Paying For College: How to Fill the Gap

woman paying bills

Paying For College: How to Fill the Gap

Published September 15, 2019 | Last Updated June 30th, 2024 at 02:06 pm

woman paying bills

As a parent, you hope you can find a way to pay for college. With college prices rising rapidly, how much college will cost has become a commonplace worry these days.

To ease this concern, many parents believe that if their child works hard, gets good grades, and scores well on tests, they will get enough money from merit scholarships and private scholarships to cover most of their college costs.

Unfortunately, that’s far from reality. Talking with parents in our Facebook group Paying for College 101, they say they are paying $50,000 to $100,000 or more for their child’s education, even after merit aid and scholarships.

Here are reasons why even these savvier parents are struggling to bridge the gap.

How Does Paying For College Work?

Private Scholarships Can Offset Need Awards

Parents and students are often surprised to find out that when their child wins a private scholarship, it can make things worse.

Instead of using the award to cover college costs, many schools review private scholarships and reduce need-based aid.

This is called “scholarship displacement.”

A private scholarship may reduce your need somewhat, but it rarely covers everything. It’s frustrating to think you have costs covered only to see your need-based assistance reduced.

If this happens to you, call the school to appeal the change. You may not win, but you’ll never know unless you try.

5 Things To Know Before Looking For Private Scholarships

School’s Don’t Always Meet You at Your SAI

Parents are always surprised at how high the student aid index (SAI) turns out to be, and many of our families see their estimates come in close to 25% or more of their gross income.

Unfortunately, families get another shock when they discover some colleges calculate a version of their SAI that differs from the federal government’s SAI calculation. These separate calculations may occur for colleges requiring additional information through the CSS Profile form.

In addition, a school is not obligated to provide enough aid to cover all costs above a family’s SAI. Schools often cannot afford to provide the entire gap between EFC and the cost of a degree for every student, leaving a significant gap.

Put more simply – a college can ask for additional information, calculate their version of what your family owes, and even then, not be obligated to meet 100% of what your need is determined to be.

Understanding the Student Aid Index (SAI): The New Key to Financial Aid

Room and Board Costs Are Increasing Rapidly

Sometimes, getting an award covering tuition doesn’t lessen the shock of paying for college. At many schools, room and board are just as much as tuition every year, and families are left paying for it.

A student may be able to become an RA after their first year to reduce room and board costs, but that is far from guaranteed. And it doesn’t help reduce the shocking price of paying $20,000 or more per year so your child can live at school as a freshman.

What Can You Do to Cover the Tuition Gap?

There are no guaranteed ways to cover the gap in college costs, but there are things you can do to reduce it:

  • Do your research before your student applies to college. There’s information available (though not always easy to find) that helps families understand how colleges have awarded financial aid and merit scholarships in the past. This can give you an idea if your child is likely to get money from the college.
  • If you’re a stay-at-home parent, it may be time to return to work.
  • Consider having children live at home during school if possible.
  • Encourage or require kids to choose a school that offers the best aid.
  • Encourage or require students to start their degree at a community college and transfer after two years to finish at a 4-year school.
  • Have your student take a GAP year. They may need the extra time to mature and can work to earn more money to pay for college.
  • Explore joining the military to get your college covered by an ROTC scholarship.
  • Have your student start with an Associate’s degree in their chosen field and work at that level after graduation. They can either find an employer who will help pay for the last two years of the Bachelor’s or pay it themselves as they work.
  • Check out our R2C Insights to find schools that will be more generous with their money, depending on your child’s stats and grades.

College costs are frightening. It’s hard to imagine that even savvy parents are ending up $100,000 in debt after sending one child to school.

As one parent said,

“All I can say is there better be some kids taking good care of their parents!! College costs are brutal! My hats off to you parents of 3 plus kids!!”


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 Can Earn Employee Scholarships for College

Transferring from One College to Another: What You Need to Know

Colleges That Change Lives: The List of 44, Comparisons, and How to Choose




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