Applying for Financial Aid for College

Parent Q&A

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  • Is there anyone who can recommend a high-caliber, for $, website or platform that parents can use to explore and compare the estimated tuition and financial aid packages that various universities might offer?  We want to be able to input, say, 4 or 5 likely candidate schools to apply for, and have the software come back and compare each one with estimates of total tuition and housing cost, as well as estimates of the FAFSA grants/loans and any other packages that might be offered from the school.  The point is to surface to the top the schools most likely to offer the best overall package.

    Your question inspired me to do some googling and I found htis site: There's a free version and a paid version (natch). No idea how good it is, but it is the kind of question that tech is designed to help answer.

    As the parent of a rising senior I can relate - I've thrown myself into every free seminar, explanatory website and book you can imagine in the past year. Every college and university participating in federal financial aid is required to provide a 'net price calculator' on their website - I've included one as an example from UC Berkeley here: Estimate Your Financial Aid - Financial Aid & Scholarships ( You will likely be able to find this on the site of each of the colleges your student is applying to. You input some basic financial data and it will give you a cost estimate. There is no way to figure out how much merit aid your student MIGHT receive, but at least this gives you an idea of how much each college thinks YOU will be able to pay. Many schools list different scholarships or aid they may offer, but you will never know if your student will be offered that aid until they've been accepted. Depending on your income level there are only so many loan packages you or your student may qualify for. There are many excellent free webinars being offered (some recently via BPN) that can explain more, but hopefully this has been a helpful start. Just check out the BPN archives for some names (or google 'college financing free seminar"), there was one advertised just a few weeks ago. Basically, if you are earning anywhere near the median income for the Bay Area and own a home (and/or other RE) you likely will not qualify for any break on tuition. The FAFSA does NOT take into account the cost of living in certain areas, sadly, though owning your home won't necessarily count against you on it (unless the school is looking at the CSS form - a different financial aid tool). Your best bet is make sure your student does their best on the applications to schools they want to go to, and have an honest conversation with them prior to decisions about what your family can reasonably afford. Bottom line, if you make a decent amount of money it's going to be expensive, no way around it. Private colleges have more money on hand to offer aid than public, but your student needs to be a standout for them to offer it. College costs have skyrocketed and there is much controversy about whether students (and parents) are really getting what they pay for. Worst of all, everyone is paying a different price. An excellent read is "The Price You Pay For College" by Ron Lieber. I wish I had better news.....

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  • It seems there are scammers out there for aid. I've done my FAFSA and our school gives us websites to find AID. What are some good financial aid resources and websites so we can apply for more aid?  

    Do you know which sites are scams?

    Thank you.


    If your student attends BHS, you and your child can get help at the College and Career Center.

    The physical location of scholar match is in SF but they offer help to all Bay Area underserved students.

    The Berkeley Y also runs programs to help students applying for college.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Applying for financial aid in 2 years with dad going back to school too

May 2015

I have two questions about financial aid for college, and would be grateful for feedback from the BPN community. Our oldest child will be a junior next year and I’m wondering if there’s anything we should or should not be doing now that will assist in getting financial aid for him when he applies to colleges the following year? He has a small 529 plan and we make under 100K for a family of four, and are looking to maximize the aid he could get. Secondly, my husband is going back to school (while still working) for a degree in the near future, and has applied for financial aid with the FAFSA form. It may be that he will still be in school when our child is applying, and will definitely still have his loan obligations. Will that affect what our child gets? We don’t really know much about the whole process and would very much appreciate any insight, ''I-wish-I'd-known'' stories or recommendations for books or websites. Thanks BPN! anon

Hi - I recently asked a similar question to a college financing consultant recommended in BPN (Nancy Corrigan I'm looking at starting a masters program that would end around the time my oldest might start college, and I wanted to know if federal loans I'm taking out for this program would affect financial aid offers we might get for him. She said my loan debt would neither help nor hinder his aid offers. But having two in the same family in college at the same time does ''spread out'' the expected family contribution between them, if that makes sense. She's expensive but I found her super helpful. - Dreading having to go through paying off college loans AGAIN

The best book I've ever read on the topic is Paying for College without Going Broke. It has an entire chapter devoted to short-term strategies (related to income and assets) for maximizing financial aid offers. Super helpful!

Family finances aside, one of the best ways to maximize financial aid is for the student to earn the best grades and test scores they possibly can! Colleges have a certain amount of institutional money that can be divided between students in the form of merit-aid, and they leverage it strategically to attract the strongest students possible. So applicants with the highest GPA and SAT/ACT scores typically get offered the most free money. To maximize merit aid, a student will want to apply to colleges where they are at the top of the applicant pool.

As your student is deciding where to apply, it's also helpful to check each school's financial aid policy - many of the more selective colleges give little or no merit aid, simply because they don't need to - they already have hundreds of high achieving students willing to pay full price. For a family at your income level, it's best to aim for colleges that offer more merit aid to non-needy students.

It will also be helpful to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) now, so you have an idea of the minimum amount you will be expected to pay out of pocket at any college. The College Board has a great EFC calculator here: Nicole

Comparing College Financial Aid Offers

April 2015

We are in the process of reviewing a number of financial aid packages from colleges and we're feeling just a bit overwhelmed by it all. It seems each college has their own way of putting together their package and presenting the info, and we want to make the right - yet affordable - choice. Does anyone know of a cohesive way to consolidate the info to compare the offers ''apples to apples''? Or are there financial consultants (reasonably priced, please) that can do just this part of it in the next couple of weeks? Home stretch

I am a college consultant and I specialize in this exact thing. I totally understand your frustration - I talk to families in your exact position every spring. Financial aid letters can be really confusing, because colleges use different terms, don't list their full cost of attendance, and do otherwise baffling things to mask the true cost. I've become well-versed in financial aid over the years, so I actually enjoy analyzing award letters! I help my families figure out: 1) Exactly how much aid each college is offering 2) What form the aid comes in and what it means (free money vs. loans and jobs) 3) Exactly how much each college is going to cost them over 4 years

Good luck!

Big Future has a comparison tool that is helpful. Just be aware that colleges are sometimes unclear on whether they are giving you loans or aid. A lot of colleges fail to provide you with all the information you need, so, while you are filling out this out, notice if the letter fails to include something and then contact the school's financial aid office to fill in that number if needed.


Does money in a 529 fund affect financial aid?

July 2013

My 17 year old will be applying to colleges soon. For years and years, we (and she) have put a little bit of money every month into her 529 college fund. Now some people are telling us that we should not have opened one for her, and that because she has this fund, she will not get financial aid in college, or it will be deducted from her award. Has this happened to your teen? It does not seem fair that because she saved all of her birthday money over the years (sometimes $10 at a time), and allowance, and odd jobs weeding for neighbors...that she should be penalized for having this account. Does this really happen? Along those lines, she recently won a $500 award for a math competition. Now I am thinking she should put this money in her bank account, and not in her 529 fund.

If you have a teen with a 529 fund, or if you have a teen already in college and have been through this process already, can you share what your experience was in terms of savings and funding? New at this

We had about $8-$9,000 in our Scholarshare account, and I don't think it had any negative impact at UC Santa Cruz. I was continuing to add money while my daughter was there--I think I got up to about $15,000 total but not all at the same time. However, we ended up with a few thousand dollars left at the end because she got good grants. Her grades were not amazing (B average generally) but we were pretty broke. I'd do some online research. Here's one link for starters:

In my experience, the money in a 529 account counts as parents' assets, which are assessed at a lower percentage rate than student's savings for the purposes of financial aid. You can check on this, but it is in fact your money, not hers, and you will have control over it. On a cosmic scale, $15000 is not that much compared to the cost of college. The difference between a 529 account and any other savings account is that the money can only be used for college-related expenses, but you and she will probably not have any trouble spending it. parent of college student

The point of a 529 fund is to save money to spend on college so yes colleges are going to look at the money you have available that your have already designated for those expenses. They are also going to ask about your saving accounts, home equity, salaries, etc. Both for you and your child. Just because you have money saved does not mean that you will be denied financial aid, but it will be factored into the formula that determines how much you and your child should be expected to contribute. You will get a financial package from the school that includes things like tuition reduction, grants, loans, work study, etc. based on your particular situation. Included in that calculation will be what you have put away that can be used for these costs. If you figure college is 100k for four years and you subtract the 15 your daughter has saved you will still receive a package that looks at how to address the 85k additional - don't panic, remember why you saved and don't expect a free ride. wait and see what they offer

If I 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

Should I start making less money so they can get 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

Family's contribution on financial aid is 28% of our income!

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!

Finance 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 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 "expected parent contribution". It is an outlandish number that we could never in a million years actually afford. Yet that number establishes your "need" -- 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 "need" amount from the FAFSA. Not work-study,not even subsidized loans -- nothing.

Just for illustration, let's posit the unlikely circumstance that you get 'full' 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 floor of your need as established by FAFSA. So, even with full financial aid, you still can't 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't 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's definition, but things are really hard. (No eligibility for Pell Grants or Cal Grants or anything like that.) We've already borrowed so much against a home equity line of credit that I just flat-out couldn't cover the payments for anything more -- not even interest-only. (There's no room here for details, so just believe me -- please no lectures on money management or lifestyle. We don't have a 'lifestyle')

My son is a good conscientious student who will probably be admitted to most of the schools he applies to -- we've 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 'need' game isn't 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't? 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't hide from your kids: disclose your finances with your college-bound student. What can you afford if you don't 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't get sticker ' 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're willing to do for you. Families of every income level and circumstance can and do afford college. '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

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.