Everything They Never Told You About Paying for College

The recent “Operation Varsity Blues” controversy—the college admissions scandal involving wealthy parents who paid for their kids’ guaranteed admittance to prestigious universities– rightfully ignited the fury of many parents and students alike.

I’ll admit to being one of many incensed parents who fumed for days after the news came out.

With my son making his way to college this year, I had spent many sleepless nights navigating test prep websites, college homepages, and financial aid advice blogs. I pored over hundreds of webpages on how to afford college, hoping to come across some magic formula that would show me how I could manage to send my son to college without breaking the bank.

And I wasn’t alone. I read desperate posts from parents in similar situations, begging for more info on the secret online code that would deliver the best discounts on tuitions. We weren’t looking for free college (although no one would ever turn that down), but just an affordable option that wouldn’t require a second mortgage, decades of student debt, or dips into our retirement funds.

This is what I found: there’s no magic formula.

The fact is, for most people, attending college—whether an ivy league, prestigious private school, public university, or two-year college—takes a serious chunk out of the family or student budget.

If the outrage over “Varsity Blues” has taught us one thing, it’s this: the majority of Americans consider a college education a privilege but also a necessity, and most will work very hard to put themselves or their kids through college.

So what’s a prospective student to do? The costs of going to college—which include not only the tuition you pay, but also housing fees, transportation expenses, meals, books, and other costs—have been on the rise for more than two decades. Sure, expenses vary widely from one college to another, but they’ve all been trending upwards, including those for previous low-cost options like community colleges. For the 2018-2019 school year, for example, the average cost of tuition and fees ran about $9,700 at public colleges for residents, and $21,600 for out-of-state students. Private colleges ran an average of $35,600 a year. And that’s not including housing and other expenses. Ouch.

Here’s another trend that’s worth noting: your average college student is getting older. We’re seeing more and more from the 25-and-older group enrolling in college. This means that more adult learners will either be facing the full brunt of college on their own, or will be turning to their families for help.

Even if there’s no magic formula for making college affordable, there are practical steps you can take to maximize your chances for a successful run through the process, whether planning for your child’s education or for your own.

1. Understand your own financial situation.

Before you start even thinking about applying to college, you’ll need to determine what you’ll need to do to remain financially stable.

Review your finances to see what you have in hand and what you’ll need. There are several ways to pay for college expenses other than writing a check, and most people use more than one of these options at once:

  • Savings plans already established (529s, Coverdell, etc.)
  • Federal Loans (available to qualifying students and parents)
  • Grants (school-based, professional affiliation, etc.)
  • Scholarships (merit-based, need-based, etc.)
  • Work study (part-time work, on- or off-campus, offered by the school)
  • Outside work (part- or full-time, on your own)

2. Research your colleges.

Get a full picture of what expenses are involved. There are many websites that’ll help you narrow down your search based on cost, location, student-teacher ratio, campus size, and extracurricular activities, like The College Board’s Big Future or the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator. College ranking sites like US News’ Best Colleges and Forbes Magazine’s America’s Top Colleges are also helpful.

The numbers you’ll see are daunting, but realize that the costs listed on college websites represent the “sticker price,” much like the sticker price on a new car. What you actually pay out-of-pocket is known as the “net price,” which figures in financial aid. This may be anywhere between significantly different to slightly different.

3. Apply for federal aid by making friends with the FAFSA

Don’t know what that is? I didn’t, either, but heard the acronym tossed around at school college workshops, at college websites, on the radio, online—okay, everywhere. It’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and if you missed it– it’s free. The FAFSA is how colleges determine if you qualify for any kind of federal aid, which includes:

  • Grants and scholarships (which you don’t have to pay back)
  • Subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans (which you do have to pay back, but the interest may be paid for you or deferred)
  • Work study (which allow you to work part-time and earn money to pay for college expenses).

Once they figure out what you can get from the government, colleges use this information to determine what they can give you on top of that.

Applications open in October and end in June for the upcoming academic year, but you’ll need to complete it before you send out any applications. Make sure you’re going to the right government-sponsored website—if it’s not free, it’s not the right one. Also remember this: you have to fill out a FAFSA every year of college—it doesn’t automatically renew.

4. Apply for grants and scholarships.

Colleges offer a variety of “gift aid” based on financial need and academic merit. Unlike loans, these do not have to paid back, although you may have to pay taxes on them. Some colleges will automatically consider you when you apply; others will require you to be more proactive. Beyond the internal grants and scholarships, however, there are tons of others. And by that, I’m not exaggerating: there are literally millions of scholarships out there.

While some require evidence of financial need, others don’t. They’re also based on everything from community service to area of interest to gender or ethnicity. The hardest part is sorting through all of the scholarships and finding the ones that are relevant to you and that are worthwhile to pursue. Some of the popular websites are Fastweb.com and Scholarships.com, and these websites will help you narrow your search. If you or your child is a high schooler, don’t forget to check out the school’s college center website, too.

4. Consider AP classes or CLEP exams. 

Advanced Placement classes and CLEP exams are offered on a variety of subjects, and qualifying exam scores can earn you college credit at certain universities, saving you not only on time but also on money. You have to check with the university, though, because requirements vary from school to school. Both exams offer fee waivers for qualifying individuals. For example, if you or your spouse is a member of the military and/or a civilian working for the Air Force, you may be eligible to take the CLEP exam for free. Your child’s high school may also offer courses that earn them college credit, so be sure to check out the school’s website.

5. Speaking of the military….

If you’re an active duty member of the military, a veteran, or a family member, you may be entitled to several benefits when it comes to higher education. The federal government offers various means of assistance, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant and the GI Bill. Government programs under the Department of Veterans Affairs offer financial assistance with costs of education or training, and some benefits may be transferred to family members.

6. Look on your side of the fence.

As the cost of college escalates, taking advantage of state residency just makes sense. States are doing their best to support their own, and some of the best deals out there are available to the residents of your state’s public universities. Out-of-state tuition can be as high as 300% of in-state tuition, which means that you can save quite a bit when you look closer to home. In fact, private colleges may even offer a better deal than public universities when it comes to residents.

7. Look for tuition reciprocity agreements or exchange programs.

Some states have arrangements with other states so that their students can pay in-state fees at some public institutions, like that between Minnesota and Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Manitoba, Canada. Some states participate in a regional exchange programs, like the Western Undergraduate Exchange and the Midwest Student Exchange Program, which offers a reduced tuition of no more than 150% of in-state tuition to students from states within their region at select schools within these states. Just check out the requirements for these programs, which often have caps on the number of students and focus on specific majors.

8. Finally, keep your head on straight and be realistic.

My son applied to many of his “dream” colleges, focusing all of his efforts on having the “perfect” application. But what he quickly learned is that getting accepted was just one part of the equation. The bigger part of the equation was affordability. Even if he sailed through the application process, he often didn’t qualify for any financial aid. Many of his friends did the same. The result was a lot of disappointment as he watched his list of “Pipe Dream” colleges grow longer.

Check out the financial aid history of the colleges you’re thinking about, and apply with eyes wide open. If a school has a rep for being stingy on aid for out-of-state-students, for example, you might reconsider looking at that local college that’s known to support residents with sweet in-state packages. Some students have also had luck appealing their financial aid offers, particularly if they’re set on one particular college and show either an improvement in academic merit or a new development in their financial situation.

It’s not an easy process by any means, and it takes a lot of patience and stamina. Just be sure to plan early and allot yourself some time to do it right.


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Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.


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