What I Wish I’d Known About Paying for College

How To Pay For College

What I Wish I’d Known About Paying for College

Published September 11, 2019 | Last Updated October 5th, 2023 at 05:16 pm

How To Pay For College

As a parent, I like to learn as much as I can from other parents who have already blazed the trail on a road I’m about to embark on. Why reinvent the wheel? Right?

That’s one of the reasons I started a Facebook group (Paying For College 101), so families could learn from other families who have already been through the process.

I’ve been delighted to see more experienced parents “pay it forward” by sharing their knowledge and pitfalls to help others not repeat mistakes they wished they could have avoided.

From time to time, I ask members of the group to share their experience and advice with families just starting the college admissions process.

The reality is, when it comes to college costs, what you don’t know can hurt you. And it can hurt you for years. If you miss something, you could end up owing tens of thousands of dollars more than you needed to.

To help families avoid these mistakes, I asked those in our Paying for College 101 group, “What do you wish you’d known about college costs before you started the college admissions process?”

We got a lot of responses, and we’re ready to share those pearls of wisdom.

Take advantage of their experience on how to pay for college and save yourself the headaches and debt load of making costly mistakes.

Scholarship Deadlines Can Be Earlier Than Application Deadlines

Knowing deadlines is a vital part of apply for college. Parents in our group noted that they wished they had known that there are deadlines to apply for scholarships, and those deadlines can be earlier than application deadlines.

Scholarships applications can be due as early as October and as late as March. It’s vital to know exactly what scholarships your student may qualify for and to be ready to apply for them right away.

One parent even said, “I wished our daughter applied for private scholarships in her junior year.”

To make this easier, start looking for scholarship information during the sophomore and junior years of high school. If your child needs to participate in specific activities, take an internship, or have a specific GPA to get the scholarship, they have time to prepare.

When you already know which scholarships you are aiming for, even the earliest fall deadline won’t stress you out.

Some Schools Offer Tuition Scholarships for Specific GPA and SAT/ACT Scores

One member of our group had this to say:

“I wish I knew more about schools that offer money for National Merit Finalists. My son applied to mostly in state schools, hoping to save money. By the time we heard that some out-of-state schools offer full rides to all of their national merit finalists, deadlines had passed.”

Another parent lamented,

“I wish I knew about Merit Scholarships. I did not realize so many schools give automatic money for class rank/SAT/GPA for anyone who attains that.”

It’s important not to overlook schools themselves as a source of merit-based aid for your student. As one parent noted, “My son would have qualified for a full ride to Alabama and would definitely have gone if we had known!!”

Don’t look only at public schools – sometimes private schools offer better aid packages than state schools, making them equally or less expensive than their public cousins.

In addition, depending on your EFC (expected family contribution), top-tier schools and Ivy League universities may offer less merit aid to students, making another college a better choice.

Remember that most schools have a minimum GPA in college required to keep the merit scholarship. As one parent pointed out:

“I’ve seen {minimum GPA} range from a nice, pressure-free 2.0 up to a potentially stress-inducing 3.7. We didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on our kids, so we are sticking with schools that have no higher than a 3.0 min. GPA to keep those super helpful merit scholarships for 4 years.”

Learn more: Merit Scholarships Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List, and Search Tool

Your Child Can Take a Deferred-Enrollment Gap Year

Have you heard of a gap year? One parent shared this with the group:

“Some students choose to accept a college where they have been admitted and ask the college to reserve their spot for the following year, so they can take the year as a gap year. Most schools grant the request. Some students just decide to take the year off and re-apply. During the year, students can do lots of different things – some work (earn more money for college), others go on GAP year programs to learn additional skills. My nephew is currently taking a GAP year and he’s done a combination of things – travel, work, programs in woodworking and farming.”

If your child would like a year off, have them apply to schools as normal. Once the deferment is approved, make a plan and make sure your student takes full advantage of the gap year.

A volunteer program, a religious program, or specific work plans are important. Make sure your student is committed to paying at least part of his or her costs so they will follow through.

After a gap year, many students return to school more focused, more motivated, and excited about their education.

Learn more here: Why Taking a Gap Year Could Be a Senior’s Next Best Decision

Don’t Rely on High Schools for Information on College Costs

Unfortunately, many of our group members struggled to get information from their child’s high schools. Most schools gave little information and what was received was late. One parent said,

“My daughter is only a sophomore but I feel a sense of panic to gather info and it doesn’t appear to me that the guidance office shares much.”

Another parent agreed:

“I hear zilch from ours. If your kid doesn’t see posters about SAT dates, oh well. If you don’t happen to see that it is financial aid night on social media, oh well. Even when I am proactive and go on the web site to find out info, little is listed. Test dates were listed, for example, but not deadlines to register. My son only seems to have meetings with his counselor when he initiates them.”

As the parent of a high school junior or senior, if you rely on your school to guide you through the college application process, you’ll miss the boat.

Seek out resources yourself. Googling specific information can help tremendously, as can joining groups of like-minded parents.

Sharing information among those who are focused on the same goals can help you discover resources you would never have thought of alone.

FAFSA and Tax Concerns

There is an enormous amount of information that should go into planning for the expected family contribution, or EFC. One parent shared:

“I wish that I had been encouraged to start looking at all of the FAFSA information in at least the freshman year. This would have allowed for time to adjust my finances and taxes to my best advantage. Since FAFSA now uses prior-prior-year taxes even sophomore year is too late in my opinion.”

An accountant or financial advisor can help you understand what assets are considered, what changes you can make before you fill out FAFSA, and more. There are also sometimes tax concerns with scholarship awards and student earnings. Some of these financial details may also affect your student’s need-based awards.

Learn more: Tips of FAFSA: Parents Share What They’ve Learned and FAFSA Application Ultimate Guide: How to Apply, Steps, Tips, and FAQs

You Can Do It!

Getting your student ready for college, both academically and financially, can be a major strain. But the biggest testimony that came from our group members is this – you can do it!

Your student can be prepared, get into school, and receive aid. You will undoubtedly learn your own lessons along the way, but with the above tips, you’ll be well ahead of many other parents.


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.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

How Students Should Spend the Summer Before Senior Year

College Countdown Gift Ideas for Parents of Seniors

High School Transition to College: A Parent’s Guide




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