Parents Paying for College – What You Need to Know

confused parents about payig for collegen

Parents Paying for College – What You Need to Know

Published March 28, 2020 | Last Updated September 9th, 2023 at 08:38 am

confused parents about payig for collegen

“I don’t know anything!”

“I’m so confused, I don’t even know what I don’t know.”

“Where should I start?”

We hear this over and over again from parents of high school students as they begin realizing the magnitude of college costs and the complexity of the college admissions process.

The process of applying to college has changed significantly since most parents applied and attended and college costs have skyrocketed, increasing over 225% over the last 30 years.1  

If you give yourself some time to prepare for what you need to know, it will really alleviate (some of) the stress factor.

What’s the Average Amount Parents Pay for College?

The average amount parents pay for college in 2023 varies for families with students attending public vs. private colleges and universities, as well as if students are in-state or out-of-state for public universities.

Average out-of-state cost of attendance for four-year public colleges – $34,398

Average in-state cost of attendance for four-year public colleges – $22,185

What Percentage of Parents Pay for College?

According to SoFi, currently, just 29% of parents plan to fully cover college costs for their kids. This number is trending downwards: according to the same report, in 2016 43% of parents planned to pay for the entirety of their child’s university costs.

To help families new to the process, here’s a summary of the most essential topics to know about as your family navigates admissions and paying for college.

What Parents Need to Know About Admissions and Paying for College


The first thing to know, is the FAFSA. It’s free, you fill it out online, and it uses a formula to create an EFC (expected family contribution) for your student.

The EFC is a number based on your income, assets and your number of kids enrolled in college. FAFSA does not award any money, it’s a reporting tool. You select which colleges to send the information to.

Your FAFSA results are used primarily for two things:

1. To get access to federal student loans, also known as Stafford loans. The maximum Stafford Loan that a first-year student can take without a co-signer is $5500. Depending on your EFC, some of the interest on these loans could actually be subsidized, meaning interest will not accrue on the subsidized loan amount until six months after a student leaves college or graduate.

2. To determine if your EFC is low enough to be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant. This is money for college that does not have to be paid back. For the 2023-24 Award Year, the Pell Grant eligible EFC range is 0 to 6656. The amount of the award is determined by a sliding scale. The maximum award amount (for full-time students) is $7,395 per year, which is what an EFC of zero would receive. The minimum award amount is $750 which is what an EFC of 6656 would receive.

Many universities use the FAFSA information to determine eligibility for their own institutionally provided, need-based financial aid. The amount (and whether or not you’re even eligible) varies greatly depending upon the college. Some colleges offer very little need-based aid while others provide enough grants and scholarships to meet the full financial need of their enrolled students.

CSS Profile

The majority of elite, private, extremely-selective, heavily-endowed colleges will meet your full financial need.

However, in addition to the results of the FAFSA, they determine actual need (and how much they will give you) based on their own interpretation of the results of the CSS form. ( Unlike FAFSA, there is no “CSS number” created.)

But the CSS takes a more in-depth look at your true finances than FAFSA does, plus there is an area to explain any special circumstances. The CSS form costs $25 to fill out. But it is free if the student has a College Board fee waiver.

Financial Aid Generosity

At some of the most generous colleges, even a family of four making $250,000 per year can qualify for need-based aid.

But be forewarned, the sticker price of many of these colleges can be almost $80,000 per year! There’s very good news, however,  for lower and middle income students.

These very expensive, ultra-elite colleges are so generous with need aid that they are usually more affordable than state schools. Sometimes altogether free, if your income and assets are low enough.

Keep in mind, there is a catch here…there’s always a catch!

The trouble is that colleges with those kinds of aid policies are inundated with highly qualified applicants every year, making acceptance extremely difficult to achieve.

These schools routinely receive over 30,000 applicants to fill as few as 1500 spots.

Which means well over 90% of applicants are denied admission. (No matter how good their grades and test scores are.)

But there’s still hope. There are some affordable alternatives that can work out just as well.

Good Stats Can Mean Good Merit Scholarships

Many colleges offer scholarships for academic merit. They typically base the scholarship on the student’s grade point average and SAT/ACT scores, not on income or need.

Some colleges publish the criteria for their merit awards and the dollar amounts right on their websites. But even if they don’t, you can usually get a good idea of how much a college may cost by using the NPC (net price calculator.)

Just Google “{College name} + net price calculator” and enter your student’s information.

The NPCs that ask for GPA, test scores, state of residence, and financial information tend to be the most accurate as to what you will actually have to pay to go there.

The answers to those questions allow the NPC to estimate how much merit and need you qualify for. Also whether you qualify for in-state or neighboring state pricing.

Best Family Practices

Checking the NPC really needs to be one of the first things you do. Even before you visit, apply, or in any way get your heart set on any particular college. Check and see how much this school will cost you.

If it will be somewhat affordable, the next thing to do is check the admitted students stats.

(What are the average high school GPA’s, average test scores and what percentage of applicants are accepted at this college?)

This is the time to find out if this college will be a good fit; academically and financially.

Safety Schools

If your stats are well above the school’s average, this should be considered a safety school.

(Somewhere that you’re likely to get accepted.  And also likely to qualify for, whatever their top merit scholarships are.)

Target Schools

If your stats are within a school’s average, this should be considered a target or “match” school.

One that you are qualified for, but depending on their acceptance rate, it cannot be considered a sure thing for acceptance nor a definite for additional merit scholarships.

Reach Schools

These are schools with average admitted student stats that are above yours.

Or schools with such a low percentage of accepted applicants that that they should be considered a reach for everyone.

(All of the Ivy League, all of the elite schools, and any colleges with single digit acceptance rates should be considered reach schools, no matter how qualified the applicant is.)

Making Your College List

I suggest for those of you chasing merit aid, make sure to apply to a good amount of safety schools.

For those with high stats (and mid-to-lower income) this also makes sense – but also try for some of the elite schools that might actually work out to be close-to-free for you.

And for those in the middle (stats wise and financially) be sure to include a good mix of safeties and target schools to make sure you wind up with choices you can actually afford.

The best advice is to keep your list financially balanced.

College Tours

Lastly, it’s always best to see these schools for yourself, but that is not always possible for a number of reasons.

Many colleges have virtual tours you can take on their websites.

Also some of their enrolled students may post their own tours of their school on YouTube, so you can get an unofficial glimpse of what it’s like there from the comfort of your own home.

If both time and money are tight, you may need to physically visit any far away schools AFTER you’re already accepted and after you get your award letter so you know how much it will cost.

 I scheduled my oldest son’s tours during spring break of his junior year of high school.

And for my next daughter, our tours were throughout the summer before her senior year.

My middle kids only toured schools after they were accepted (during February through April of their senior year.)

So there is clearly a lot of flexibility about this.

How Many Colleges to Apply to?

How many colleges are enough to apply to? This depends on the student.

The Common App limits a student to keeping 20 applications open at a time in their profile.

And FAFSA allows you to send your information to ten schools at a time.

After they’re received by the school, you can delete schools and add more on both the Common app and FAFSA.

My oldest applied to seven colleges. My next applied to (I think) 11.

My middle daughter applied to 15 and my middle son applied to 3. So the answer is…it depends.

And that’s up to you. But do ask for fee waivers from the admissions department at any school you apply to.

Many will offer a code which waives the application fee simply because you asked, which can save a lot of money.

As you can see, there is SO much to learn and know when it comes to the college admissions process.

Digest this for now, because it isn’t even the half of what you need to know.


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:

Mom of Four Shares Creative Ways to Pay for College

What Parents Wish They’d Knew about How to Pay for College

How to Pay for College Without Parents





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