Over the past several decades, tuition costs for four-year colleges and universities have outpaced wage growth and inflation. Beyond classroom learning itself, associated costs like room & board, books/lab materials, transportation, and other fees can make what seems like a reasonable price tag suddenly balloon—and every family has heard horror stories about the student debt crisis.
For many parents, staying local and receiving in-state tuition is an option to cut costs. However, in the past 20 years, in-state tuition and fees have increased 212%, versus a 165% increase for out-of-state (U.S. News & World Report). Even if you smartly invested in a 529 plan or have been dutifully saving for years, the costs can be overwhelming.
Most of us want nothing more than for our students to worry only about getting into their dream school. Discussing financial limitations with your student is at best awkward, and at worst, a disappointment that they may not be able to attend the college they want. However, there are plenty of options out there to help offset the costs of four-year public and private universities. Below, we break down some ideas to consider, and where to start.
Take advantage of the resources at your disposal
Your student’s school college counselor’s job is not just to mail out transcripts. Their office has resources to help start the process of searching and applying for financial aid. Try to set up an appointment, and make sure your student goes into their scheduled meetings planning to ask about financial aid.
You should also reach out to colleges’ financial aid offices for more information. If you’re still in the application process, factor in financial aid as a search criterion for deciding on a school. (See our previous post for info on how sites like The Princeton Review can provide objective assessments of a school’s financial aid options.) If your student has already been admitted, call the office to set up an appointment with an adviser, or browse their office of financial aid’s site for helpful links.
Before each year of college, you can apply for federal grants, work-study scholarships, and loans with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form. Once you complete the form, your college uses that data to assess your aid eligibility—which they’ll share with you via a Student Aid Report.
The Student Aid Report will explain the aid you’re offered from each college and outline your expected costs. If your student is accepted to more than one school, compare the offers and costs of each and decide which makes the most sense for you. Then, your school’s financial aid office will apply your funds to your tuition and school fees, and any remaining balance will go straight to you for other college costs.
Visit the Federal Student Aid site (studentaid.gov) for more information on FAFSA®.
Things to keep in mind:
1) You must submit a FAFSA® form every year you are in school.
2) Most federal aid comes with expectations for academic performance, so be sure to pay attention to any GPA requirements in your offers.
3) A significant portion of FAFSA® aid is need-based, not merit-based. If your household makes above certain thresholds for income, you may not be eligible. For that reason, it’s important to seek scholarships and grants from other sources.
4) Keep your eye out for Parent PLUS Loans within FAFSA packages.
Scholarship search engines
There are scholarships out there for EVERYTHING. We’ve seen scholarships for left-handed students, those who spell their name a certain way—you name it, there’s probably a scholarship out there for it. Search engines like My Red Kite scrape sites across the internet and aggregate scholarships you can apply for online. You’ll begin by answering some cursory questions to determine what funding your student will be eligible for, and from there, they will serve you recommendations as well as allow you to search. Go to https://myredkite.com/ to sign up for this free service.
Many colleges have a special deadline where, if you submit your application prior to the date, you will automatically be considered for merit scholarships—with offers included in your admissions package. If you miss this deadline, you will not be automatically considered, so be sure to call the financial aid office for any Dean’s List, Presidential, or any other general scholarships provided by the university.
Once you’ve done that, dig a little deeper. Many schools have scholarships broken down by college, department, or major. For example, let’s say your student wants to study creative writing. There is likely to be a scholarship (or several!) specifically for English majors, as well as the individual college in which that department is housed. Beyond the financial aid office, scour the department websites for your student’s intended major and look for opportunities for aid.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means; there are other options for loans and grants out there, all of which merit a thorough Google search. Every student and every family is different, but we all have the same goals when it comes to making college affordable. Bring your student into the conversation and help them understand their role and responsibility in paying for their education. And remember: no amount is too small! Those $500 to $2,000 scholarships add up if you stay open-minded and committed to finding solutions that work best for your family.