paying for college keys

Four Keys to Facing the Financial Facts of College

In the midst of all the excitement about college, paying for college is often the elephant in the room.

Talking to students and parents about college is really fun. What counselor or teacher doesn’t get excited about encouraging their kids to “find the right fit,” “follow their dreams,” and “work their plan”? But in the midst of all the encouragement to take that next step, paying for college is often the “elephant in the room.” For a lot of college shoppers and their families, the financial component of going to college is always in the back of their minds. I believe that hitting this issue head-on, early in the search, is the best way to go about it.

When the Financial Facts of Paying for College Feel Daunting

Every year, as colleges start notifying applicants that they have been accepted, a good news / bad news statement can be heard in high schools across the country: “I have been accepted to my dream school, but how can I afford it?” My buddies in college Financial Services offices tell me they hear a version of this on their end, too: “I really want to come to your school, but my second choice is cheaper.”

Throughout the process of arriving at college, kids have many opportunities to prayerfully consider the Lord’s leading and their next move. This is often dramatically displayed to a young student as “open doors” and “closed doors” because of the finances involved. But many times there is more to the story. That’s what I hope this post will show you – through four keys to help the sometimes-daunting financial numbers of paying for college seem a little less daunting.

Key #1: Someone is Paid to Help Afford College

When dealing with a sincere, accepted high school student who is wrestling with paying for the school of their dreams, most of the college Financial Services folks I know say, “Give us a chance to make it work.” Your student has done the work to get accepted, and there are others on his “college prep team” that can help now.

This is Key #1 to feeling a little more encouraged about the financial aspect of college. You can count on the Financial Services teams at the colleges your child applied to. Consider this:

  • Once a student narrows their college search, the Financial Services Offices of the various target colleges stand ready to help. Their job is to help make it possible for accepted students to attend.
  • They’re also one of the best sources of information about the variety of ways you might pay for their school. They know how students at their institutions have found ways to pay for it in the past, so they may have lots of options you haven’t considered.
  • The earlier your college-bound kid gets accepted, the more funds she might have available.

What’s the reasoning behind that last tip? The serious effort of getting financial aid from a college starts only once a student has been accepted. So if a student knows they are definitely going to apply to a school, then unless they are waiting for more acceptable grades or an acceptable test score to come in, applying early puts them in a better position for funding at some colleges. There are more than a few schools that have limited funds to grant to students, while they last. So sometimes the early bird gets help paying for college!

Key #2: Financial Aid Comes in a Variety of Forms

While right now you may be thinking of the total cost of college attendance as one “sticker price,” it’s important to understand that your family can bring down that cost in multiple ways. Scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study programs are common ways that the price is addressed. Your goal should be to coach your child to find all the routes to financial help they can, helping your family pay for college more easily in the end.

The majority of scholarship success stories that I have witnessed involve a persistent student finding the “small” gifts that add up. Those students tell me that when they see their hard work of writing essays and filling out college scholarship forms pay off, it makes it all worthwhile.

For instance, it’s worth diving into the broad array of scholarships out there – some based on “need,” and some based on “merit.” Sure, the ads saying “millions of scholarship dollars go unclaimed” can be a little misleading since many scholarships have very specific, narrow qualifications. But the fact is, there are scholarships out there that go overlooked because they require some effort to find, and effort to apply.

High school counselors can be good sources of information about scholarships, but diligent students and College Prep Parents can also be rewarded by consistently searching the internet and using the free scholarship databases.

Additionally, you should look into the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It is used by hundreds of colleges to determine the “expected family contribution,” which college financial offices use to determine the financial need of a student. The FAFSA is a free service that sends your report to whatever schools a student requests. It can be completed and submitted online beginning October 1 of the senior year. FAFSA does more than just open the door for federal funds. It gives a college a family’s financial picture so they can help you figure out how to make it happen.

Key #3: Paying for College is Multi-Year… But So is Financial Aid

An often overlooked question about paying for college is, “How many years does it take to graduate?” If school A seems more expensive than school B, but a degree can be finished in 4 years at “A,” rather than 5 years at “B,” that may need to be considered. Whether this is the case or not, the need to pay for college crosses multiple years – but so do some scholarship opportunities.

Some scholarship aid is in the form of a one-time gift. Whether based on need, or merit, these gifts are for freshmen to “get them started.” However, there are many other financial awards that are renewable, based on maintaining a certain GPA, or maybe other measurements of satisfactory progress toward a degree.

Of course, a scholarship recipient should know the specific requirements for maintaining their type of financial aid. I have had students in the past mistakenly “let their guard down” when starting as freshmen, thinking that the high grades they made in high school would automatically happen in college, only to lose funding when they let their grades slip.

Likewise, hope for new scholarships does not need to end once a student starts college. Many schools have financial aid dollars that go to students once they have shown what they can do on the college level. For the accomplished college student, it pays to check with academic departments, campus organizations, and any source that wants to reward deserving, proven students.

Key #4: This Investment Has Great Returns

You’ve chosen to prepare your student for college for plenty of great reasons. Don’t let the daunting financial task cause you to forget those reasons! College is expensive, as are most things of value. It is a long-term investment in the student’s future. Remembering this is the final key to feeling encouraged about the financial task.

An interesting corollary to this idea is what a veteran counselor friend of mine tells students: “If you wouldn’t consider a school if it didn’t offer you money, don’t consider a school just because it does.” Thinking of the investment in value helps here; financial aid doesn’t mean much if the school still isn’t worth the price.

A Bonus Note

One more thing…

I have been impressed by some colleges that have counseling sessions or classes with students, with the sole focus on handling money and graduating with the least amount of debt possible. The success stories that I have heard makes it something you might want to look into.

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