How Will We Pay for College?

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Losing sleep about how we'll pay for college

Feb 2014

My son is only a high school freshman but I am already losing sleep about how my husband and I will pay for him to go to college. I've heard that schools like Stanford will give kids a free ride if their family income is under a certain amount. I've also heard that some schools factor in a stay-at-home parent as $25k income even if they aren't making any money which means family income needs to be under an even lower threshold. Is it worth impoverishing oneself in the hopes that a bright kid will get in to a competitive private school?

Are there some good (ideally free) resources out there to ask these kinds of questions beyond public high school counselors who I'm not sure have the time or information to answer?

Money isn't everything, but it sure would make life easier

I'd suggest several things:

1) Make sure to apply for financial aid regardless of your income.

2) As you say your child is bright, make sure that he applies for every scholarship for which he is eligible. Sometimes your child can get a combination of small, private foundation scholarships, which can help enormously with books and incidental expenses. Check for places to start. To facilitate scholarships, encourage his participation in as many advanced classes, extracurriculars, and service projects as you think are reasonable for him (of course make sure that he's not miserable or overstressed).

3) Finally, remember that it is not necessary to go to Stanford or Harvard to succeed in life. I know many, many successful people who went to middle-of-the-road (and relatively inexpensive) state schools, or some combination of community college/state school for the first couple of years (to get all of their general requirements), and then transferred to a four year college of their choice. More often than you might think, so-called ''competitive'' schools are not the only answer. Karen

I've seen several people write in with concerns like yours over the years. As someone who has put a child through UC Santa Cruz, my advice is to not worry about it. You cannot really game this system; there are too many variables out of your control. So don't try to. There's no simple formula such as ''make under $X and you won't pay tuition.'' What is in your control: Do your best to set aside money. Encourage your child to try for good grades and to be active in extracurricular activities that interest him. Look up specific questions about income at Try to take things you hear like ''stay-at-home parents count as $25K in income'' with a grain of salt--that doesn't sound likely at all. Don't impoverish yourself as it's no guarantee of anything but impoverishment. If you happen to be self-employed, you might want to talk to an accountant in your son's senior year about reducing your income as much as possible so that you can report a lower income on FAFSA (for example, investing in business equipment strategically to reduce your net). I don't know if an accountant would have suggestions for reducing income from a regular job but it wouldn't hurt to ask. I wouldn't put a ton of energy into this, but I mention it because a friend ended up not sending his child to the school of her choice because his business had done unusually well that year and it didn't occur to him to shuffle money around to even things out. And encourage your child to apply to a variety of schools with different levels of expense, to keep all your options open. Maybe he'll go to a competitive private school. Maybe he'll prefer something else. How much financial aid you receive will depend on many factors. There is more than one right college for your son and he'll do fine. don't stress it--it's so out of your control

If you haven't already, you better start trying to put some money aside for the next 4 years or so for your son. It is amazing to me how many people think they will pay for college out of current earnings, and four years is enough to at least get a start on some savings.

I would suggest reviewing this topic on College Confidential (.com). There are many threads there and many knowledgeable people discussing the financial issues of college. For example, many there employ the strategy of having their high-achieving child focus on private schools where their stats put them in the top tier of accepted students. Those students are more likely to get aid offered (and get accepted) if they are in the top ranks of applicants to that school.

One thing I have gleaned from reading this site is that this idea of a ''free ride'' is rarely true, even for exceptional students. How many valedictorians and 2400 SAT kids apply to Stanford? Thousands. How many of them are going to get a free ride? Many are not going to get in, much less get free tuition. You will need to understand the difference between full need being met and the school helping you get loans.

I have found the blog and Facebook postings of The College Solution to be helpful as well.

Good luck; it is a daunting process. college bound

First of all, google Barbara Austin, she is an advisor with a lot of good information on her website about paying for college. Also, if your son is a really good student, he might want to look at applying to schools that have good reputations but are not as sought after as the Ivies. Many such schools want those straight A students and will offer money on admission to good students. I have been shocked at the money my daughter and her friends are offered on acceptance (this is merit aid, which highly selective schools do not give). Most public high schools often have workshops on these questions with people who are very willing to answer your questions. They are usually in the fall when the application process is going on so look for them next fall. college-bound parent

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

We make a lot but we can't afford college

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

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

We probably earn too much for financial aid but we can't afford tuition

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.