College application season is upon us, and if you’re the parent of a high school senior then you are probably helping your child narrow down their shortlist of schools.
As you’re doing your research, you might be wondering how you’re going to pay for college. After all, college tuition prices can give any parent a bad case of sticker shock. Some families see schools with listed tuition prices of $20,000-$50,000 a year and think that it’s impossible for their child to attend that school without winning thousands of dollars in scholarships.
But depending on your family’s financial situation, it might actually be cheaper for your child to attend a school with a high listed tuition price then to attend a school with a much lower tuition sticker price. That’s because financial aid programs at many expensive schools often help students from low-income and middle-income families afford schools that would otherwise be out of the reach. It’s important to do your research.
While student loans can also help, if you’re concerned about finding a school that fits within your family’s budget, here are some simple steps to take.
1. Figure Out What You Can Afford
Before your child starts to apply to colleges, determine how much money you have available to put toward college. Add up the money that you have saved in 529 plans or other accounts and the amount of money you can contribute annually from your income. You’ll also want to add in any savings your child has that they would put towards their education, as well as expected income from their part-time or summer jobs. Knowing how much money you can actually afford is key to ensure you pick the school that will fit within your budget.
Be aware that FAFSA and the CSS Profile will do their own calculations and determine how much they believe you can afford and provide you with a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). That number will not necessarily reflect how much money you actually have available but what your family will be expected to contribute toward school, or take out loans to make up the difference.
If you decide to take out student loans, consider setting a borrowing limit and calculate how much you’ll pay on the potential debt so you know how much debt you can reasonably afford to take on. It’s also a good idea to know how student loans can affect your credit — how they can benefit your credit if you make your payments on time and as agreed, or how they can hurt your credit if you fall behind. You can also get a better idea of how your credit works by getting a free credit report summary, updated every 14 days on Credit.com.
2. Find Schools Within Your Budget
Next, look for schools that actually fit within your budget. There are schools out there that fit the budget of virtually any family. There are even free or cheap colleges.
Rather than just looking at the price of tuition, also look at the cost of attendance for each school that you’re considering. The cost of attendance is a calculation each school provides that adds up all of the costs involved in attending that school including tuition, room and board, books, travel and personal expenses. While many students find that they spend more than the estimated cost of attendance for a school, this is a good metric to estimate your expenses.
Schools that fit within your budget without factoring in financial aid, scholarships or student loans may be a good option if you’re extremely concerned about the cost of college. Your student may win some kind of merit-based or need-based aid, but if they do not these can be great backup schools.
3. Find Schools That Are a Little More Expensive
Consider schools that your child is interested in but where the cost of attendance is $1,000-$5,000 outside your price range per year.
You’ll need to determine whether your student will be likely to qualify for financial aid and what kind of aid they can potentially get from each school. Most schools have a financial aid calculator on their websites. You can easily use this calculator to determine how much each college would expect your family to pay toward attending that college by inputting some of your financial information.
These calculators should give you a rough estimate of what your family would be paying at that school. This can help you determine whether that school could potentially fit within your budget.
4. Check Out the Financial Aid at Your Child’s Dream Schools
All students have schools that they would love to attend if they could afford to. So why not see what the cost would be to attend those schools. Some of the best schools may offer the most financial aid, since they tend to have the biggest endowments. For example, at Yale, families with income under $65,000 are not required to contribute any money toward educational costs.
If your child is an exceptional student, athlete or community leader, he or she may be able to get merit aid for those schools. Do some research into what kind of merit aid your child could qualify for by reaching out to a financial aid officer.
5. Be Flexible
There are many ways to fit college costs into your budget if you’re willing to be unconventional. For example, by choosing a school that’s closer to home so that your child can still live at home, you can dramatically decrease the cost of college. Your child might also decide to go to a local community college where tuition is cheaper and then transfer to another college after a couple years. By choosing one of these methods, your child can potentially end up with a degree from a school that they might not have been able to attend otherwise due to the costs.
Finding the Right School
It’s understandable that parents are concerned that their student might get their heart set on schools that are well outside the family’s budget. The problem is that it’s hard to know which schools are too expensive until you get a financial aid offer. By doing a little bit a research online and by applying to schools at different price points, your child may have more options that will fit within the family’s budget. It might take a little extra work, but it will be worth it when your child finds a school that they’re excited about, yet won’t negatively impact your family’s finances.
Higher Ed, Lower Cost
People want to get a lot of things out of going to college, but debt likely isn’t one of them. Unfortunately, that’s one of the most probable outcomes when you enroll at an institution of higher education these days. Getting a good education and having a higher earning potential as a result tend to be top priorities of college-bound students, but that often means taking on thousands of dollars in education debt in order to graduate.
Getting a good education doesn’t require six-figures’ worth of savings (but if you’ve got it, more power to you). U.S. News & World Report recently released its annual college rankings, and in the highly watched National University rankings, there are several schools with great reputations and relatively affordable price tags.
Getting a Great Degree With Less Debt
Top schools overwhelmingly require hefty savings, a lot of scholarships or significant student loan amounts to attend, but more than two dozen schools in the top 200 charge less than $21,000 per year. The U.S. News rankings weigh a variety of factors when determining value, like first-year student retention, graduation rates and the strength of the faculty, but there are many more things that make a college experience worthwhile. As far as affordability goes, taking on debt to get a degree isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to borrow more than you can reasonably expect to repay, so make your decisions about college and education debt very carefully. If you can’t make your student loan payments, you’re looking at years (possibly decades) of credit damage and financial trouble that could outweigh the value of your education.
It is possible to go to school without coming out under a mountain of debt, and it certainly helps to attend a less expensive school. In U.S. News’s National University rankings (schools that “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and emphasize faculty research”), there are 10 schools with annual tuition rates lower than $21,000 that are also among the top 150 schools in the country. (A few notes: There are several schools with in-state tuition less than $21,000 but higher out-of-state costs that are not included in this list. U.S. News has separate rankings for schools it categorizes as liberal arts schools, regional colleges and regional universities. )
More on Student Loans:
- How Student Loans Can Impact Your Credit
- How to Pay for College Without Building a Mountain of Debt
- Strategies for Paying Off Student Loan Debt