAFSA is no substitute for long-term planning and budgeting.
As other commenters pointed out, colleges’ net price calculators tend to estimate out-of-pocket costs far more accurately.
Paying for College 101 is home to many contributors with FAFSA experience and tips.
Members who commented on Faith’s post recommended that families dedicate a notebook to their FAFSA login information and keep an eye out for mail from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
“I learned that 30 percent of FAFSA submissions are selected randomly for verification, and how to request an IRS non-filer letter for my older son.
As a result I wasn’t worried when schools asked for verification information, and I already had the IRS letter in hand when they requested it.” –Shannon
Challenging Truisms – Are State Schools Less Expensive Than Private Colleges?
Another popular topic in the group is tuition, more specifically, which colleges charge the most for it.
Many college applicants assume that in-state schools will be less costly than out-of-state schools, and public schools cost less than private ones.
Several group members indicated, though, these stereotypes don’t always hold up. In states with expensive in-state tuition, it may be more sensible for college-bound students to consider out-of-state options.
Shannon (and others) highlighted the importance of keeping an open mind: “I am learning about schools I never heard of before, and getting ideas for schools that might be more affordable than our schools here in Illinois.”
Additionally, some families find that private schools are generous enough with aid to outcompete their public counterparts.
“Your student may get more merit money by applying to private colleges they can easily get into instead of ‘stretch’ schools.” –Maureen
Making the best college financing decisions for your family might require jettisoning preconceived notions. The wisest choice is one made with respect to your student’s needs and circumstances.
Tempering Your Student’s Expectations
Another common feature of the college hunt is disappointment. The joy of receiving an acceptance letter can easily give way to the frustration of realizing the financial aid offered doesn’t go quite far enough.
As with so many other parts of the process, it’s best to go in prepared.
“One of my biggest takeaways was to talk to your child before applying so your child knows what you as parents can realistically pay for.” –Kara
Paying for College 101 group members also warn against placing too much stock in the mythologized “Meets-Needs college,” which covers every last dollar of a student’s recognized financial need.
“Almost all of them have extremely low acceptance rates. Therefore, it’s a good strategy for some to target ‘meets needs’ schools, especially if you have a high-stats, low-income situation.
However, if your kid is unlikely to get in, your efforts are probably best invested elsewhere.” –-Shelley
Both Faith and Wendy add that, because some colleges include loans in their definition of financial aid, it is safest not to take these claims at face value. A school may meet your student’s needs for four years, and then leave them with a bill post-graduation.
“I’ve learned that kids will be more realistic if you explain the end game finances with them—how they will essentially have a mortgage to pay when they graduate if they’re not reasonable.
Go to a college where you won’t be a little fish in a big sea.” –Jennifer
“Aim for schools at which your student would project to be in the top 25th percentile among accepted students.” –John
Building a Community
Although the Paying for College 101 group is a great place to pick up college financing tips—remember to request a waiver for application fees if you qualify; chase merit aid, even outside your state; you can appeal a college’s financial aid offer; be careful in whose name you place a 529 savings plan—not all of its benefits come in the form of money saved.
The group is also a social space where parents support other parents.
Christine said the most important thing being a member of Paying for College 101 has taught her is that she’s not alone in this journey.
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