What to do if you need help paying for college

Tips for families on what to do or think about when considering college costs and the costs involved in earning a college degree

What to do if you need help paying for college

Overwhelmed by the FAFSA, loan applications and schools with costs topping what your family earns in a year? Think your family will never be able to pay for college?

Think again. Parents, here’s what to do before, while and after your teen applies to college to ensure your family’s financial road to higher education is smooth. Consider this your college guide to financial planning!

Before applying to college
Have a family conversation about college costs
Regardless of what your plan is to help your teen pay for college, share it as soon as possible. Planning to pay for it all? Define “all.” Must they earn a minimum GPA? Does “all” include room, board and spending money? Will you pay for more than four years of college? If you plan to pay for part, little or nothing of college, have that discussion, too. Help your teen search for other solutions, such as student loans, scholarships or part-time jobs.

While applying to college
Don’t be afraid of private schools
However daunting a published tuition figure is, remember that most private schools have large endowments, which can translate to scholarship money for worthwhile students. Look at the college guides. If your teen finds a private college that is a good fit, it might just match—or cost less than—a public school’s cost to attend.

Consider a community college
Have your teen consider spending a year or two at a community college to save money. Community colleges are affordable places to earn associate’s degrees and take courses required of any degree, allowing students to transfer to a four-year school later. If transferring is your teen’s goal, encourage him to meet with a transfer adviser ASAP to learn his options.

Look for little-known secrets
Did you know that Cornell University actually has New York state public colleges under the umbrella of the university?

Students who attend Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or College of Human Ecology receive an education partly funded by the state of New York, so they pay roughly half of Cornell’s usual tuition.

Ask the colleges your teen is interested in if there are similar setups. (Hint: Also check out the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y.)

Harvard and Yale have programs that ax tuition for families with incomes of less than $60,000 (Harvard) or $45,000 (Yale) a year. If your family meets this fiscal requirement, your teen might have a shot at a free Ivy League education.

And another “secret” to consider: programs through which students earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years. That will save your student at least a year’s worth of grad school tuition.

Encourage your teen apply to an honors college
Many schools offer honors colleges—programs for students at the top of the applicant pool—that usually offer tons of perks: research opportunities, different course opportunities, internships, preferential class registration and grants for activities like study abroad. Encourage your teen to call the admissions department to see if his potential university has an honors college, and if he’ll automatically be considered or should apply separately.

After applying to college
Fill out the FAFSA
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (fafsa.ed.gov) is used to determine your family’s eligibility for government student loans and grants. Many colleges also use it to determine eligibility for their own institutional financial aid programs. It doesn’t take long to complete—about 20 minutes—but it could be your teen’s ticket to free money from the government or college, low-interest loans or a work-study job.

Your family should fill out a FAFSA every year you have a teen in college, no matter how much aid you think you will (or won’t) receive. The bottom line is, you’ll have a hard time getting any tuition help if you don’t apply.

Know what you’re getting
A grant is free money that doesn’t have to be paid back, like a scholarship. Loans must be paid back in full with interest. The lender will spell out the terms of the loan agreement, including when your student will start paying it back, how often payments will be due and how much each payment will be. Student loans are common and effective ways to pay for college. Encourage your teen to borrow conservatively, and make sure your student is clear about how much and how often payments will be.

Follow all deadlines
Check the Web sites of your teen’s prospective colleges for school-specific financial aid forms. Questions? Call the financial aid office and ask to speak to a representative. When your teen receives an award letter, make sure you adhere to the deadlines. To reserve a spot in the college’s freshman class, a tuition deposit will likely be required by May 1.

Apply for school scholarships
Most schools offer scholarships to current students, and many students don’t realize they’re available. Your child should find the college financial aid office online and research scholarships there. The awards may reward leadership or community service or be major-specific. One of your teen’s talents or passions could end up paying off.

Leave the car home
One of the biggest unexpected college costs can be when a student takes a car to college. Insurance, parking fees, gas and maintenance adds up fast. Don’t let your teen pour time and money into a vehicle in college; insist the car stays home.

Encourage your teen to get a job
Colleges respect teens who successfully manage part-time jobs while maintaining their academic and extracurricular commitments. Encourage your student to perfect time management skills and help pay for items like their textbooks, phone bill and dinners out by getting a part-time job in high school and college.

Next Steppers talk back: How do you plan to pay for college?

College guide

In Georgia, they offer the Hope scholarship. This will pretty much cover a big part of my expenses. I have a part-time job, and my parents help me out a lot. Eventually when I study abroad, I will probably take out a student loan. —Isabel, Athens, Ga.

 I plan to use the Hope scholarship. I also hope to receive a 4-H scholarship or a band scholarship. —Arie, Blakely, Ga.

I plan to pay for college with scholarships, grants, working, and if the need arises, with loans. —Susi, Cedarville, Ohio

I can’t pay for college. My mother works two jobs a day just to keep all of our heads afloat, so I wouldn’t dare ask her to make another sacrifice for me. I’m applying for scholarships and I’m looking at only colleges who offer the financial aid I need or diversity/academic scholarships. —Ulandra, Battle Creek, Mich.

I plan to cut costs as much as I can, along with work and scholarships/grants. —Jesse, Massachusetts

I plan to pay for college by applying for scholarships, getting a job and getting loans from my parents. —Giselle, Brooklyn, N.Y.

I’ll be receiving financial aid and paying with money I’ve saved since 10th grade. —Sylvia, Southfield, Mich.

I plan to apply for a scholarship from the Louisiana government that will pay for two years of college, and my parents are paying the rest. —Karlie, Thibodaux, La.


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