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College Tuition: Advice about The Process and Paying the Bill

Updated on August 24, 2012

My oldest son just began his freshman year at college. He chose a prestigious, out-of-state institution with a hefty price tag---almost a quarter of a million dollars for four years. Without a college savings plan or a big income, we were able to pay his first year's tuition without taking out any loans. How were we able to make this happen? Mainly, through a lot of hard work on my son's part. But also because of some solid preparation during his last years of high school.

Tuition costs absolutely terrified me. I feared the whole process. But I am living proof that you can navigate through it all. It is important to be educated about education costs in order to make the right decisions for you and your child. Here are some pointers that I picked up throughout the process.

Do's and Don'ts About the Process

1. DON'T Be Afraid! Remind yourself that millions of families around the world have successfully navigated this process before you. Although the financial aid applications can seem overwhelming, they can be conquered easily when taken one step at a time. And although the cost of college is overwhelming as well, there are options to make paying for it possible.

2. DON'T Procrastinate! It is never too early to begin the journey of college decisions. We began visiting college campuses during my son's freshman year in high school. He didn't pass up any opportunity to see any college he could. He knew immediately which colleges he liked and which he didn't. The same advice goes for financial aid forms---do not put off deadlines! The most important financial aid forms can usually be filled out beginning in January of your child's senior year--don't put it off! If your children are little right now, do not put off saving for college. Start now!

3. DON'T Ignore The True Cost Of College! Ignoring the cost will not make it go away. Face the facts head on as you make a decision with your child about college. Find out all of the costs involved at each particular school. Basics for all schools include tuition, room and board. But beyond that there are other fees such as academic fees, actitvity fees, technology fees, and health service fees. Find out what each college estimates for books and supplies and personal expenses. Also keep in mind the cost for travel if your child is going far away.All of these costs can add thousands of dollars to your total bill. Such figures can really factor into your decision.

4. DON'T Think You Are Ineligible For Financial Aid! Formulas for financial aid take into consideration number of family members, how many will be attending college at the same time, and the tuition costs for each school. Even if you are in a higher-income bracket, paying for college may be on a tax-favored basis. But you need to fill out financial aid forms to see what aid is available to you.

5. DO Make Sure Financial Aid Forms Are Complete and Accurate. Errors on forms such as the FAFSA (Federal Financial Aid Form) can cause delays in financial aid. When you fill out the forms, plan for a block of time and have necessary information available, such as social security numbers for your child, yourself and your spouse, tax and income information. (If your income taxes are not complete for the year, you can still fill out the forms and add the tax information at a later date.) You need to know what IRS form you use, what exemptions you have, all income information, and financial worth including savings, cash, checking, investments and real estate (not including the home you live in.) Having all of this information at the ready will make the whole process so much easier!

6. DO Apply For Everything. Apply for all possible financial aid and encourage your child to apply for all available scholarships. Your guidance office at school is a great resource for this information. Keep in mind that you can not get the aid of scholarships if your child doesn't apply! My son applied for nearly twenty scholarships and won several. Some were through his high school, others through the community, one from his after-school job, and one large amount through his chosen college. These financial rewards are allowing him to attend college without any loans, so far. This would not have been possible without his scholarship money. Many of his friends, however, chose not to apply for any scholarships at all! Some scholarships at his highschool had no applicants at all and the money was left unrewarded to anyone. So encourage your child to apply!

7. DO Seek Out As Much Financial Advice As You Can. I went to free seminars available in my area and through our high school. I found them to be very helpful in preparing me for the entire process . I also went to a free consultation with a College Planning Advisor whose paid services included everything from helping with the financial aid forms to taking over the process completely. A College Planning Advisor knows the legal and ethical "ins and outs" of where to put and how to label your money for the best advantage of financial aid. They can help guide you through the entire process if you are overwhelmed. My friend paid a College Planning Advisor $700 to oversee the entire process for her . She believes it was money well-spent. Even if you do not go for the paid services, you can always take advantage of any free advice they are willing to give, which is what I did.

8. DO Prepare Your Child For The Work And Time Involved With scholarships Applications. Most scholarships request a school transcript, a list of activities, completion of an application, and an essay. My son found that nearly every essay needed to be tailored to the specific scholarship he was applying for, so he couldn't re-use the same essay over and over. In addition to his heavy senior year workload, and to applying to colleges, the scholarship work took up a great deal of time. It was also necessary for him to keep track of deadlines since they varied for each scholarship and spanned over several months. Also, it is important to learn ALL the requirements for scholarships so as to not waste time. These are not always spelled out and may require some questioning on your part. For example, a scholarship may only be for someone entering the nursing field, or for a football player, or for a resident of a certain area. My son spent some time applying for some scholarships only to learn later that he was not eligible for them.

9. Do Keep Your Options Open. Applying to more than one college can encourage financial aid officers to offer you more money as a way to entice you to come to their school. And believe it or not, some private schools with high price tags may end up costing you less than state schools who cannot offer much financial aid. A private college offered my son a hefty merit-based scholarship that was simply not available at a cheaper-priced state college he had been accepted to. This made the tuitions almost comparable and helped solidify his final college choice.

10. DO Pay For One Semester At A Time. We heard of a girl whose parents sank over $50,000 into a year of college, only to have her decide she hated it there. At a certain point, your money can not be refunded, and every college's policy is different. Be aware of these refund policies, just in case. Also, some colleges do offer monthly payment plans. That may also be a smart option.

11. DO Be Careful When Considering Loans. This is probably the most important piece of advice. We qualified for several state grants and loans. Grants do not have to be paid back, but loans do. Consider that if your child chooses a school out of state, (like our son did) he/she will forfeit in-state grants. Also, although my son's college tried to encourage us that it was wonderful that we qualified for some much "aid", the truth was, most of it was in the form of loans. This is money that we, along with our son, would have to eventually pay back, with interest. And the interest on these loans was higher than if we had gotten a personal loan at the bank ourselves!


We feel very blessed that, with the aid of several scholarships, our son is able (so far) to be in college without a loan. If we had to consider loans, it may have changed where my son decided to go to school. Ask yourself, what is college really worth? To sink yourself (or your child) into financial ruin or to get in over your heads may not be the smart decision when it comes to an education,especially when a job may not be a guarantee upon graduation.

In order to make the wisest decision for you and your child, be proactive throughout this process. Face college costs head on, don't delay with financial aid or scholarship applications, seek out advice, and consider all options, including financial ones, while working with your child on a college choice. Hopefully this will lead you to a place you can both be happy about!

Pictures of My Son At College


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