Before making a list of potential colleges for a student, I ask his or her parents to provide me with some financial information so that I can consider this in recommending schools for their child. At least a few times each year, I get a response like the following: “We will figure out a way to pay for our kid to go to whatever school she chooses. We don’t want to rule anything out based on money.”
This approach does not take into account the complex and sometimes emotional nature of the college search and admissions process, and it can end up backfiring. Too often, I see students get into their “dream school” only to have their parents say the student can’t go because the parents can’t afford it. This can be extremely disappointing or even devastating for the student, yet it can be avoided if parents are upfront with their child at the beginning of his college search.
Before you can have an honest conversation with your son or daughter about what you can afford, you need to have an understanding of how much you’ll be required to pay. To get an idea of whether you’ll qualify for need-based aid and how much you’ll get, you can use an EFC (Expected Family Contribution) calculator like the one on the College Board’s website.
To get an estimate of what you’ll have to pay for your child to attend a specific college, use the net price calculator on the college’s website. (Colleges that receive federal funding are required by law to have a net price calculator on their website, so if you’re having trouble finding it, try typing “net price calculator” into the search box on the site.) Many net price calculators ask not only about your finances but also about the student’s grades, test scores, and other criteria that may be used in awarding merit-based scholarships.
Many parents expect their child to cover part of the cost of her education. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I advise students to avoid taking out loans if at all possible. Depending on the size of the loan and the student’s career path, it can take decades to pay off the loan and can impact an individual’s future financial decisions, such as buying a house. Loan payments can be similar to the cost of rent, and it is crippling for young professionals to have to make two rent payments every month. Therefore, if your child is going to take out loans, make sure he understands the terms.
Sometimes parents say, “I worked my way through college, so my kid can, too.” Paying for college with the earnings from a minimum-wage job may have been possible a few decades ago, but it really isn’t today. Even if your child attends the most inexpensive four-year college and works full-time making minimum-wage, she won’t make enough to cover the cost of attendance. Plus, if a student is taking a full course load, working more than part-time likely will have a negative effect on his grades.
Parents should come to an agreement about what they can afford (which may not match the results of the EFC or net price calculators) and what, if anything, they expect their son or daughter to contribute. Once they’ve done that, they should talk openly with their kid, preferably before the student even begins researching colleges. In addition to warding off potential heartache, it makes no sense for a student to spend time on an application and for parents to pay an application fee (typically $40-90) to apply to a college that simply isn’t financially feasible.