College Options When Cost is a Factor

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Daughter is interested in colleges that are beyond our budget

March 2016

Our 10th grade daughter is talking about college, and throwing around names of schools that interest her, but that I fear are going to be out of our price range. The UCs are in our range, and she's interested in some of those, but wants more options, wants to check out the East Coast, likes the idea of a private college, etc. We have some money saved, but not enough to cover the full cost of some of the schools she's talking about She's a pretty good student, but not the sort of kid that I think will be able to land big scholarships, and I'm pretty sure with our income we won't qualify for much assistance. My husband and I are hoping to steer her gently towards less expensive schools.

I'm not sure how to approach this with my daughter. We need her to know that cost will be a limiting factor, but we also don't want to discourage her from looking at the colleges that excite her. She's a big dreamer type who really gets enthusiastic about things she wants, but can easily get discouraged and shut down if she thinks someone is ''raining on her parade.'' So we've got to tread lightly - need that enthusiasm to last for the applications!

I would love to hear advice from parents who have navigated this with their kids. Jill

Dear fellow parent-of-college-bound-kid

When I was a young woman looking at colleges I, too, was interested in places far beyond my parents' budget -- essentially, they had no ''college budget,'' but they did have four kids, and I was the eldest. So there was no money. They simply explained to me that if I got into college, I was going to have to figure out how to make it work. I applied to our state university and local colleges and a couple of private institutions in the Midwest (I lived in the rural Midwest) and my first choice, Barnard College. I knew that my parents could not pay if I got in, but I rolled the dice, in the hopes that I would get a scholarship. Well, although I was not class valedictorian, I did get a very generous scholarship from Barnard. The richer the school, the deeper the pockets, the greater the support... if you get in. I had to work at college, always around 20 hours a week, but I loved my part-time jobs and learned a lot doing them. My parents chipped in a modest amount, and I borrowed a very manageable sum (I think $2,500 over four years, but that was many many years ago now). I am a proud Barnard alumna. My advice: tell her precisely the limitations (we will be able to afford to pay X, and we will not allow you to borrow more than Y), and let her dream big, telling her also that she will have to work part-time as well, which will not be the case for everybody at the fancy school. If she doesn't get in, at least she will have tried. And if she does get in, you will have to be strict about reminding her of your limits and hers (she should not be seduced into borrowing big sums for this!). Going away to college, farther rather than closer, is a fantastic learning experience, as is trying to find your way financially through the world.

Good luck to you! Barnard woman

You asked to hear from parents that have been in a similar situation. My son is only 15, so I'm actually not experienced with how to manage the college search from a parent perspective. But, I felt compelled to write to share my experience from when I was applying to colleges as a teen. My parents and counselors really sent the message that finding the right fit was the most important thing about picking a college. And when I say right fit, I mean culture, academic programs, extra-curricular activities, size, etc. I can't remember a single conversation that involved finding the right fit financially. That led me to dream big - and not fully understand that there was much more to consider when picking a school, like location and $, (especially travel costs/breaks and student loans). I wish my parents had been more up front with me about the costs of school and what we could realistically afford. When I start this process with my son, I'm going to share with him how much we have saved, pros/cons of taking out loans, and additional costs like transportation and housing. I also plan to have him help pay for his school. I didn't have to contribute financially in my freshman year, but did for future years. It made a huge difference for me to have some financial responsibility for school. I also found that I was a better student when working part time while in school. Good luck!

Financial aid varies from college to college. You can get an idea of how much aid you can expect by going to a college's web site and searching for ''net price calculator.'' All the college web sites have one. When you enter your financial and family size information (and sometimes information about your child's grades and test scores), you'll get an estimate of what your family's contribution would be. You might be pleasantly surprised! And that information could help your daughter focus on a range of colleges that are feasible for your family.

When my kids were applying to college, I told them we could afford to send them to a UC and that they could go to private colleges only if their financial aid and scholarships brought the price down close to the level of a UC. High school students know college is expensive, and I think it's fine to let them know there are limits to how much the family can afford. Fortunately, we have great universities in both the UC and CSU systems. College mom

We learned that many private schools give more aid than the UC schools do. I let my daughter apply to wherever she wanted. When the acceptance letters came back, the financial aid was all over the map. Her first choice school would have cost $25K/year more than at least 4 others. I told her if she was willing to take out loans to cover the difference, she could attend there. She was angry initially but selected one of the other schools where she was very happy. You would be surprised how much financial aid is available even if you think you wouldn't be eligible. Perhaps talk to your daughter about how much you are able/willing to spend and let her make the choice when the time comes. As it is, I paid the costs for my daughter for undergrad and she is now a grad student where she is responsible for the costs.

Good luck. Glad to be done with that!

I'm interested in hearing responses. Likely we are similar in that we fall into a ditch where salaries will result in no financial aid and yet $70K per year (for three kids) will be potentially excessively sacrificial... and foolish in the face of more moderately priced options.

Note that many schools offer no merit aid and it's all financial. Such is the case for my daughter who covets georgetown, wellesley and Brown. We're on track to save about $35K per year per kid (in today's dollars)

I'm not sure of the way to steer the conversation with my kids... and every single purchase we make has me questioning if it's fair to her.... But the costs are so absurd... college middle zone

You have time, so I suggest a series of conversations. First, I would have her make a chart or spreadspheet. Include each college that interests her. List location, weather, size, acceptance rate, and cost. Plus anything else you think is important. Then maybe a week or a month later, ask her if she is willing to work or take out loans to help pay for college. Then, have you have discussed cost and her contribution, you can talk about your contribution. You may want to open up this conversation, talk about your income, savings, and budget. Does she have an allowance? Do you talk abotu spending, saving, donating? These are good things for a teenager to learn about. Anon

I told my kids I would cover all costs if attending a public college within California; if they wanted to go to an out-of-state or private college they would have to cover any additional costs by taking student loans. My daughter really wanted to go to a particular out-of-state public university, but ended up deciding to go in-state for undergrad and try for that out-of-state school if she went to grad school when she would probably be considered independent and could maybe get in-state tuition in the other state. Anon

Don't make assumptions about financial aid. Let your daughter apply where she wants to apply. She can look at the offers with you and make a decision with all the information at hand. My son applied to all ''reach'' schools, about 8. He got into 3. He got no financial aid from one. The UC offered $12,500 and some other perks. The Ivy picked up two thirds of the tab, making it quite affordable. He has been very happy there so far. Harvard mom

Hi, Jill,

''Been there, done that''. My 2cents on this: First, take her to visit some of these ''dream'' schools. She may very well discover that the school she THINKS she is in love with, simply turns her off once she's on campus. The vibe may be wrong, the weather may be a turn-off (it happens A LOT when California kids head east, or north...).

Check out schools that aren't on her 'list', but that may be nearby, and offer something she's interested in. Help her figure out, by visiting, if small (under 5000), medium (10-15,000), or big is what she wants.

Then -- Look into WUE (Western University Exchange). *Wonderful* tuition assistance!!!

Keep in mind that many smaller private schools may have big price tags, but they also have a lot more available aid than a UC / public school.

That said... keep having the money conversation. But, let her apply to the schools of her dreams. She may not get accepted, which takes it off the table. Or, she may get accepted, and be handed a great financial aid package. You never know until you try.

When we were going thru this, I was told ''There are about 4000 colleges and universities in the US alone. There's one that's right for each student.'' And, not everyone gets to go to the 'name' schools -- there are 15-20 schools that EVERYONE will apply to. guess what. You need Plan B (and C, and D, and....)

Good luck. The search can be a truly wonderful 'bonding' experience... enjoy it with her, be a partner in the quest. The financial part is a consideration, to be sure... but, really, that question will be on the table only AFTER she has acceptance letters in front of her.

And then - you may be surprised!!
Loved the quest, and mine is truly happy

There are so many great options for your daughter; how wonderful that she is interested in thinking ''outside the box'' of our state university system. In my own family, we agreed that we would budget approximatey the amount of money equal to what it would cost attend a UC.

Both my children were very eager to experience college life outside of California. We encouraged their adventurous spirits. You'll no doubt get many responses.

Here are just a few thoughts: There is a group of small liberal arts colleges called ''Colleges That Change Lives''. You can do some online research. Admission stats vary, and many offer merit aid, and also seek students from other areas of the country for geographic diversity.

My older child excelled academically and was offered excellent financial aid from a top tier LAC in the northeast. Thanks to their *tuition-free* master's program, the tuition, while certainly not chreap, felt like a bargain, and the experience was stellar.

My younger child, a good student but not outstanding academically, chose to attend school in Canada and is thriving at UBC in Vancouver. Canadian schools are a great value for Americans, and my children have several friends who have attended McGill, the University of Toronto, University of Victoria, and UBC. There are MANY American students studying in Canada. Right now, the exchange rate is extremely favorable, too. Best of luck! It's an exciting time. Anon

I hear you – went through the same thing with my daughter. She had the stats to apply for some fairly competitive schools, but we learned early on that we’d probably be paying full price at many. I was also concerned about the state schools, because I know taking 5-6 years to graduate is almost the norm – there goes the savings! So I knew before she started applying that cost might limit her choices. Luckily my daughter is the sort of kid that is quick to come back down to reality once someone shows her the reality!

We were very careful not to immediately shoot down the schools my daughter was excited about. We acknowledged her excitement and let her explore all options. About the middle of second semester of junior year, we had the cost conversation, starting by emphasizing that we wanted to support her and see her at at colleges that would be great for her. Then we were straight-forward about how much we made, how much we had saved, and how much we would be able to contribute each year for college. It was enlightening for her, and we realized that she hadn’t thought much before about what mom and dad ACTUALLY made, or the fact that our resources are not infinite.

We were also working with a college consultant who helped out a lot in this area – she showed my daughter the real data for cost and financial aid that showed how expensive some of these private schools would actually be for us. Coming from someone else, my daughter was more receptive to the information (typical teen), and although she was disappointed at first, our consultant was also able to help her get excited about other schools. My daughter is happily attending USC now, and they gave her a great financial aid package.

The consultant we worked with was Nicole Hosemann – I’d highly recommend her – she does the admissions and essays piece, but also the financial aid stuff. She’s awesome, and my daughter loved working with her. She’s doing a workshop soon that might cover some of this– I think it’s on the BPN website. Nicole’s website is and her number is 510-493-6476. Good luck – the college application process is an intense time! Andrea


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!