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I hear this a lot. And by a lot, I mean almost every day. This is one of the most common issues for families trying to pay for college.

Calculate Your EFC & Submit the FAFSA

First, if you haven’t already, you should calculate your Expected Family Contribution. It sets a line in the sand, a baseline for you to help determine affordable colleges.

Your EFC is not the number you will pay for college; instead, it is used to determine your eligibility for need-based aid (Cost of Attendance – EFC = Need-Based Eligibility).

If you use our EFC Calculator, it will spit out three numbers: the federal methodology, the institutional methodology, and the consensus methodology.

The federal methodology determines your federal EFC with the info you submit on the FAFSA. If you have a high income, it is unlikely that you will receive any federal or state grants. However, you should still submit the FAFSA. Why?

  • Everyone, regardless of income, can access federal unsubsidized loans if they submit the FAFSA.
  • Some schools require you to fill out the FAFSA to access merit aid.
  • It is helpful to have this info on file if anything should happen to your family that inhibits your ability to pay for college.
Institutional & Consensus Methodologies: Need-Based Aid from Private Institutions

Many private colleges are infamous for having inane sticker prices. However, if you do the college search right, you will pay much less at these schools.

In fact, it is these ridiculously high sticker prices that help qualify families for institutional need. Remember, Cost of Attendance minus your EFC = your need-based aid eligibility.

Note that most schools do not meet 100% of need, but plenty of colleges out there meet over 75% of need.

Now, throw tuition discounting, or merit aid,  into the mix, and that sticker price can come down a lot.

Search for Merit Aid & Colleges That Will Give You a Good Deal

Merit aid is what colleges use to entice good students or the types of students they need to round out their incoming freshmen class. While learning about prospective schools, be on the lookout for colleges that give generous merit aid/tuition discounts.

A good rule of thumb to maximize your chances at a sizeable merit package is to apply to colleges where your student will likely be in the top 25% of the incoming class.

Unfortunately, though, there’s no magic bullet to get merit aid. Many parents don’t realize that colleges give merit aid/tuition discounts for a multitude of reasons, not just academics. Parents zero in on the idea that their students should qualify for admissions or merit aid based on their accomplishments alone. The truth is that each college’s institutional priorities, needs, and goals dictate this process more than you might think.

These institutional priorities are harder to ascertain in any given year, but here are some common examples:
– The college wants to expand its geographic footprint. For example, a Midwest college might want more East Coast students, or specifically, more students from Maine and Mississippi.
– The college wants to increase ethnic diversity.
– The college may want more humanities majors, more females in their engineering programs, or males in their nursing program.

It is merit aid that makes private colleges and some out-of-state public universities affordable. Sometimes, they can be just as cheap as your in-state public option.

The most prestigious schools, however, tend only to award need-based aid, and the few very selective colleges that do award merit scholarships award them to only a handful of students.

This is why it’s so important to consider financial fit when creating your college list.

  1. Look outside the list of top 25 or 50 colleges. Prioritize fit and affordability. You need to be willing to accept that college fit is more important than rankings or prestige. Where will your student be happy and thrive at an affordable price? College is ultimately what your student makes of it.
  2. Tune out the noise and do your own research. There’s data all over the internet—use College Navigator or College Board to start looking at need-based and merit-based aid stats for each college.

Want to Spend Less Money? Community College & Transfer Is a Solid Option

As a parent, have you discussed the community college for two years & transfer path?

So many of us get stuck in the following mentality: “force your kids to get good grades, apply to the best schools, attend the most prestigious one you get into as soon as you complete high school, get a respectable and well-paying job (or spend undergrad preparing to get into a prestigious grad school), get married, excel in your career, have kids, prepare them for college…etc.” and then the cycle continues.”

This is the model many Americans have followed post-WWII. Unfortunately, this model does not work for everyone. Why?

First of all, college today is bleeping expensive. Even with all the financial planning tricks in the book and all the financial aid strategies, you will likely have to throw a lot of dough down.

Secondly, for some reason, we see a traditional four-year college as a rite-of-passage, almost an absolute necessity – and to be fair – it is still a good path for most kids. But it is not the right path for every student.

So, back to community college.

Three distinct benefits of community college among many:

  1. Can reduce the cost of college by 50% or more.
  2. Can aid your student in figuring out a major/career path before paying for that expensive university.
  3. Can provide an easier path to scholarships and admission to certain schools.
Case Study: The Community College Route

I was working with a family (names changed for privacy), and the daughter, Mary, was undecided on a career path or course of study.  She had no idea where she wanted to go to school, which made finding the right “fit” school quite challenging.

The majors Mary did come up with, dance and art among them, were a cause of concern for her parents, Tom and Sue.  Tom, especially, was not fond of this idea. Dad flatly stated, “I will not pay $75k a year for you to study dance and art.”

It wasn’t that Tom and Sue looked down on a career in fine arts or theater. They were more concerned about paying an astonishing amount for a degree that did not necessarily promise a good return on investment.

Mary was an average student, with an SAT score of 1100 and a GPA of 3.2.  There weren’t many options for merit-based scholarships, and she was unsure of her future career aspirations.  She just knew she wanted to attend college out of state.

Dad was simply not going to pay $200,000 – $300,000 out of pocket for an out-of-state school while “she figured herself out” in college.

We looked at the local community college where Mary would be able to take an assortment of classes and discover her passions and interests for a tuition cost of $11,000 over two years. 

Mary’s dad was on board with her attending a community college for two years and exploring different pathways. He promised her that he would pay for her final two years at a traditional four-year college with the hope she got her grades up and was able to receive merit aid.

The family ended up saving over $100,000 by taking this route.

Families need to adjust expectations based on their finances, how many kids they have, and how much aid they will qualify for.

What About Private Scholarships? 

One of my favorite books, Winning Scholarships for College, is a good resource for finding outside scholarships on your own.  There are also tons of constantly updated resources online.

Our preferred scholarship engines right now are Scholarship Owl and Going Merry.

Does it take work? Yes.  Do you have to write essays? Likely.  Do you have to show your creativity? Yes. Do you have to get outside your comfort zone? You betcha.  Guess what?  This is excellent preparation for the real world when you must go out and find a job, or better yet, start your own business!

Just like the job application process, getting a scholarship may involve finding one, two, or 30 of them to apply to, creating a portfolio or resume of achievements/skills/interests, representing yourself in the best light via the written word, and finally getting accepted.

There are so many scholarships for things other than academics! Leadership is a HUGE theme, as are other extracurricular activities (sports, music, theater, community service, etc.). If your student has unique talents or excels at certain hobbies, search for scholarships related to these.

Important Caveat: It’s crucial to have realistic expectations about this process. Many families have found that the juice was not worth the squeeze given the time and effort they put into private scholarship applications. Private scholarships are not a viable college funding strategy but a possible supplement to your savings, cash flow, and institutional aid.

If you decide to go after outside scholarships, you should develop a process and fully commit to it, starting well before your senior year of high school.

Create a calendar. Identify which scholarships are right down your alley. Be sure to follow all instructions and learn how to hook readers with your writing. Search for less competitive, local scholarships.

Make sure to learn the process with useful resources.  Jocelyn Pearson, Founder of the Scholarship System, won $126,000 in external scholarships. Marianne Ragins, author of “Winning Scholarships for College,” gathered over $400,000 in scholarships before she even applied to college. Christopher Gray, the CEO of Scholly, amassed $1.3 million of scholarship money.

Keep Lines of Communication Open w/Colleges Post-Admission

Many families make the mistake of thinking a college’s award letter is its final offer. This is incorrect.

Does your child really want to go to XYZ University?

Pick up the phone and make calls.  Ask to meet with the financial aid office or admissions office to discuss how you can make it work. Explain why you could use some help financially; otherwise, you may have to attend another school for budget reasons. Leverage other schools’ aid packages, i.e., show the college that another school (in a similar tier) is giving you more funds, and you might have to go with them simply out of affordability.

Keep lines of communication open with each school as the May 1st deadline looms. As colleges can more accurately predict who is attending and who is not, more funds may become available (e.g., some high-caliber students decline the college’s offer of admission).

Some colleges, usually smaller private schools, are fairly flexible if you demonstrate financial hardship or another verifiable reason why you might need a few more thousand. Private schools, in particular, blur the line between need and merit. If they really want your student, and you can demonstrate hard evidence for why you need more aid, they may just help you out a little more.

Last year, we encouraged a parent and her son to call the school to discuss the financial aid she received.  To make a long story short, with steady communication, they eventually received another $15k from the college.

To learn more about negotiating college costs, check out this on-demand webinar: College Tuition Is Negotiable. Here, you will learn why you should not use the word “negotiate,” why you should be willing to walk away from a college, and how to ask for more money without sounding like you’re at a used car lot.

Want to learn more about financial strategies to save and pay for college?

Schedule a Free Consultation

Questions? Check out our Private Parent FB Group

Author: Hugo X. Carvajal









Related Reading:

How Will I Be Read: What Matters Most on the College Application

Strategies for Sending Your Children to Private Colleges Despite the Higher Costs

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