Applying for Financial Aid

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If a buy a house, will that affect financial aid?

April 2013

I am a single parent of two teen-age boys, one a junior in HS. Our financial situation is stable, more or less, but on a teacher's salary and no child support from ex, we are making ends meet, but barely. My question is this: We currently rent our house. My 2 sons go to an excellent private school, and we receive very generous financial assistance from the school, based on my income and I assume, lack of assets. We are looking at colleges for my older son, and of course we are investigating all avenues for need-based, as opposed to loans, financial aid for college. A possible opportunity has arisen to purchase a small house that is in foreclosure. Our mortgage, should I even qualify for one, would be significantly less than our current rent. Does owning a house, even a small one, as opposed to renting, make any significant difference in how a FAFSA is interpreted, and what aid may or may not be awarded? I do not want to jeopardize any non-loan aid that might be available to my son by becoming a home-owner, but at the same time, the chance to enter the housing market in a reasonably affordable way is tempting too. Will this make a big difference? Thank you for any and all advice regarding financial aid for college - it is a huge process and more than a little overwhelming.

Hi-I would not assume that buying a house will help you. I owned a house and did not get any aid except a few loans. I sold my house, now rent, and was not asked a thing about how much my rent was. However-the fact that I now have a little extra $ in the bank (waiting for next house purchase when market settles down) it looks like I have more money. It is a very unfair process especially for people in high rent areas such as the Bay Area. check with financial aid consultants prior to making any decisions. ALSO- I learned belatedly that private schools offer much more aid than public schools so look into that as a way of getting funds too. good luck,.the process is far from easy or clear. anon

If you buy a house, the equity you have in that house will not be considered by public colleges as money available to you, but will be considered by private colleges as money that you could potentially draw on. Thus the FAFSA will not ask about your home equity, but other financial aid forms used by private colleges--such as the PROFILE--will ask you about the value of your home and how much equity you have in it. Because of this, some parents want their children to apply only to public colleges, but other parents complete all forms and see whether or not the private college offers more aid to their child. Sometimes the private college has more money to offer. Anonymous

How to afford college expenses like housing and books

Feb 2013

Hello, I need information about the college fees once the child lives out of home, it gets expensive with 10K more per year. FASFA I hear helps lots of people but with us its every year congratulations you can add it to all your other loans in life. I wonder we are missing on Cal Grant or something may help for real, please help with some good websites even if its only for books. Regards, Stressed parent

If you're going to get a Cal grant, you'll get it via the FAFSA process, so you're not missing out there. Two ideas: go to your school's financial aid office to get advice on looking for other grants. You can also do searches online, of course. And, can you do anything to get your income lower? Do you do your own taxes? Are you self-employed? Are you getting all the deductions you can? I am self-employed and my accountant gets me all the deductions she can so my income is as low as possible. Other than that, there are no miracle solutions, I'm afraid. sympathetic

In regards to the great expense of college, I would highly recommend that your child consider community college to complete their general education requirements. After high school, my daughter went to CAL State for 1 quarter and it was way too hard on the wallet because of the room and board. It turns out my daughter wasn't happy there, so she transferred to our local community college. She has been attending the community college for nearly 2 years, and she's getting a good education at a much less expensive price. The community college guarantees admission to certain CAL states and UC campuses, providing that the student takes the required general education (breadth requirements) and maintains a good GPA. community college is a viable option

The best comprehensive website for financial aid is For scholarships, sign up at, and you'll get lots of potential non-need based scholarship ideas. (Hint: don't forego the small scholarships; they can add up. And chances of winning them are greater than chances of winning the huge scholarships that everyone and their brother sign up for!) For California grants, check out Also, some schools provide merit aid, and may even indicate on their web site what the criteria are so you can get an idea of what may be available. Financial Aid Helper

Cal Grants have income and GPA requirements and are only for students attending California colleges. To find out the parents' income limits that allow a student to be eligible for Cal Grants, Google ''income limit for Cal Grants.'' The website gives basic information about how much the Cal Grant award is for each type of school. The deadline for Cal Grants is fast approaching. Anonymous


Scholarship possibilites for a middle-of-the road family?

Feb 2013

Our family is not needy, nor are we from any minority group. However, we'll have 2 kids concurrently enrolled in college for at least 3 years, and we can't afford to send them both (or possibly either) to big-name schools. I wonder if there are any scholarships for academic merit anymore, or for music (rather than sports!). Is there a way to find merit-scholarships online? Any help would be appreciated. (I know that one option is to enroll at first in community colleges or in-state or local schools, and I'd happily receive wisdom on those sorts of lower-cost choices as well.) - Too much income but not enough money

My daughter applied for about 15 scholarships when she was a high school senior but wasn't awarded any of them. She ended up transferring after her 1st quarter from a Cal State that was way too expensive to a more affordable community college to complete her general education requirements. That being said, there is a ''Scholarship 101'' workshop on 2/23/13 at 1:00 pm at YMCA Teen ASP, 2111 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley. For more information, email gmsa.berkeley [at] college isn't cheap

Your kids' high school should have some resources about scholarships. Start there for recommendations. As far as specific scholarships, I honestly don't think you're going to get much that way--there's no free ride these days, if there ever was. But you could always research specific schools you're interested in and see what they offer, if you don't turn up anything through your high school's resources.

In the spring of the year your first child will start college, you will need to fill out the FAFSA online. That is a consolidated financial aid website and a pretty much mandatory first step to getting any aid. Via that you will hear about Pell grants, Cal grants, whatever financial aid your college offers you, and loans (subsidized and unsubsidized).

Having two kids in college at once should help some; they do take that into account.

A few random things: in case of divorce/separate households, you only need to put down one family's income, not both. We used mine, which was far lower. If you're self-employed, get a good accountant so you can get your income as low as possible the year before your kids start.

I personally think that, with few exceptions, there's no reason not to do CSUs. If your children are going into a field where an Ivy League type degree is required, fine. But most people don't need that. I don't know if there's much benefit to doing community college and then transferring to a CSU or other--my husband wished he'd just gone to a CSU first. Also, he was in a program at Laney College that was supposed to help him transition to UC Berkeley, but then he was turned down by UCB because his GPA wasn't high enough, something the program had never flagged as an issue. Very upsetting at the last minute. He went to SFSU and was very happy there (as was I, for both BA and MA degrees).

Your kids should expect to work during college to help defray expenses.

Overall, what's difficult about the whole situation these days is that you need a college degree to get just about any job that's not retail, but a college degree is absolutely no guarantee of anything. The job market for young adults is staggeringly bad. My feeling is that college still opens doors and still gives kids a chance to round out their education while finishing growing up. I would not break the bank the achieve these goals, however. one kid is out of college, two to go

We have a junior in college and have been through the process of trying to finance a very expensive education on what would appear to be ''too much income''. Despite this our daughter received generous scholarships for her cost of tuition. Yes, she is a very good student, but she didn't have perfect test scores or perfect grades. All of the other schools where she was accepted had a ''big'' name but were not nearly as generous with their grants and scholarships.

Having two kids in college will definitely be taken into consideration when/if you apply for financial aid (FAFSA). Merit scholarships that are granted by outside organizations other than the school itself will go toward tuition, etc., but will also reduce whatever financial aid you may be granted by the school. It's a Catch-22.

When you and your kids look at schools consider what sort of endowment they have, and how many of their students are given financial aid, this information is usually published on their website and can give you a pretty good idea of how well the school will be help you offset the costs.

Lastly, we would not have been able to finance our daughter's education without federal parent loans. I tried to encourage our daughter to attend two years at community college to save money but I'm very happy she chose otherwise. Her working relationships, academic challenges and successes, and close friendships have really paid off for her. But when it comes down to it if your kids are happy following that route it is a great savings in the end and can greatly improve their chances of going to any of the UC schools to finish their last two years. It's the route I had to take and I don't regret it at all. Best of luck

You kids can get a merit scholarship by attending a school that is slightly lower, in terms of test scores, than what they qualify for. These can still be GREAT schools!!! Schools want these ''top'' kids (for them) because it raises their rankings. Our son receives $14,000 a year, or about 1/3 off. middle class mom


If a buy a house, will that affect financial aid?

Jan 2013

As my two kids approach college (one will start in 7 years), I'm wondering if it's a good idea to start making less money so they will have a chance of receiving financial aid. I have my own business and make a fairly high net income, but pay over 40% in total taxes. I have many friends who chose to be SAH parents, or chose to work very part time doing creative jobs like photographer and writer, and they have ended up getting free tuition to private school, subsidized camps etc. all these years. They also have mellow lives without corporate stress! I feel like a dupe for selling my soul to a high-stress job just so we can pay full price for everything. We've saved $1000 a month in 529s since they were born, but it will still come up short, and we had to work so many hours and forgo so much to save like that. The problem is, I asked my accountant ''how much can we make so our kids will for sure receive financial aid in college?'' and he could not answer, saying it's a complicated formula. Does anyone with experience know the magic number for household income to receive financial aid for college? How long of a period do they look at in making financial aid decisions - 3 years prior to starting college? longer? Thanks for any insights! Would love to mini-retire

Let's see, you say your eldest is seven years away from college, which would make him/her eleven years old. You have a younger child too. You have been saving $1,000 per month since birth of children. ''But still it won't be enough.'' I'd say $216,000 (likely higher than that in seven years, depending on your particular 529 investments) will be plenty, unless you want your kids to never have a job themselves while in college (and why would you do that? surely you must have worked, at least during the summers.) Please step back & realize that many people are lucky if they can save $1,000 per YEAR for their child's future education. And most can't even save that. Instead of trying to game the system, realize how very lucky you are. I wouldn't feel jealous of artist friends, unless they are secret trust-funders. They may be getting low-cost summer programs and tuition breaks, but let's face it: this is the bay area, and if you make less than $100K/year (most writers/artists I know make *much* less than that) you need all the breaks you can get, especially if you have more than one kid. Perspective is Key

Are you sure you aren't on track to be okay with your kids' college costs? You're saving $1000/month and the oldest is still seven years out? Wow.

Look, if your children go to very expensive schools, maybe you won't have enough. Maybe you will. Maybe they will get merit scholarships. Maybe they won't even get into the very expensive schools (yes, I know that they're all getting expensive, but there's still a range). It's really hard to know what you'll be doing in seven years.

Sure, you can quit your job, make less money, and maybe take advantage of some scholarships or sliding scale rates. I have been a self-employed writer for 14 years, and with the economy down, I have no choice but to apply for every discount I can get. And it really stinks. It stinks explaining each year to Healthy Families just how much I make and how I spend it, but by doing so, I save $200/month on my son's health insurance, which is huge for us. We make right on the borderline for just about every lower-middle class program, so it's a constant battle. Last year I was on track to make about $1,000-$2,000 more than last year, and that jeopardized about $5,000 worth of funding. I am not enjoying this. I'd rather make more money and not have to deal with the humiliation and invasion of my privacy. Maybe your friends would, too.

I think the bigger question is whether you're happy in your work. Don't compare yourself to others' situations--you don't know what's happening for them. Do you like working in your business? Are you happy with your lifestyle? Make your changes based on that, not just on some assumption about how it would be if you were broke and qualified for aid. Being broke and qualifying for aid really stinks. miss the days when I made good money

My experience is with the UC system, not private colleges.

The FAFSA asks for your adjusted gross income. If you can get it under about $78k-$80k, you are well-positioned to qualify for financial aid -- assuming that you don't have huge assets. We are self-employed, so we have a large gross income, but much of it is cancelled out by business expenses.

I am not sure how much the money you have saved in 529 accounts will weigh against this. With 529s, when the kid turns 18, the account can be put in their name rather than the parents'.

Others may have more comprehensive info on this. anonymous

A number of schools like Harvard have decided that a family that earns less than $60,000 a year is poor and almost all costs of going to school there are covered including tuition, room, board, and maybe some other expenses. If the family earns between 60k and 130k then they get a partial scholarship based on a sliding scale. These numbers may not now be accurate and of course depend on the school but there are now quite a few that do this and you can search the internet and find many stories about this. My daughter currently attends Brown and after 3.5 years has only $1000 in loans out. Pretty remarkable. So go to the websites of the schools you think your child may attend and look at their financial aid page and they should have a pretty clear explanation of how they do things (subject to your FAFSA's EFC - expected family contribution).

An odd thing is that many state schools (like Cal) may be more expensive to a Californian than going to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. That's because a ''full'' scholarship to a state school, whose in-state cost is about 26000 (vs 54000 for Brown), often means the ''tuition'' (or in CA, fees) are covered but many other things may not be. Since the fees at Cal are about 13000, a full scholarship may only cover half the actual costs of attending.

Next issue - when to ''stop'' working, or when to start living in poverty on 60k a year. Just a year before applying to college. For instance, the FAFSA application you fill out for the 2013-14 school year will be based on your 2012 earnings. Note, unless you have unusually large asset worth, this will not generally affect the aid you get. The questions are mostly about INCOME in the previous year meaning tax return stuff (including interest earned, ect.), and not about how many homes you own or the fact you have five mint Maserattis. I believe it does however ask you how much you currently have in cash and stocks. Disclaimer: some schools do have you fill out ''supplemental'' information which may ask about assets, houses, business net worth, etc, but the standard FAFSA does not. Go to the FAFSA website and maybe you can look at the questions but you may need to apply for a PIN first. It's probably easier to find a book about this that recreates the FAFSA forms or look online at non-FAFSA sites maybe.

Lastly, what to do with all those college savings? Well, they ask you about that, if I remember right, and then it seems to me they penalize you for having been a good citizen by gladly helping themselves to your college savings. However, if these savings are not in a ''college'' savings account, but just some other regular account, well, I don't know. You could find a college counselor who might have more detail. sean

Financial aid is generally offered in the form of a loan or loans, either subsidized or unsubsidized, public or private. My mother lost her job just after I started college, and we immediately got more aid the following year. What that meant for my sister, whose college didn't have a great endowment, was that she got lots of aid in the form of huge, huge loans. She is now drowning in debt. If we can help my child avoid graduating with massive debt, that will be a wonderful thing for him to be able to start his life without having to subtract a huge loan payment from every paycheck. My sister is paying $1000/month in loan payments. I did better because my college offered grants, but I wouldn't count on that.

My understanding of college financial aid comes from my own college experience almost 15 years ago, but I don't think the basic rules have changed.

The answer to whether you'll have the resources to pay for college yourself or via financial aid, at your current or a lower income level, really just depends entirely on where your children 1) expect to, and 2) can go to college. Different schools just have very, very different financial aid offerings, even though they all use the same forms to calculate ''need'' (it's worth noting that the standard FAFSA, which leaves out a lot of info on parents' financial status, is not the primary tool used by most's mostly used to calculate eligibility for forms of federal aid, which always supplement school aid but never come close to meeting actual need).

If your kids are academic superstars, there's a very good chance that, at whatever level of income you choose to be at, they'll find a way to attend college without mortgaging their future too badly. This is because a handful of the most selective schools in the country (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, maybe Columbia) are extremely generous with aid both for low-income and for middle-class families and really will meet whatever your need is if you get admitted. And/or there still are very high-quality schools out there, I think, that offer merit-based scholarships...University of Chicago is one that, at least last I heard, still gives some students merit-based free rides.

Also, if your kids would be comfortable going to state universities, you probably should feel freer to switch voluntarily to a lower income bracket. Even with tuition increases the fees are just so much more manageable...with the savings you've accumulated so far, and some financial planning, you can make this work.

The un-sweet spot to be in is if your kids are likely, because of the kind of high school they attend and the social world they're in, to be looking at slightly less selective national private schools like NYU, USC, Boston University, Tufts, and even Cornell/Penn/Brown. Sadly, while I imagine these schools do work to make themselves affordable to at least some truly low-income students, they are accessible to middle-class students only through enormous debt. Unless you are willing to let yourself become truly low-income, these schools will be out of reach for your kids if you downshift. If they seem like the kinds of places your kids may want to go (and if you are sending them to a private or ''good'' public high school, that is quite possible), you may be setting yourself on a difficult road if you downshift.

Good luck! It's a frustratingly complicated, opaque system. Former scholarship kid

College Cost Blues

Jan 2013

Is there any point in applying for aid with a family income of about $180,000? I realize we are fortunate and well off, yet we live a modest life - no cable, 20 year old car, cook at home. Are there really no resources? Will our 2 children even qualify for reduced interest loans? Our savings for each total $40,000, which will cover a little more than one year of UC. We should be able to keep contributing about $10,000 each per year, if we live on beans and toast, and the car doesn't die, but I'm sad and frustrated to realize the situation we're in. Neither child will get scholarships based on sports, talent, academics, or heritage. Am I missing any options? Blue

Complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and see what the colleges will offer. Also, each college should have on their website a Cost of Attendance calculator that will give you some idea as to the total cost and possibly possible financial aid for your situation.

If you apply for financial aid, then the college is supposed to make you (actually your child) an offer so that you can pay for your child's college expenses. The offer can include loans, grants, etc. David

Yes. You should apply for financial aid regardless of your gross income. You need to fill out the FASFA forms and College Board stuff just to get your foot in the door. You are unlikely to get much aid on the basis of those filings, but what worked for us was a request for review by the college after daughter was accepted. I pointed out how little was left for discretionary spending after paying mortgage, high property taxes, etc., and we received an award that made it do-able. Not easy, but do-able. Been there

Don't expect any free money. However, both parents and kids are eligible for loans. I will have borrowed a total of 20K at the end of my college kid's fourth year and she will have borrowed 20K as well. She has jobs to pay for living off campus (no work study because she is not eligible.) She attends a UC. On your family income, this should easily be doable. I suggest having your kids be invested in their education and letting them know they will be expected to contribute. Your kids can also be Resident Assistants in the dorm in their second year and this will pay for room and board. It's doable

Yes, there is always a point to applying for aid. You should go online and fill out the FAFSA form ( This form is the gateway to financial aid and it's no big deal to fill it out (just stay patient and check your information carefully!). You never know what you'll get. The school your child attends will connect with the FAFSA results and let you know what you are offered by them and by government sources.

I was making decent money when I decided to go back to school to get an MA in creative writing at SFSU. Didn't do the FAFSA at first because I didn't know anything about it. But when I did, I was surprised to get some Cal grants. Who knew? They also consider how many kids you have in school, which can help. definitely do it

2010 - 2012 Discussions



Family contribution too high on financial aid

Feb 2012


We just submitted our FAFSA and CSS and the initial email we received back is that we can be expected to contribute 37,000 (of 50k+) a year towards our daughters tuition. That's 28% of our income. My question is in the end can we expect more help from the schools or is this accurate? anon

It depends. I think FAFSA is a farce as Bay Area folks are concerned, since it seems to look almost entirely at income and not, for example, at how much you might be paying on a mortgage. If your daughter gets accepted at a school with a healthy endowment, you definitely have a chance of some assistance. For us (this was a few years ago), both Harvard and Dartmouth were willing to look at exactly how much was left on a monthly basis after mortgage/property taxes were taken into account, and both offered enough aid to make the cost (not counting air fare a couple times a year, which adds up) comparable with attending UC (which wouldn't offer any aid at all, so we were looking at full fare there). Seemed pretty fair to me. It has still meant a bit of belt-tightening, but nowhere near what the FAFSA estimates would have expected of us. All you can do is ask. In my experience, the financial aid folks really are interested in helping. They're not your adversaries in any sense.

Just wanted to note that many parents can't come up with the financial aid ''Family Contribution'' just out of their income, but also use savings and loans to bridge the gap. Also, you may find some colleges will offer better aid packages than others. Wait to get all the offers, compare, and keep an open mind. Good luck!


Second marriage - financial aid/money planning

Oct 2011

I am a single mom with three girls, 15 and under, and am about to get married for the second time. He has two grown kids. I am a financial neanderthal and need both recommendations and guidance on how to begin planning. If I had 1000 dollars I would go to a CPA but I don't. Neither us owns a house. We have some retirement, but that is about it. I understand there are more drawbacks than benefits for marriage, financially speaking. My biggest concern is financial aid for my kids when they go to college. He makes about 150K. I make 100K. I was told that if we get married, even if we have a pre-nup, and he does not adopt my kid and even if he will NOT pay for my kids college, colleges will consider his tax returns anyway. Thoughts? We can have a wedding ceremony in front of family, friends and our god but I certainly don't have to register it with the government, do I? What am I giving up I don't? Who should I talk to, what books should I read, and what would you do? Am I being silly? Thank you much, smarter the second time

Talk to a financial aid counselor at a nearby college for current advice. I used to work in financial and at that time, the step-parents' income was considered when calculating parent contribution. That was part of the federal formula and I think it probably still is. The federal formula will determine eligibility for federal aid (subsidized loans, Pell, etc.) and many but by no means all colleges follow it to a large extent in their own packaging. Anon


We can't afford teen's desire for 4-year college

Oct 2011


It's that time of year when our senior is about to fill out college applications. But we're having an issue about expectations. Of course, our teen wants to go away to a 4-year state college. Unfortunately, with a younger teen in the household, we can't afford for both of them to go away 4 years. We can afford community college and then the last 2 years away. And we're both in our late 50's and with 20 years left on our mortgage, we are very reluctant to add more debt. And we make too much money to qualify for aid. What makes it difficult for our teen is watching all the other kids apply to schools away. Anon

I understand your dilemma -- we encourage our children to do their best and to explore, only to worry about economic realities later. I would suggest that you talk with your senior openly, and then try to find another alternative. Some private schools may actually turn out to be less expensive for you than state schools, because they have more money for need-based aid and may also have money for merit-based aid. By applying to schools where he/she would be in the top of the applicant pool, it may be possible to get a significant amount of money (maybe costing less over 4 years than 2 years at a state school and 2 at a community college). Also, schools in the middle of the country (Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.) may have trouble getting students from California, so they may throw some money at your teen as well.

A good college counselor at your teen's school should be able to let you know if your teen's academic record would make this a possibility, and also should be able to steer you to some of these schools. Also, look at the school's web sites for info on merit-based aid; some will tell you that if you have a GPA of X and SATs of Y you qualify for $Z...

Finally, were I in this situation, I would tell my child that getting into school wouldn't mean he/she could go, but that a generous aid package would be necessary. And if my teen doesn't mind completing an application knowing that money might prevent her from going, I'd support that. (Some teens many feel it's not worth the application effort, though.) Another 2012 mom

I would venture to say that you don't really know what you can afford, as you can't possibly have done the FAFSA yet. That's the one-stop financial aid application and I think it's too early for you to have done it. You might be eligible for quite decent financial aid--who knows? Our income is lousy due to the economy, and my daughter at UCSC received full financial aid last year, plus an extra $2,000/quarter which she used for rent/food. I did an MA in creative writing a few years ago, before I got so broke, and received financial aid for that (a Cal grant). Also, when you have two kids in college your financial aid will go up. And, my ex-husband's good income (plus that of his wife) isn't counted--you only have to count one family. There are a bunch of things at play that you won't know until you check them out.

Before you just decide that it's got to be community college plus a four-year college, do your research. The cost of CSUs has gone up but it isn't that bad. Also, give your kid(s) some options. Why can't they go to a four-year CSU in SoCal, etc.? If financial aid covers some of the cost, they can work to support themselves for the rest. Or they can choose to take out student loans in their own names. This is their life. If they want to go away, they can work towards it. It will be character building.

I guess your email struck a nerve, as I feel you're dismissing the options without knowing anything about them. I think it's because 25 years ago when I was in high school, I assumed my parents were too middle class for us to get financial aid, but too broke to pay for much. I went to the nearby CSU and lived at home, never applying for financial aid or any other schools. Well, my parents were broke enough, plus I scored in the 98th percentile in the SATs, that I could have certainly gotten financial aid. No one in my life cared enough to think bigger for me. My life wasn't ruined or anything, but how different would it have been if I'd gone away to school? start big and adjust plans only when necessary

You didn't really pose a question, but I assume you are asking for advice on what you should tell your son? How about that he does not have a Constitutional right to a college education paid for by his parents. You also have an obligation to be careful with your money for retirement so your children don't end up having to support you. Perhaps he has to take a year off to work and save up, perhaps he has to go to community college as you suggest, perhaps he has to apply for loans and scholarships. Is he academically motivated? I just read the 45% of students do not graduate from college and are left with debt and poor job prospects. We have been saving since our children were born. With the poor market of the last 10-15 years, it has not generated as big of a nest egg as I would like. I plan to let each child know what is in their account and then they will have to make it work. It will probably be enough for four years of careful spending at a state school or possibly a UC if living at home. If they choose to go to Stanford (assuming they could get in!), then they will have to figure out financing. I also think this approach is overall more ''fair'', assuming you have similarly motivated and able children. I recently heard of an acquaintance whose one child informed his parents that they would owe him the difference between the cost of his state university and his siblings' much more expensive private school. And by the way, those friends who are applying to far away schools first have to be admitted and then find a way to pay if for themselves. I would think you can (and should) always apply to keep your options open, as there may be a way to work out the money issues if your son is admitted to where he wants to go. Good luck! anon

If one or both of your children get good grades, good test scores, and does well on some AP classes, then you should consider a 4 year college that is slightly less competitive. These types of private colleges LOVE to get higher ranking students (as it raises their ranking too) and will give big merit scholarships to kids they really want. My son received one for $14,000 per year. Don't think of this as a second tier choice, your child can get a great education schools like this. happy mom

Community college can be a good academic alternative to 4 year college. It is true, though, that learning in college takes place not only in class but from the amazing range of people one meets and from the experience of living away. I do not know if your teen has considered carrying loans himself, $5500 freshman year and $6500 sophomore year, which could defray the cost of living away at school. Then too, a summer job can also provide money towards the cost of living at college. My college freshman made $3000 this past summer. So, with loan money and her summer salary, her own money towards the dorm was $8500. She is also working this year, 10 hours a week, again her contribution to living costs, which will mean that she is paying to live at college and not me. Talk to your teen and see what he is willing to do, with work and with loans. Peggy

good for you for being realistic about what is possible. you should sit down with your kids and explain exactly what you have saved for each of them. lots of kids get into ridiculous debt and i would talk to your kids about how difficult/undesirable that would be.

it is possible to attend community college in another part of the state? i know santa monica community college is popular. do you have friends/family who they could live with (so at least they aren't living at home)? good luck. judith

Let your child apply now to some state and UC schools. Make them be responsible for looking into scholarships-there are many out there even if you are not an A student.Students can also work and borrow money through the school under their own name. My children really benefitted from going to a 4 year school. They met more intellectual students and it matured them in a good way.If you do decide to take out any parent loans you can take out an extended loan and have 20 years to pay it back at a low amount.My daughters father died recently and his loans were cancelled because he died. (This was the Direct Loan program you can find out about through the schools.)If your child ends up teaching in a low income school for several years their loan is forgiven as well. anon

Our family is in a very similar situation. We just found out about a consulting firm that offers free introductory workshops in various locations in the Bay area for parents to address this very topic. You can check out the workshops offered on their website at: Their promotional materials say,''We'll discuss everything from the greatest myths about the college process, to how to send your student to a fancy private school for less than the cost of a junior'll be like learning how to get a new Lexus for the price of a used pick-up truck.'' We haven't attended a workshop yet but we're eager to find out how to make this process as painless as possible. Best of luck!

Financing college by re-financing my home?

Feb 2011

If I refinance my home (putting aside the fact that this may not be the smart thing to do) to get money out for college, is there a limit on how much of the interest is deductible? Anon

For Regular tax, interest on up-to-$100k of principal borrowed will be deductible, as long as the loan is secured by your home. This is the $100k overall limit for such borrowing, secured by your home and NOT used directly to purchase your home or to construct permanent improvements to your home. If you previously borrowed and have not yet repaid, or any other non-home-purchase-or-improvement uses, the $100k limit will be applied to the total such loans outstanding.

For Alternative Minimum Tax (''AMT''), none of this interest will be deductible. For AMT, only interest on a loan secured by your home and used directly to purchase your home or to construct permanent improvements to your home, is deductible. No other mortgage interest will be deductible.

Individuals pay the larger of their Regular tax or AMT amount. Maria


College Loans for Parents To Take Out

Feb 2011

We are strapped for cash and my stepchild will be starting college next year. Can anyone tell me about student aid loans designed for parents to pay their childrens' college costs? And if anyone happens to know, can one use these loans toward child support payments to cover room & board & tuition? Thanks.

See the website for information on PLUS loans for parents. In order to get a PLUS loan, the student and family must complete the FAFSA so now is the time to do that. The PLUS loan can cover room and board costs. but how this ties in with child support payments is a question for your lawyer. Anonymous


Financial aid in a divorce situation

Sept 2010

My 17 yr old AHS senior is applying to colleges right now. He is applying to public and private schools. I have had full custody (physical and legal) of him since he was 6 yrs old. About 2 yrs ago Dad started paying child support- $500/ month. Dad earns about 85K a year and I earn about 90K. Dad just informed me that he has no plans to pay for college beyond the current $500/ month. I am incredibly frustrated but here is my question. When one applies for financial aid-can I explain that I am the sole provider even though Dad actually earns decent money? Will they believe me? I know that once child is 18 he is not required to pay anything and we don't have a legal agreement about college. I don't want my son to waste time/ money applying to places that we know we cannot afford or that we won't get any financial aid. Additional information-have another child college bound in 2 yrs as well. Thanks in advance for your advice and/or personal experiences in this area. frustrated mom

This is so frustrating, and I have heard the same story so many times. A good friend of mine went to school supported by his mom and utterly ignored by his well-to-do Dad, though the financial aid office counted dad's income. Argh. Outcome: friend does not speak to dad. You might ask your son's dad if he would enjoy that outcome, because kids at 17 and up are completely aware of how they are being cheated by parents. And I would see a lawyer. I don't know about child support after 18 (it stops then, ordinarily, I think), but it would be worth it to see if you have any legal recourse. And thanks for the heads-up -- I may be in a similar situation in about five years, so I need to talk to a lawyer too. tired of jerky, selfish dads

For the teen who wants to go to college, parents divorced & needs financial aid: Apply to whatever colleges you want to go to, and don't worry how much they cost. Financial aid is not just a cut-and-dried figure; it depends on many factors. Some colleges only count the custodial parent's income; others need financial information from both parents (even if only 1 is paying for college). Go to and to to get more information about the financial aid process. On, type in ''CSS Profile'' and ''IDOC'' These are both more extensive financial aid applications that some colleges require).Some private colleges will provide quite generous scholarships because they have endowments. Getting these scholarships depend on good SAT scores and good GPA's; not just parent's income. Tell your child to keep up their grades, study hard and get good SAT scores. Apply to 7 or 8 colleges, so that when the acceptance letters start rolling in, you will be able to make a decision based on where you want to go and what is the best fit for you. Good luck! DC parent of a college freshman

Even if you were claiming just your salary, you would not be eligible for any state or federal grants. The best to hope for are sponsored student loans, which have a lower interest rate. Be glad for that $500 a month from dad. It will cover 1/2 of your child's room and board at a state school. If your child is a talented writer, artist or very good in a sport, there is a hope of getting a scholarship, but none of the young men or women my daughter graduated with received a sports scholarship. Some of the small liberal arts or Christian colleges in the mid-west came through with scholarships and grants. My daughter has friends going to school in WI, IA and OK. She's at Humboldt and very happy we can afford the tuition with what we saved and what we earn. Yes, it would have been fun to see if she could get into Sarah Lawrence or Lewis & Clark, but I think it would have disappointed her when we couldn't afford $50,000 a year. Good luck to you and your son. Jenny

You need Frances Fee. She is a financial expert and was an incredible force counseling me so that I was able to obtain the aid I needed, each year. She knows all about how a divorce impacts financial aid. Her fees are very reasonable. I just can't rave enough about her. You can reach her at ffee [at] A very grateful mother

You need to talk to a professional. I suggest Paul Wrubel. Paul R Wrubel & Associates 411 Borel Ave, San Mateo, CA 94402-3522 p: 650 349 4200 Your ex husbands income is considered too. Actually his new wifes income may be considered too. The FAFSA and The Common Application may be both required for some schools. Only the common ap for some and only the FAFSA for some including the UCs. I have one son who just graduated from UCSD and a Jr at a private school in Ohio. He is applying to the United States Naval Academy. If he gets in I am done with FAFSA and the Common Ap. Hurray! I have got through the last five years of dealing with financial aid only due to the help of Paul Wrubel. david

2007 - 2009 Discussions


How does a single mom pay for college?

Nov 2008

How does a single mom with two middle school aged sons, with no college fund, minimal retirement savings, even begin to think about paying for any part of college when tuition is so astronomical? I am a teacher and my children have gone to academically rigorous independent schools since K with significant financial aid due to my faculty position. Now that college is around the corner, I am panicked. I do not want them to start off their adult lives saddled with thousands in loans, but want every possible educational opportunity for them. Any advice or words of wisdom welcome. financially challenged mom

It is stressful to think about the cost of college, and you should think about engaging a consultant about this as your sons get toward their junior year in high school. But here are a few thoughts: if your sons are strong students or strong student athletes, there are scholarship opportunities. I was the child of parents who had four children and really couldn't afford to pay for college for any of them. I applied to public institutions with relatively modest costs and a couple of private institutions with astronomical costs. And guess what? The wealthy private institutions also had the $$ for scholarship funds, and I got a full ride at one of them. It ended up costing significantly less than a public institution would have. So if your sons are strong students or athletes, let them consider wealthy schools (these may be located in other states -- mine was in NYC).

Another point -- as a single mom, your income will also help qualify your sons for scholarship support. At the wealthiest institutions they offer need-based scholarships and ''blind'' admissions, meaning that they admit students on the basis of qualification and then look at their financial situation. At the state institutions there are special considerations for low-income families with multiple children.

Third, if your sons are not great students or athletes, the community college route is perfectly fine, especially for the first couple of years. There are wonderful community colleges right around here -- they can live at home and pay a relatively low amount.

Fourth -- give your sons the gift of a work ethic. I had part-time jobs explicitly with the idea of saving for college from my freshman year in high school on. During the summers I worked full-time, and I always worked part- time while in college. There is no reason why you should shoulder this burden all on your own; it will serve your sons well if they help with the cost and it will teach them the value of the education they receive. I think too few parents now take seriously the value of learning to work for pay. It would not be the end of the world if your sons had to take a year off in between high school and college to save up some funds.

It can be done without tremendous debt! Good luck! former scholarship recipient and work-study student

Don't panic. If they did well in high school, they'll be fine at community college for the first 2 years, and with good grades, transfer to a UC for junior and senior years. If they've done exceedingly well, they might end up at an out-of-state school with a scholarship. It matters from where you graduate, not where you went at the beginning of your college education. One can get a good education at almost any school - if motivated to learn and grow. Lior

I lived away from home for a couple years and then decided to go to university when I really knew what I wanted to do. My parents couldn't afford it so I subsisted on loans. Yes, I owe a great deal of money. But, I worked much harder and appreciated the university experience much more. I was a serious student who didn't waste time trying to figure out which liberal arts degree I wanted only to end up working as a waitress and leaving my parents with tens/hundreds of thousands in debt. Here's my advice: if you can't afford it, you can't afford it. If your kids are really motivated to go, they will find a way and won't take it for granted if they do. If they are able to accomplish it, then help as much as you are able. Secondly, as a PhD, I want to tell you that there is really no point in some kids even going to university. My husband makes more than some of my professors and he went from the best parochial schools straight into the navy and never even did college. The nation is currently in a job crisis because the work force is top-heavy. Everyone spends so much sending their kids to university and the kids can't get jobs when they graduate. There are almost no skilled tradesmen out there (now they make some money!). Most the kids in my classes are completely unmotivated and uninterested. Do everyone a favour and don't saddle yourself with more debt than you manage. You've given them a good start, now let them figure it out for themselves. For what it's worth, I encourage my children to work at whatever job they can find for a few years to figure things out and then if they want to go, I will help them however I can, short of taking out loans for it. Paying tuition while they are ''finding'' themselves is a waste of time and money. At least that's been my experience. Take it with a grain of salt if you want, just don't let other parents make you feel bad for your final decision. Most of them are just following the crowd and making the country's economic situation worse. Lisa

Ideas: Enroll them at a local junior college for the first year or so. They can complete their ''core requirements'' very inexpensively and live at home to save money. Caveat: if they have an idea of what 4 year college they want, they should check to make sure all their units are transferrable. All colleges have a variety of financial aid options: scholarships, grants, work study. Check the site for your college of choice. For example, UC Davis has a search engine where you put in your gender, ethnicity, potential major, etc. and they give you a list on scholarships you might qualify for. There are scholarship search sites on the web, but some you have to pay for. I made it through college and grad school on scholarships, grants, work study and loans. I didn't have extra money, bought used books or borrowed them from the school library, but I got my degrees! (My mom was a single, disabled mom with two kids and part of our childhood was on welfare). kl

Start by googling ''financial aid calculator'' and at the second entry that comes up, click on Expected Family Contribution. You can get a quick estimate of your expected family contribution, which may be less than you think. If your salary is low enough, your children may be eligible for a Pell grant or for other financial aid. So first learn whether or not your children may be eligible for federal grants. If your income is truly low, there are a number of programs available for those who qualify for Pell grants.

You can learn a lot from the online financial aid websites and from financial aid books in bookstores. Read these carefully. They spell out the issues of private vs. public colleges (in many cases, the amount you are expected to pay is the same whether your child goes to a private school or a public one). Each college may offer a different financial aid package, so don't rule out colleges automatically just because their tuition is high.

When your oldest child becomes a sophomore in high school, have an honest talk with him about how he may need to apply for every scholarship he hears about, help work his way through college, work summers, go to the college that offers the most financial aid, and take out large loans. If things don't work out financially, he may have to go to community college for the first two years and live at home. You can tell him you are hoping this worst case scenario won't happen, but that you won't know for sure until he is accepted and sees how much financial aid may be offered. Maybe things will work out better than you think. At any rate, the more he can do to do well in school and engage in meaningful activities and show his talents, the better things will be all around.

Also, consider: Any relatives that might be willing to help? Anonymous


Financial aid is a cruel joke -- Help!!

Oct 2007

Am I the only one who is finding the whole financial aid process to be a cruel joke? What am I not understanding? We fill out the FAFSA, based on which, some formula determines the \x93expected parent contribution\x94. It is an outlandish number that we could never in a million years actually afford. Yet that number establishes your \x93need\x94 -- it is a word game. Define our need in a way that does not correspond to reality -- then even if you fill that need 100%, we still cannot afford to go to school! And yet that is what happens -- no school provides more financial aid than your \x93need\x94 amount from the FAFSA. Not work-study,not even subsidized loans -- nothing.

Just for illustration, let\x92s posit the unlikely circumstance that you get \x93full\x94 financial aid at both Stanford and at Cal. Stanford is going to give you a lot more money than Cal is, but as far as you are concerned, both schools will cost exactly the same, because neither one will go below the \x93floor\x94 of your \x93need\x94 as established by FAFSA. So, even with full financial aid, you still can\x92t hope to pay for it. (I think that even if you are lucky enough to get a merit-based scholarship, that will also reduce your need, and your need-based aid is reduced.)

Since the FAFSA amount is not part of your need, you can\x92t even get a subsidized loan for it. Your only option is an ordinary loan that you must start paying back right away

We are not destitute by anyone\x92s definition, but things are really hard. (No eligibility for Pell Grants or Cal Grants or anything like that.) We\x92ve already borrowed so much against a home equity line of credit that I just flat-out couldn\x92t cover the payments for anything more -- not even interest-only. (There\x92s no room here for details, so just believe me -- please no lectures on money management or lifestyle. We don\x92t have a \x93lifestyle\x94\x85)

My son is a good conscientious student who will probably be admitted to most of the schools he applies to -- we\x92ve never even talked about private school or out-of-state, but he should be able to go to a UC or a CSU and that has always been the idea. Now what do I tell him?

This \x93need\x94 game isn\x92t just because of our reversal of circumstances -- even when I was working full-time and our circumstances were much better, the FAFSA calculated an amount far beyond our reach. What do other people do? What do other people know that I don\x92t? I hope someone can tell me that I am wrong! Anonymous

You're very right about the absurdity of the FAFSA EFC calculation--it does not at all take into account cost of living in a particular area or other expenses, or much else besides income, assets, and number of children in college. If you truly feel that the EFC does not accurately represent your family's ability to pay--and have at least some documentation toward that end--you should submit what's called a ''letter of special circumstance'' to each school's financial aid office that explains your situation, income vs. expenses, and basically show (don't assert, show) how you can't afford the ''expected contribution.'' You would do this AFTER you've received a letter of admission and an aid package.

Please know I'm not lecturing you, but rather just want you to be prepared for an answer you're very likely to receive when you talk to aid offices about all of this: it is their position that the primary responsibility for financing college falls first with the family, and the presumption is that families have been saving for college education. Nevertheless, if you can show them that the EFC is off base, most aid offices do have discretion to adjust the need calculation and change the aid package as they see fit.

Lastly, I would refer you to and for access to tens of thousands of private scholarships and grants that your son can apply for.

I hope this helps! Cheers, Rick Grisel Veritas College Counseling

I have posted this before and one person responded that they did not have a good experience. But I am extremely grateful to the help that I received from Paul Wrubel. There are other people as well but I would contact Paul. David K

We have a WCS - worst case scenario - for our 2 teenage daughters college education. First of all, they would have to live at home; paying rent or dorm fees is outrageous. They would have to go to a community college for the first two years. Tuition runs about $225 per semester and books another $200 (or more) We can do this out of pocket. Any spending money would come from a part-time job. Next two years child goes to closest CSU - East Bay or SF (see - they have a choice) Tuition and books go on low interest credit card to be paid off over the course of each quarter or semester. It is doable. Do some more checking on student loans.

You could always do what my dad did to me - kick me out at 18. I had barely enough money in the bank to pay 1st semester tuition and dorm fee at Sonoma State but after 2 years I got full financial aid (I felt rich!). But, because of prop 13, state schools are a bit more than $60 a semester nowadays, and your son might not find someones living room floor to crash on.

Some parents are paying their kids rent under the table for those first two years, and not claiming them on their taxes. This makes those two years easier for the kid. The kid just has to remember not to make too much money.

Oh, one more thing. There are small schools in out of the way places that if your son gets in, they will work with you to make your son going to their school happen. Friends of ours sent their daughter to a very small Christian college in Iowa, and on paper, there was no way they would be able to do it, but she is a sophomore there now, and they're not totally broke. They have even had enough for the plane fare home on Xmas and Easter. Good luck to you. Jenny

We have two daughters in college now, and figured out the same reality as you are facing early on. We are lucky enough to have kids that excelled in school and on standardized tests, so we helped them choose very carefully which schools they applied to -- they only applied to UCs and private schools with merit scholarships. No Stanford, no Ivies or top-50 schools, since it was clear from the FAFSA that we wouldn't qualify for enough need-based aid, and that is all those places offer. Both our kids ended up with good choices: Regents scholarships from a couple of UC's, full-tuition offers from one or more private colleges. Not the best or the sexiest, but still they're getting a good education for a price we can sort of afford. If you do your research, you will find that there are options out there -- and that you may be better off with one of the private colleges that are trying to pull up their stats by luring some high- testing students with $$. I recommend the Parents Forum on; there is lots of good advice there about how to find schools with merit scholarships. Basically it's about finding places where your kid's stats place him the top 20% or so. The other option, of course, is to have him go to community college for two years, work and save money, and then transfer to a UC. Not the greatest choice for most kids, but it's much cheaper than four years. But please be realistic with him about what his and your choices are, and about the extent to which you expect him to contribute financially to his education. College students who work part-time generally do better in school, not worse, because they don't waste so much time. Wish mine could have gone to Columbia

Hi, I know what you're going through. There are a couple of misconceptions in there, I think. I don't believe merit scholarships reduce EPC. Some loans may be subsidized. Payback on federal loans is generally after graduation I think. Don't rule out private and/or out-of-state schools - they often have the best merit scholarships, grants, and discretion as to how to use funds based on the specific case. Different schools will offer different packages, and to some extent the package can be appealed with a short letter stating financial reasons.

I would highly recommend Frances Fee, an independent financial aid advisor. I went to her and so did some of my friends (my daughter went to college this year). She's great, she'll look at your individual situation and arm you with information. I'm sorry I don't have her number on hand, but she's in Berkeley/Oakland, up around the Caldecott. She can't overhaul the entire system and it may fall short for you, but she'll help you make the best of it.

My situation was: divorced, no child support, no assets, self-employed with business scarily slow due to external economic factors beyond my control, basically going into the negative each month as of last FAFSA application, so we got decent aid package offers. It's stress either way and I wouldn't have done it my way on purpose.

Let yourself reach some emotional equilibrium, talk to Frances, then calmly relate the necessary facts to your son. I just communicted the uncertainty to my daughter, then let the aid packages speak for themselves. Some schools were just out and she could see why.

Good luck, something will come through for your son. been there, still there

You're right, college education has become much less affordable for middle-class parents in the last few years. I've been figuring it's another investment on the level of a second house (at least). If you have several kids, it gets really expensive. The biggest discount escape is community college - the UCs take transfer students after two years. Also note that I've seen a big drop in our grocery and incidentals bills since my older teenager went to college, so their accommodation costs can be somewhat offset. Fiona

This is a big problem. I had it a long time ago when tuition was a tenth of what it is now. One of the things I was able to do was declare myself an independent student, so only my assets were considered and not my family's. That takes a while, your son would need to move out and earn his own living for a few years, whatever the California law stipulates.

Alternatives: Check your workplace or former workplace, associations, and religious affiliation for scholarships you may not know about. Write to all your relatives, friends and associates, create a trust fund, or a restricted savings account for their contributions, and be clear which are gifts, and which are loans. Ask for non interest, deferred payment after graduation or leaving school terms. You will still need to pay taxes on interests, and amounts which exceed the gift laws, so check with a bank financial advisor. Your bank may do this for free if you keep the funds there. Otherwise the loan game has most everyone going to college indentured, unless you have saved a huge amount for each child. If you do not have it, learn to fundraise, and keep asking the school that wants him for more financial aid, apply early. been there

Dear Parent of an aspiring college student,

You sound panicked about college costs and, while understandable, that will not help your son. Here are some facts.

Fact #1: College is expensive. Very expensive. For most families, it is the most expensive product/service, other than a home, they will ever buy. Tuition and expenses for private colleges now run between $40 and $50K per year, so we are very lucky to live in a state with relatively low cost, high-quality public institutions.

Fact #2: College is a fabulous investment. Every study ever done shows that lifetime earnings increase geometrically with more education and that every dollar spent on education pays back several times. That means you need to stop panicking and start breathing. Hundreds of thousands of families go through what you are going through (and far worse--either because they have fewer resources or fewer low-cost options than you do). It is not easy, but it is do-able.

Fact #3: The college financial aid system is designed to distribute a limited number of aid dollars equitably. It does not make financing a college education easy or cheap. Rather, it asks all families to make roughly the same level of sacrifice (your expected student and family contribution) and to ensure that beyond this level, costs are covered. (Students whose families are low enough income to qualify for Pell or Cal Grants still have to pay an expected contribution.) It sounds as if you have been thinking that if you were not wealthy, your son was a good student and he attended a public university, financial aid would somehow cover the cost. Unfortunately, in an era when the state raises tuition every year and other costs like housing keep going up, this is just not the case.

Fact #4: Financial aid offers are not immutable. If you have genuinely exceptional circumstances that are not considered in the federal formula, you need to talk with the financial aid folks at the colleges your son is interested in. This may not result in increased aid, but it can.

So, you need a game plan. Of course, tightening the family financial belt is always the first step. But, as you point out, many families in high-cost areas like the Bay Area, have virtually no financial flexibility. This means, at worst, that your child is going to need to work during college and to take out loans. Most college students, even those who are affluent, do both of these things and it is entirely possible to finance a UC/CSU education on a combination of borrowing and work, with no family contribution. You also need to look at the full range of options--student living at home or in the cheapest dorm, asking for help from relatives, parent taking on a second job, delaying college for a year while your son works and saves his earnings, attending a community college for the first two years. None of these is optimal, but again, they are possible and thinking them through will help you begin to get a handle on trade-offs.

Most of all, talk to people who know these issues--your son's high school counselor and the financial aid professionals at the colleges you are considering. You all have one thing in common: you want your son to enroll at a school he's happy with and to thrive once there. Trust me, it WILL happen. UC financial aid advisor

You are not alone being dismayed by how much the family is often expected to contribute and borrow for college costs. It would be better if families knew about this years earlier, so plans could be made accordingly. Going to a local CC and then transferring to a UC/CSU is taken by many who want to cut costs. Another option is to live at home and attend a UC or CSU that is close by. I know families and students who take on much more debt than they had thought they would to make it work. Some families raid their retirement or refinance their homes or take weekend jobs or make other sacrifices that sound very painful. You have to make hard choices, I think. But it wouldn't hurt to contact the financial aid office and see if there was any hope of additional funds, especially if there was a hardship or special circumstance they might not know about. Good luck!

You are absolutely right about financial aid being a cruel joke, but there may be help. I suggest that you call Frances Fee. (I don't have her number handy, but she's in the local phone book.) She has made a specialty of helping people write appeal letters after they have been denied FAFSA financial aid. Private colleges often have more money to offer than the public colleges do, and many will far exceed what the FAFSA suggests if you can show that you have special circumstances (such as health problems, being an older parent, or facing retirement without having adequate savings).

My son was admitted to a private college that he longed to attend, but without the financial aid we needed. He was heartbroken--but after we wrote a heartfelt appeal, the college raised its offer very substantially, and my son is now attending there and happy! another parent

You are right that the financial aid process is cruel, but it's not a joke. It was designed to give help to people of low income (and only loans to people of moderate to high income). Thus it doesn't meet what YOU need, but rather helps those with the fewest resources to pay for college. That said, you do have a clear understanding of what's involved. Whether you feel you can afford it or not, you and your son are expected to come up with the ''expected family contribution'' (or to take out loans to cover it) and with some exceptions (athletic scholarships, merit scholarships, college-based grants), a college can offer you financial aid only for your need beyond that.

However, there are things you can do: decrease expenses and increase resources. Some of the specific actions may not be palatable or even possible for you, but there are options. The first step is to face the reality of it, talk with your son so he knows this, and make plans to decrease college expenses and increase your resources to pay for it. Tell your son that you need his active help in meeting the challenge of paying for college.

There are only a few options to decrease expenses. One is to choose the lowest cost college, one that costs less than your expected family contribution. And you could reduce room and board costs by having him live at home.
- the least expensive way would be to have him attend a junior college for the first two years, then transfer later to a local state college. That way he could live at home for all 4 years. A lot of people go this way to reduce expenses.
- or find those state or private college that cost less. College guidebooks often list them as ''best bargains.'' Have him apply to some of these schools.
- Explore other ways to get costs covered--do students who work as dorm resident advisors get free or reduced-cost housing? An option for junior or senior year?

There are many possible ways to increase the amount of money you have to pay for college if you stretch your imagination, but not all will be possible for you. Nonetheless, consider:
- ask relatives if they can help pay for college (grandparents, your aunts/uncles or siblings who don't have children)
- have your son apply for any scholarship he hears about (most high schools have lists, and there are free scholarship search sites online). Some scholarship applications may require writing an esay; get your son to commit to writing these.
- if your son has special talents, such as musical ability, see if colleges offer special scholarships
- apply to colleges that offer merit scholarships.
- apply to good but less popular private colleges. These schools may be more likely to offer merit scholarships or their own grants.
- if you have special circumstances (such as disability, high medical bills), detail these in a letter to each college's financial aid office.
- unsubsidized federal Stafford student loans are available to those who don't meet the criteria of need and these loans get paid back after the student leaves school. They cover only a percentage of the total college cost, but they would help. The interest could be paid as you go (low amounts the first few years) or added to the loan amount that gets repaid after graduation. So be sure to submit the FAFSA.
- have your son get a part-time job now, while still in high school, and save that money for college.
- have your son try to get high paying summer jobs. Think through what types of jobs pay well (coomputer work? waiter?) and which match his ability.
- have your son plan to work while in college, preferably at a job that pays well. In considering which college to go to, consider which towns might have outside jobs easily available and reachable for a person without a car.
- are you or your spouse able to get a higher paying job than what you have now?
- can you or your spouse work overtime or take on a second job?
- rebudget your daily expenses: reduce your food budget, eliminate all eating out including coffee, consider selling your second car (if you have one) or buying a cheaper car than the one you have, curtail vacations (consider camping), save in every way possible

Consider some radical ideas:
- could your son take a year off before going to college to work at a high paying job to save money for college (there are some jobs that are physically demanding and pay well-- in Alaska?)
- or maybe he could take a year off after junior college to earn money to pay for the following year at a 4-year school.

Good luck. Maybe some of the positives (relatives, scholarships, lower-cost schools) will come through for you! Anonymous

While specific questions about money and college are the realm of financial advisers, there are some general ideas to remember.

First, don\x92t hide from your kids: disclose your finances with your college-bound student. What can you afford if you don\x92t get any aid. Privates? UC's? CSU's? Community colleges? Or would the student have to work for a year or two? Talk now to avoid major disappointment spring of senior year.

Second, don\x92t get sticker \x96 or ''financial aid calculator'' shock. A school may quote $50,000 as the total cost of attendance, and a website may tell you that you'll be liable for $40k of that. But schools - especially privates - have a lot of leeway with those numbers. In particular, privates attempting to attract specific students can offer generous merit aid unrelated to your finances.

Third, apply around. You can compare offers, and often be surprised at who is willing to give you aid. And don\x92t limit yourself to state schools \x96 remember point two above.

Fourth, don\x92t be afraid to call colleges. Talk to the financial aid office about anything you couldn\x92t describe in the FAFSA or PROFILE \x96 and see what they\x92re willing to do for you. Families of every income level and circumstance can and do afford college. Eion Lys College Counselor

I too highly recommend Frances Fee. Not only did she fill out the forms for my son, she helped us write a letter of special circumstances which the financial aid office at Columbia took into consideration and granted him some financial aid. I couldn't have done it without Frances' help. Happy Columbia mom


Divorced parents split son's college expenses?

March 2007

My son has been admitted to some UC's for fall of 2007 which is good news. I broached the topic of how we're going to pay for college with my ex-husband today. As I expected, he thinks its fair that I pay for most of the college expenses since he makes less money and has fewer assets. I think it would be fair for us each to pay half because we've both known that we'd have college expenses starting in 2007 and because we've had equal opportunity to work hard and save money over the 13 years since our divorce. I don't want to just roll over and pay more because I can but I especially don't want to hurt my kid because of this dispute. How have others handled paying for college with an ex? should I shield my son from this issue even if the only way not to include him may be to pay whatever my ex won't? I appreciate any suggestions or even commiseration! anonymous

Like yourself, I am a divorced mother of a college age teen. I have been working 60 hours weeks for a long time while my ex chose a job with half less hours and three months vacation each year. Not surprisingly, he is paid less money and has fewer assets. I have consulted with well recommended (and expensive) attorney and was told that unless the college payment agreement was a part of a court filed divorce settlement, my ex does not have to pay a penny of tuition. I would suggest to pay what you can get your ex to agree to at the moment, and after the first year ask your son to take out a student loan guaranteed by both parents (and he will need to obtain your ex's signature) divorced mom

I think that the fairest way to do this is to do a little arithmetic and take the after-tax incomes of the two of you, add them together, and determine the percentages each of you contribute to the total. That percentage is the percentage that you each should contribute to the college costs. Thus, if your percentage of the total income of both of you is 60%, you should pay for 60% of the college costs. Robert

My ex and I agreed verbally that we would split tuition for an out-of-state university for our son, which, with cheaper cost of living, was about the same as the UCs. I make more than my ex, but I felt, like you, that we had both expected to have this expense eventually. It's only 4 years of belt tightening, and I wanted my ex to have a stake in our son's education. My ex and I have both remarried, my current husband has a good job, my ex's wife has family money. So this seemed fair. I managed all the paperwork, I paid the first semester, he paid the second, and I paid the third, and then in the middle of our son's sophomore year, with payment a week overdue, he told me that he could not afford any more college tuition. He said that our son should instead take out student loans like both of us did. Well, this left our son unable to register for classes, so I paid, and I ended up paying for the rest of college. Our son graduated college almost 2 years ago - his dad didn't visit him even once in four years or go to the graduation. His loss. I think in retrospect that this was the right decision and I'm happy that my son doesn't have to spend years paying off college loans like we did, and that I didn't have to get into a big fight with his dad to make things more equitable. Mom who's OK with it

My situation is somewhat similar in that my ex makes more money and has more assets; although I got the house in the divorce. Our son is in an an out of state uiversity, and has gotten some small grants and worked as his schedule permitted. We did not not allow him to work his freshman year. We basically agreed to pay 50/50 . . . splitting tuition, rent, food, limited spending money and travel. The ex also pays for cell phone, car, insurance, clothes, books, etc. The son usually makes enough from his job to pay for gas, car maintenance, personal items, etc. We determine as needed how to handle unexpected expenses, extra curricular costs, etc. I feel the arrangement is fair. I lost my job the first year our son was away in college and the ex offered to help as much as he could and has been generous though grumbling on occasion. He has subsequently paid more than I have. I came into a small inheritance and gave a token monetary ''Thank You'' to him for his support. I've also used some of the equity in the house to pay my share of the bills. We all have struggles, make choices and often one has more resources than the other. This isn't the time for a tit for tat power play over who does/has what and the choices they have made. Since it wasn't spelled out in the divorce settlement . . . pay the portion that you feel is in the best interest of your son with the resources each of you has. This can always be supplemented with loans, grants and a job for your son. He however should not in any way be put in the middle of this. Our children are our future and since your family clearly values education; set the example by not financially compromising what that future will hold. I hope it works out well for all of you. Anonymous


How much can my children borrow for the UCs?

April 2007

Help! Can someone tell me how much my children can borrow for their first and third years at a UC, respectively, just by themselves? I know the amounts vary, and they don't cover all the tuition that the UC system charges (Berkeley or Santa Cruz, not the state schools). Then the rest must be funded by parent loans, right? My understanding is that the basic amount is called an entitlement loan, and that's all they can borrow. After that it's all about the private loans. Any clarifications appreciated. anon

You need to contact the financial aid office at Cal and see what packages they offer, you'll need to fill our a FAFSA form, etc. But I can say that when I was a student there (7 years ago) I was able to get federal loans that covered tuition and living expenses (up to $25,000 per year). Most of the loans were unsubsidized (meaning interest accrued while I was in school), but I was able to cover my full tuition. I know of people at private schools who had to take out private loans, but I believe that was to cover living expenses, not the cost of tuition. anon

In this case it sounds like it would depend on the TYPE of loan. For example, for Federal Stafford Subsidized loans, the limit first year is $3500 and third year is $5500 (these limits are I believe set by the federal gov't, not by Cal). I should make clear that just because the limit is, say, 3500, this doesn't automatically mean that your child will be eligible for that entire amount--that will sometimes depend on the needs analysis.

Most students will then look next at Federal UNsubsidized loans to make up for any remaining shortfall, and the limits on unsubsidized loans are higher than the subsidized limits listed above. Both of these federal loans are, I believe, available directly to students, and usually the amounts available are not tied to the needs analysis. Some combination of these first two student loans is sometimes enough to cover costs. Beyond that, if necessary or desirable, there are two main types of parental loans, PLUS and Perkins. None of the 4 options listed so far are private loans, they are all tied to the federal government in some way.

Many students that are taking out loans will end up with some combination of the above (most commonly some subsidized and some unsubsidized Stafford monies). Without seeing your financial aid award letter I can't say more unfortunately--typically award letters will list what they are offering for each type of grant and loan. The best thing to do is simply sit down for a half hour with one of the financial aid officers there, and they should be very good about walking you through everything simply and clearly. Good luck! Rick Grisel Veritas College Admissions Counseling


Personal loan for college?

April 2007

Hi, My son just got accepted to college back east, and in addition to the Stafford loan, he wants to take out a personal loan. Can someone tell me how this works; when do we do this; is the money deposited in a special account; best place to find good rates, etc. Also, if he gets outside scholarship money, does this go directly to the college? This is very new to us, so any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks jamie

For more information about private loans, consult four sources:,, the Financial Aid Office at the college your son is accepted, and local banks. At the site, click on Loans and on the section that talks about education lenders. It is also useful to look at the section on FAQ's about financial aid. It also reminds you that your son must report to the Financial Aid Office all scholarships that he receives. The website also provides a list of the top 50 lenders for private loans. The site describes the Federal Family Education Loan Program and has information about Nellie Mae Private Excel Loans. At most colleges, the Financial Aid Office sends out a booklet with a list comparing the rates and details for lenders for Stafford and private loans; the information provided would differ at different colleges. And local banks often offer private loans; check with your bank or other large banks in the area. There are a lot of lenders offering loans, but you have to check carefully all the details to see what the differences are. If you start with the local bank, you may be able to talk with someone who can explain the loan details and then use that as a comparison against the information available from the college or online. Pay special attention to when the student needs to start repaying the loan. Good luck! Frances

Re private college expenses--potentially a marvelous experience, but also I think worth serious up front thought. In addition to the obvious and substantial $45,000 a year we are paying in tuition, fees, room, and board for our freshman at an urban Ivy, I've been struck by how much some kids seem to have for spending money--and the peer pressure to participate with that standard of living. We've negotiated with our son that part of the cost above what a public university would have been is a long term loan from the bank of Mom and Dad--and that he is responsible for earning his spending money--but it has not been easy to sustain that. And I really worry what commercial borrowing this early in such an expensive educational process would mean.

Re your question on scholarships, it will depend on the source. eg some, such as National Merit will only send direct to the school (and the school in our case requires that it be split between the two semesters--so you only get credit for half the scholarship on the first bill). Others, less formal, have sent us the money directly.

2004 and Earlier


National Student Financial Aid

Oct 2000

We got a letter from National Student Financial Aid saying that according to their research, my daughter is eligible to apply for grants, scholarships, negotiated tuition discounts and interest free loans through their college assistance program. Is this just an ad or something real that should be taken advantage of? Can anyone advise? Toby

I work in Cal's Financial Aid Office. I also have a senior in high school, so I am also receiving letters from companies such as the one mentioned above. I actually called a different company called, Educational Assistance Council, whose strategy is similar. These companies all say that your child is eligible according to their information. I asked the company how they determined whether or not my child was eligible and the receptionist said that their determination is based on lists that they receive from the SAT. So, in other words, they really have no idea what your child is eligible for. They will charge you a fee to do something you can do for free. You are going to have to fill out a financial aid form (FAFSA and/or Profile). Your child should also be talking to your high school's college/career counselor. I also recommend looking at the website, That site has links to free scholarship search engines. Many high schools also host a financial aid night, where you will get advice on how to fill out a financial aid form.


Scholarships for Private College Aren't Enough

April 2003


My daughter is a senior in high school and has been accepted to several colleges - UC's as well as small privates. She would really love to go to a small private but financial aid packages have not been enough to make it possible. Does anyone have any experience with trying to get awards increased? Any advice at all? Is there any point in trying? She thinks her dream school is Smith but has also been accepted at Occidental, neither of which has offered enough to get there ($38,000!!! - start saving now!). Maybe we shouldn't have let her apply to these places, but we got carried away thinking everyone would think she is as terrific as we do (parental blinders)... Thanks for any ideas. peggy

It seems to me that the less-well-off families get financial aid, the wealthy write checks as the tuition is due, and those in the middle pay over time. So anybody can go to whatever college they want to, if that is what they desire.

We did not qualify for financial aid for the small private school back east that my daughter liked best. And we did not have enough money to pay the tuition out and out. But we did qualify easily for loans, so you might look into that. Especially in Massachusetts, the MASSPLAN loans help finance a college education. In our case, we borrowed 20K (or so) for each year of the four years in college, and put it on a 15-year (the max) term. I still have some 7 years to finish re-paying, but I find it to be manageable, even with a son in college now and a teen-ager in private high school.

Besides the loans, my student searched for a job on campus. When she visited before accepting she asked about jobs. She had lifeguard training and was offered a job at the sports center, which she kept all 4 years. So that helped with spending money for books, etc. And if the college does not have a job available, maybe your student can use his or her own talents to financial gain. I know an enterprising student who creates web pages and has his own business and even hires other students...he's putting himself through CalPoly.

In addition, my daughter got took out smaller loans in her own name. I think these were federal loans, which she will pay back eventually (I think they are deferred at this point, since she's working on a Ph.D.)

Also, since she was the first of three children in the family to go to college, we made an agreement that if she went to this school for undergraduate work instead of a less expensive school, she'd need to help re-pay the 4 loans. We initially had her paying starting 2 years after graduation, at the rate each month of the freshman-year loan. Then each year she'd add in the amounts for the next loan. But as our family finances got better, and after doing some analysis, I realized that that way she'd end up paying more than half for her own college education, which did not seem right. So now she'll re-pay about 1/4 of the loan monies. We've decreased the monthly amounts she's paying rather than increasing them.

She went off to college knowing that she'd have a large debt to manage. Some people warned that it might make it harder for her to own a car, a house, have a family, etc. But that has not been the case.

Not qualifying for financial aid is not the end of the world. I think that you can manage a private education if that is what you value and if that is what seems to best suit the needs and interests of your student.


May 2003

My oldest is a junior and will be applying for college next year. We think we earn too much for a need base financial aid, but cannot afford private college tuition. Is there reliable information on the financial aid process or income cut-offs? What assets do colleges consider in determining a family's ability to pay tuition? Is there anyone out there who helps families with applying for scholarships for college, or enlightening wage earner parents on the scholarship/financial aid process? Thanks. yogreening

My advice is don't assume you make too much money to qualify for private college financial aid--especially if you honestly can't afford private college tuition. It is much different than eligibility for UC as many private colleges have their own resources, which they use if they really want your student to attend. We found a great resource in Sue Kim who is a knowledgeable consultant. She'll do an initial evaluation for a nominal fee to see if she can really help you, and then if you decide to use her I believe she charges around $600--and that is for advising you on everything from filling out the Federal FAPSA, to CSS Parents Confidential Statement to the applications at individual colleges. Sounds like a lot of money, but it's well worth it if you end up getting a substantial award. She's at suekim AT luck! A College Parent

To locate information about scholarships, you can consult free websites, such as (which accesses information on 400,000 scholarships). In addition, individual colleges also have specific scholarships you can apply for; based on PSAT scores taken in October of the junior year, some students may be eligible for the National Merit Scholarship Program; the college advisor's office at your school has information on local scholarships; athletic scholarships for the talented are available from Division I or II schools (but not from the Ivy League); the military offers Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarships.

The book Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kalmon A. Chany (Random House) provides a detailed description of the financial aid forms that are required and the methods of calculating financial aid using both federal (FAFSA)and institutional (PROFILE) methods. For example, the book details what percentage of the parents' and of the students' assets are assessed. The book clarifies which assets colleges consider (this differs for public and private institutions, most notably regarding home equity). The book provides many special case situations (for example, how trusts are evaluated, what if someone else pays the student's bills)and forms to estimate your financial aid need. You can also calculate your estimated family contribution on-line. The and sites provide financial calculators to estimate your Expected Family Contribution.. Frances

I've seen some good advice on financial aid in the postings and just want to pass on the best advice I received from someone (can't reveal my source) very experienced and knowledgeable about getting into, and affording, college. First, don't be put off by how expensive a college education is. For private colleges, they do have endowments and ways to cover tuition, room and board that public colleges don't offer. Go for private if that's what your child wants. Secondly, and most important, if you have a complex financial situation (divorced, single mom, taking care of an elderly parent using your own income, etc.), it's extremely important to write to the financial aid office of the school your child is most interested in attending, and in detail, thoroughly explain your financial situation. For example, if you filled out the FAFSA and it says that your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $10k, and you really can't afford that, explain it in your letter (get every medical bill you have for the year -- prescriptions, medical appointments, dental bills, eye doctor, etc.); if you have another child in afterschool care, explain all daycare, afterschool, and summer costs for your other child or children, besides your soon to be high school grad. It's also important to anticipate any unusual circumstances that will deduct from your ability to pay the EFC in the school year your child will be attending. Detailing these expenses (and medical expenses with receipts and other supporting documents) will help when your child is finally accepted to the school he/she has applied to. As soon as your child accepts an offer from a college, you should get started on this process (and it's a process that you have to go through each year your child attends college). Best of luck.