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How Can I Afford College

Updated on September 13, 2016

How Can I Afford College

As you (or your child - depending on who is reading this) start planning for life after high school, this main question, for the vast majority of people in America, is "How Can I Afford College?" In today's society, almost any non-minimum wage job requires a college education. We hope to help change the above words in your mind to "I Can Afford College!"

How to Select a College

With almost 4500 choices for college, it may seem rather overwhelming as you start your journey. There are literally 4,495 combined (1,721) 2-year and (2,774) 4-year Title IV-eligible (eligible for federal financial aid) Colleges in the US! Just keep in mind that your college search is your personal journey. It may not end up exactly where you thought when you start. During your journey, you will discover many things about yourself and your goals.

The first step is to find two, three or four criteria to narrow down your choices. Obviously, the importance of any of the items below will vary greatly depending on the personal interests of the student:

(1) Distance from home - driving, within 3 hours, very far away;

(2) Location - big city, college town;

(3) Climate - hot, cold, 4 seasons;

(4) Size of school - very small (1,500 like a high school); small (under 5,000), medium (5,000 - 10,000); large (10,000 - 25,000); very large (25,000 - 40,000); huge (40,000+);

(5) Major - do they have the major you want and graduate possibilities, if that interests or could interest you;

(6) Name Recognition - Ivy, Southern Ivy, respected in your major, respected in your region, sounds impressive ...

(7) Level for Sports (Athletes) - NCAA D-I, NCAA-DII, NCAA-DIII, NAIA;

(8) Level for Sports (Students) - you may want to go to a school that will be playing on National TV every week;

(9) Cost of Attendance - certainly a big one here;

(10) Public or Private - most of the time, private schools offer better scholarships because they are better endowed financially, making the private school actually cheaper or very close in price when compared to the public counterpart;

(11) Availability of College Money - some colleges have very creative scholarships, some colleges will provide a much higher percentage of financial need than others;

Getting into College

Once you have narrowed down your list using the criteria in the previous section, you need to start applying to the colleges on your list (when it is time, or course).

You should make sure that you apply to a couple of "safe" schools that you will definitely be successful being admitted. Normally, these type schools have either a "rolling" admission policy or a non-binding Early Action. Generally, the financial aid and scholarship information is on their website and much less of a mystery than some of the elite top 25 schools. Thus, the pressure getting in somewhere may be off of your shoulders before Labor Day of your senior year.

Visit, Visit, Visit!!!

When you have narrowed down your choices of colleges, it is time to visit. Some of the top colleges actually gauge your level of interest when making admission decisions. They apparently believe this "level of interest" will determine if you will accept their offer of admission. This percentage or "yield" actually determines their return on their investments for their endowments. So this is not an "academic" matter (pun intended).

Since you will be spending 4 years at this place, you really need to see how you fit into the campus, the campus life, the community. You cannot get the right feel for the school through catalogs and virtual tours. Remember, you are not trying the find the "right" school, you are trying to the the right school FOR YOU.

A vast majority of the schools on your list will be ones to which you can drive. Make sure you stop by the grocery store before your trip to pick up snacks, OTC medications, toiletries, drinks, lunch meat, bread, paper products, batteries, extensions cords, lemonade mix, and such.

Consider consolidating as many schools as possible and renting a high-mileage vehicle. You will avoid the wear and tear on your car and probably save enough in gas expenses to pay for the vehicle. Make sure to plan your route carefully and have the hotels taken care of ahead of time to avoid having to sleep in your car. If you use a service like Expedia, you can have the amount pre-charged to avoid potential problems on the road. You will also build points for free stays. Research the areas and read the reviews on the site to avoid exposing your family to a high crime area. Most places will have a refrigerator (check when making the reservation) so you can store your lunch meat to use on the next leg of your trip. If you need a place to break up a long trip, find a fun city since it will probably be a similar route when you actually go to the school.

Fight the urge to go to expensive places to eat on your trip. Try the local hangouts to see how you will fit in. Make sure you have some money ready for parking on campus or in some of the bigger cities. Experience the famous tourist sites, go to their gift shops, eat at the don't-miss restaurants, since that will all enter into your decision at some point. No college is in a vacuum. They all live within a city and area that you will as well. Make sure you look for coupons online or free ways to get into the attraction (World of Coke for free with Coke rewards, coupons for Graceland, Country Music Hall of Fame). Museums and Presidential Libraries (so rich with our history) should also not be missed. Hotels will also have coupons and special deals for the local attractions.

What if You Just Cannot Visit?

As we have already discussed, there really is no substitute for actually visiting a candidate school. With that being said, sometimes it is just not practical to do so. Perhaps the school is too far, it would cost too much to get there just to visit, it has become a candidate "late in the game," it is currently only a "maybe" school, and many other reasons.

There are ways to at least get a better feel for the school with a more virtual approach:

(1) Familiar with the city? Maybe you or your family has already been to the city, or general area, of this school.

(2) Familiar with the school? You may be able to find an alumni or current student in your area, through Facebook, etc.

(3) School Website. Most schools actually have a virtual tour on their site. Take advantage of this. Keep poking around their site for other valuable nuggets.

(4) YouTube. Many schools have their own YouTube channel. If not, search for their name and there are probably videos out there.

(5) Catch them on the road. Most larger schools actually travel to major cities to meet potential students and make presentations similar to the one you would receive during a visit. Sometimes, several schools will join forces for a traveling college fair.

(6) Ask the school. Find your counselor and let them know you cannot physically visit, but are very interested in the school. They can easily flood your mailbox with materials.

ACT and SAT prep

Colleges really put an enormous amount of emphasis on ACT and SAT scores. The more familiar and more comfortable you are with the tests, the higher the potential for success. Since colleges accept your highest score (some even super score), there is no reason why you should not register and take the test multiple times. Make sure you research to see if any of your potential schools need to ACT with writing. If it is a possibility, just take that version. Also, talk with your counselor to see if you can qualify for a fee waiver. These can sometimes be used for application fee waivers at some colleges!

Once you have achieved your "top score," don't forget to send it to all your potential schools. In the recent past, some schools would accept the test scores that were on your high school transcript (which originated from the testing agency); however, this is no longer the case. Your waiver does not apply to reporting beyond the 4 schools for the ACT, but it does work for SAT scores. Regardless, it is something that you must take care of - within the application deadlines. It is not instant, so factor the time delay in to your schedule! So, there is no reason to wait and make everyone nervous and perhaps not get into your dream school.

If you are applying early to some schools, make sure that your test scores get there before the deadline. If the scores are reported directly to the schools, they will get there quicker.

Once you obtain your terminal score, send it to all of the schools. You will either run out of time (deadline for test to get in for the application deadline) or reach the end of the scoring (perhaps you have obtained the same score three times in a row, for example). The ACT is instant, the SAT sends it every so many weeks. So keep this in mind. "Safety factor!"

There are a number of good books out there to help you prepare.

Visiting is NOT a Vacation

Some of the colleges you will be visiting will be in cities worthy of exploring. While the city in which the college is located, or located nearby, is quite relevant to your search, the factors within the beautiful campus should carry considerable more weight.

Certainly, it would be hard to resist:

*** Seeing the World of Coke if you are visiting Georgia Tech or Emory or the University of Georgia;

*** Catching a Red Sox game if you are visiting M.I.T. or Harvard or Boston College or Boston University;

*** Finding yourself at Wrigley Field if you are visiting the University of Chicago;

**** Marveling at the Bay Area if you are visiting Stanford or Cal-Berkeley.

Anyway, you get the picture. While exploring a major U.S. city is exciting and should be done since that will enter into the decision process, there are higher priorities during your college visit.

You just need to make sure you remember you primary focus - the school. Meet some professors, meet some students that are not tour guides, sit in on a class, meet people on the current team or organization you may be joining, have lunch in their cafeteria or at one of the "dives" right off of campus, see how friendly random students are, get a feel for the campus and campus life.

If you are interested in pursuing a graduate degree afterwards, especially in a technical field, make sure there are research opportunities available for undergraduates, and make sure you have the ability to take graduate classes as an undergraduate. Some schools, not just Princeton, will have an opportunity for a Senior Thesis. Take it!! Graduate schools just love this kind of stuff.

Take Dual Credit Classes

Most high schools in this country have partnered with a local university to offer dual credit classes. Take them! There are many advantages:

(1) These classes are taught in your high school, with your teachers, so they are easier than college classes.

(2) The cost is very minimal - less than $100 per credit hour, so again much cheaper than college classes.

(3) Since these hours are NOT taken after high school graduation, ALMOST ALL (please check with your eventual college) colleges consider you an incoming freshman and not a transfer student, which is vital for scholarship money (and sometimes for admission).

(4) You use the high school's textbooks, so no worries as far as buying or renting books, which you will do plenty of in college.

(5) With enough hours that transfer, it is possible to either finish in 3 or 3 1/2 years. At a minimum, your class load will be lessened.

{Make sure you check with your eventual college regarding which classes will actually transfer. Policies vary greatly from school to school. Most colleges will allow you to submit your transcripts for transfer evaluation either after applying or acceptance.}

Take IB Classes

If you are fortunate enough to be attending a high school that offers IB courses, this is even better than the dual credit classes. They are completely geared to help you pass the AP tests (SAT II). These are much easier to obtain credit for at more colleges than dual credit. Best of luck!

SAT Subject Tests for College Credit?

Commonly known as the SAT II, these are required for admission to some of the elite colleges. However, a hidden gem is that some schools will accept a certain score as credit for their courses. That is just an awesome deal for cost and added flexibility. Normally, they will allow you to even take the tests in the summer after graduation. The deadline is stated as prior to matriculation. So once you have been admitted, send some emails and check out this potential "buried treasure."

Financial Aid & Scholarship Game

Good or bad, it really is a game. FAFSA, PROFILE are two acronyms that do not appear in our everyday languages. Sometimes, tax planning and FAFSA planning are exact opposites.

Unfortunately, some students find out that there were scholarships (even major ones) they could have qualified for if they knew ahead of time. One example would be the National Merit Finalist scholarship that a certain number of schools offer. University of Central Florida and Baylor University would be two good examples. Most of the schools that used to give out money for this have stopped for some reason. A half to a full tuition scholarship is still available. The bad thing is if you find out in the summer between your junior and senior years when most students go on campus visits, it is too late. The only road to a National Merit Scholarship is to qualify through the PSAT (normally taken at your local high school in October), then taking the SAT. Some students do really well on only the SAT or ACT, but not both. If you are an "ACT-only" student, you kinda miss out on this type scholarship.

Obviously, there are "specialty" scholarships that you have to have certain talents or interests to qualify. For example, sports, math, art, speech, debate, writing, music. If you have interest/talent in these areas, you have to make sure to market yourself to even be considered. Being on a traveling/club team and private lessons is a must for sports. Make sure your instruments are in great condition for the musicians out there. There should be a local music store that will have a rent-to-own program that will also include free maintenance and repair during this time, Camps will help in the other areas (as well as for sports). There is probably a college camp that is available in your local area. If you have the opportunity for high level competition - this goes for non-athletic events as well - take advantage of this. State Math Teams will help you become a better candidate for scholarships, and sometimes admission. There are departmental scholarships that will not really be disclosed until the professors know you have a great chance of success in college in your areas. Any investment here could pay off many fold!

Compare "Cost of Attendance" Figures

All colleges are required to disclose "Cost of Attendance" figures on their websites. If you have trouble finding it, just put the name of the school and "cost of attendance" in a search engine to find that particular page.

These figures include tuition and fees, room and board, travel expenses and other expenses. Some schools with lower tuition end up having a higher COA and vice versa. It is certainly worth analyzing the numbers with much more scrutiny. The COA is where the schools start when figuring your financial aid package, so it is definitely a relevant figure!

Do Not Miss That Deadline, Especially The Money One!!

Most students concentrate on the application deadlines, but neglect the sometimes more important financial aid deadlines.

First of all, make sure you research which forms are required by the schools on your list. All will require the FAFSA. The FAFSA for the school year that starts in August will be available on January 1. Do not even look at it before this date, because it will be for the previous year. Make sure to do your own research for your schools of course, but the earliest priority date should be February 1st. If you are on top of things, you can actually have your tax returns ready before this date since you should have your W-2's in hand. It will keep you so much more organized and you will be ahead of the game. Realistically speaking, you may not be ready to file your taxes by the end of January. It is alright to have estimates when you file. To receive a final determination, you will need to go through a verification process through the FAFSA form through the IRS. If you wait past the priority date for your schools to even file the FAFSA, you will miss out on money that would have otherwise been available. So file on time with estimates and correct later!

Most private schools (and a handful of public ones) ALSO require the CSS/Profile, which can be found on the College Board site. Generally, if you are applying Early Decision or Early Action, that deadline is also the deadline for the CSS/Profile. In such cases, these particular schools realize that some of your figures will be "wild guesses" since you are doing this in late October. Basically, you have to hand write the correct numbers in January when you have the information. They know this, so it will be fine. If you are applying to other Profile schools, you can update your information on the form online and send the correct information to the new schools. The cost is $16 plus $9 per school. There is supposed to be an automatic waiver based upon your input, but you know how that goes ...

Even though many of the elite private schools that require the CSS/Profile and state they will meet "100% of demonstrated financial need," this seems to be a somewhat ambiguous figure. When you apply to a school that only requires the FAFSA, they all work with the same EFC (Estimated Family Contribution). However, these large endowment schools take basically the same information and determine what your "demonstrated financial need" is in their eyes. Feel free to try it out. Go to 4-5 of the elite private schools and fill out their Net Price Calculators. Even with the same exact information, you will get different figures in the end. Go figure! <= pun intended

Textbooks for Less

Just click on any of the items to go to the Amazon site. Then you can actually search by ISBN or book title. The best part is that Amazon will also give you a list of other sites that have the book USED for big savings! Most of these places are large college textbook places throughout the country. You will be able to see feedback comments and make sure to make the right choice.

You can also see the trade in price that Amazon will give you when you are done with the textbook. Make sure you keep a chart of these prices and sell when it is the highest. Sites such a Valore Books and Chegg both buy, sell and rent books. It is almost like the stock market!

Remember that sometimes choosing a "Fulfillment by Amazon" option could be cheaper since you do not have to pay the $3.99 shipping (PER BOOK) if your order total is more than $25.($35 now) or if you are an Amazon Prime member. And it should be there before the next time you have the class!

Common Application

Some schools take only the Common Application or have it as an option. Despite its bad press, it is actually a good idea. It is normally available on August 1 of each year. You can start filling out the preliminary information at that point. The essay topics are available even earlier so you can get a head start on their composition.

Once the main part is competed, and the recommendations are submitted, the true beauty of the Common Application appears like a beautiful budding rose. You can choose which recommendations go to which school and you have now avoided having to track down teachers and counselors to continuously write the same letter.

Each school will have its own section with short essays (normally school specific - why this University, etc.), a maybe a few quick questions. Then, boom, SUBMIT. So, so easy.

Of course, each school has its own application fee. But keep in mind that you can either use the College Board waivers or have you and your counselor fill out the "waiver areas" for a permanent waiver.

Better Than Ivie: Elite State Flagship Programs

Yes, you read correctly. There are actually 4 elite state flagship programs that will give you an advantage over Ivie grads, especially if graduate or professional school is on your radar. These 4 programs are: the Foundation Fellowship at the University of Georgia, the Forty Acres Scholars Program at the University of Texas, the Jefferson Scholars at the University of Virginia, and the Morehead-Cain Scholars at the University of North Carolina.

If you are a top student, you will certainly have AP or dual credit courses that you are hoping will transfer to your college of choice. Generally speaking, Ivies and top 20 schools will not allow courses that are on your high school transcript to transfer as college credit. There may be exceptions, so check with your college admissions officer to be sure. Sometimes, especially in math classes, the math department may allow you to take the next math course, but the university will not allow the credit.

Since the 4 schools in question are state schools, their AP/dual credit transfer policies will be much more liberal. This will allow much more flexibility in scheduling. There will also be potential openings for graduate level classes when you are ready - perhaps the last semester of your junior year and your senior year. With research and travel stipends and a theses (like Princeton), you will set yourself apart when compared with other candidates for the coveted grad school slots.

Obviously, if you are offered a spot for their interview weekend, do anything you need to accept. Normally, you have a great scholarship offered if you agree to complete the weekend. You are then in the running for the unbelievable scholarship that is "better than Ivie." Remember that they do watch your social interactions and family relationships during the weekend. Put your best foot forward. Best of luck!

These 4 schools do not simply provide a "free ride." It is known as a "free ride plus" with the out of state tuition waiver, tuition, room and board, stipends, travel/research grants. At UGA, you have to apply separately for the program. At UT, you are automatically considered when you apply to the university.

Take Care of Your Admitted Student - DO NOT miss any Deadlines!

Once your student has chosen their perfect-fit school, the work is not over. Make sure all of the deadlines are met for their school. Send the tuition deposit on time. Send the housing deposit on time. Make sure you fill out all of the forms necessary. Encourage your student to find social media groups for their class as well as smaller groups they may be a part of. Especially if they are going some distance from home, make sure they are comfortable ahead of time.

Make sure you go with them to the orientation weekend. Scope out their needed stores, restaurants, travel arrangements, etc. Research air, rail, street transportation. Make arrangements for Thanksgiving and Christmas visits back home. This will help with adjustments and homesickness. Early purchase of airline tickets, shuttle services, train tickets will save money as well.

Moving your Student into Their New Life

This is a happy thing - really. Stay upbeat. Having them live in your basement and going to the local community college for a semester and dropping out is not a good alternative. Make sure not to buy too many things, but buy enough. If you are short on space in your vehicle, buy vacuum bags - they are truly fabulous. Remember you can ship the old things as well as buying new and sending towels, linens, hair products, books ... Amazon's Prime will be your best friend. Students get 6 months free and half price renewal as long as they have an .edu email.

Make them feel extra special and less homesick (which means better grades, no loss of scholarships, better mental health) by getting them plenty of money for their campus monetary units, local coffee shop, local restaurant and hangout gift cards, school usb's, school attire and gifts. If you student is a little ways from home, find a parent group that is rasing money by delivering special care packages. It will be a great investment in the long run and actually save you money!

New Guestbook Comments

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    • boneworld profile image

      Jackson Thom 

      5 years ago from West of Left South Lucky

      These are some good details. I have a little boy still, but eventually I'll need to start thinking about these things.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Great Info! This lens will help as I develop mine (I'm a newbit to Squidoo and have a lens about Financial Aid &amp; Scholarships). Might be some good information to source on your own lens!


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