Not surprisingly, a lot of parents ask me, “How do we afford college?” Parents who attended college twenty years ago usually find themselves in shock over the number of changes in the college landscape — from tuition costs to the fact that they must fund most of it themselves or risk their child taking out a hefty loan amount. Financial planning for college is a topic many parents find daunting.

You can enjoy the journey to college by preparing early with a financial and academic review that begins in your child’s freshman year of high school.

Figuring out how exactly to pay for college and navigating the financial aid system can feel completely overwhelming, but you do not have to do it alone. 

Keep reading for the top tips on how to take stock of your finances and involve your child in financial conversations early on in high school. 

Saving for College 

How much have you saved so far for college? Did you start when your child was in diapers? Did you wait till he or she turned fifteen? Do not beat yourself up if you got started later — things happen, especially during this tumultuous economic time.

From my years of experience, I have found that students in high school feel that they should go to college — no matter the cost. However, this decision involves foresight and financial responsibility. When students graduate from college, they never wish for more student loan debt. Instead, they would rather have a flexible lifestyle. Being able to move out of their parents’ house, buy a nice car, and take a vacation will likely depend on their responsibility towards the overall cost of college and loan amounts.

Sixty-two percent of the class of 2019 graduated with student debt and the average student loan debt was $28,950.00. Student loan statistics such as these are increasing every year as the cost of attendance continues to rise.

Student Loan Debt is Real

Understand College Costs 

Make sure you learn as much as you can about college expenses so you can make great budget decisions about costs with your child. Financial planning for college requires more than just comparing tuition numbers. Fees can vary greatly amongst universities. Airplane tickets can add thousands of dollars to the price of a college education. Also, the total cost of attendance goes up on average around 4%, so be prepared for rising costs.

Campus to Career Crossroads thoroughly reviews college costs early in the planning process to avoid any financial surprises. It is a top priority to create a college list that will fit a family’s budget. Check out Suzanne’s experience.

Net Price vs. Sticker Price

What is the difference between net price and sticker price? Sticker price involves the total cost of college — tuition, room, board and fees — without scholarships or other financial aid added to the mix. You know it as the scary total cost on a college’s website. 

The net price involves a college’s sticker price minus the grants, scholarships, and possibly educational tax benefits you get. Your net price depends on your personal circumstances and each college’s financial aid policies.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

What’s the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)? Your EFC serves as an index number that college financial aid staff use to determine how much financial aid you would receive if you attend a particular college. The numbers you put on your FAFSA form determine your own specific EFC.

If you would like a jump start on understanding your EFC, please see the EFC calculator. This helpful link will provide an estimate of your annual EFC. While you cannot file the FAFSA until October 1st of your son or daughter’s high school senior year, knowing your estimated EFC in advance will enable you to shape a college list that is affordable.

Keep Costs Low 

Campus to Career Crossroads educates clients about about scholarships, merit-based aid, and other methods for keeping costs low.

Did you know that families affected by a special circumstance, job loss, salary reduction, or high dependent care costs may qualify for more financial aid? Yes! This approach offers a great way to lower costs. In fact, I provide a specific framework for appealing your financial aid award. You want to communicate these significant changes in your financial circumstances in a very specific way, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects. 

Learn About Financial Aid 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but government financial aid will likely not end up as a white knight that saves the day. All families have a natural interest in need-based financial aid from the federal and state levels. Unfortunately, most become quickly disappointed with the qualification requirements and the lack of funding available. 

Financial Aid May Not Bridge All Funding Gaps

For most families who receive need-based financial aid, the award amounts do not even come close to combating the rising cost of tuition. You will want to: 

  • Plan how you’ll pay for college before you start. 
  • Ask school counselors and the college financial aid office about state, college, and nonprofit grants and scholarships. 
  • Meet application deadlines. 
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and for federal grants, work-study, and federal loan options. 
  • Complete the CSS Profile, if required.
  • Consider prepaid tuition and education savings (529) plans.
  • Compare the costs and aid offers. 
  • Accept the aid from the school that is best for you and inform them of other sources of aid (such as scholarships) you expect to receive.

Focus on Merit-Based Aid

Merit-based aid offers one of the most effective ways for students to reduce the high cost of college tuition. If you begin the process early on in high school, you can work with your kids to ensure that they do their academic best in the classroom and take a rigorous class schedule.  

Standardized testing (taking the SAT or ACT) remains a big piece of the merit-based equation. You want your kids to push themselves academically with a clear target in mind, so have these academic conversations at the beginning of high school.

Make Sure Your Financial Planning for College Hits the Target

A well-crafted college list should focus on schools’ merit aid in conjunction with the student’s academic background, as well as the family’s college budget. This is an area where I excel and can be a valuable asset to families with college-bound students. 

Understand Loans

Did you know that your student can understand his or her loan repayment information before taking on a single loan before freshman year? Yes!

The majority of students never know what the repayment figures will look like until they graduate, then practically fall over in shock when they meet with a professional during exit loan counseling. Keep track of annual loan amounts and separate them during each year of college. Check out this helpful student loan payment calculator.

Talk to a Financial Advisor

The decision to hire a financial advisor comes down to personal needs. Financial planning for college for many families starts early with their financial advisor. Do you think you need help from an expert to manage your finances or can your family do it on your own? Are you able to know the ins and outs of using your Roth IRA for college, plus have enough for your retirement? Do you want to know what the full costs of college will look like if you pay them over four years and still have enough left over for yourself in the long-term?

Involve Your Child in the Financial Discussion 

All families should make college a family decision. Everyone needs to understand costs as we work together to shape a college list. Many parents like this part of my process since we base everything on the family’s desired budget — not a college “wish list” which may have expensive, unaffordable schools on it.

Think Like a Consumer

In many ways, you and your kids should think like consumers when you “shop” for colleges. You want to get the best value, the best deal, the best bang for your buck — and the best return on your investment in this process.

Put together a “pros” and “cons” list — just like you might when you buy any other item, like a kitchen appliance or a new computer.

Talk About Who Pays for College 

In 2019-2020, the average annual cost to attend an in-state public university was $10,116.00, and that was only tuition — not room and board. Tuition fees double at $22,557.00 for an out-of-state university. Private colleges and universities cost $36,801.00 for tuition, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Talk about college costs and all available funding sources. These might involve: 

  • College savings accounts
  • Contributions from relatives
  • Potential financial aid
  • Outside scholarships
  • Loans

It is important to be upfront with your child about your family’s financial constraints and what you expect from him or her as a contribution. This helps you all stay together as your child starts the college search process.

Discuss the Value of a College Education 

College is an investment. Investments work because you put the money into them and watch them mature. Similarly, your child puts the work into college and then reaps the benefits with a high-paying job and lots of career opportunities later on. 

A College Education is an Investment

Talk about what your child wants as the end goal, whether he or she wants to become an English teacher or a pediatrician. You do not need to go to the most expensive school in the United States to accomplish these goals. Thousands of colleges in the United States with diverse campus settings and challenging degree offerings often go overlooked.   

Your child’s comprehensive college list should fit his or her academic performance and your family’s financial situation. A well-crafted college list will save money because you won’t waste application fees on unaffordable or academically unrealistic colleges.

Start Financial Planning for College Early!

The earlier your family learns how to plan for college, the greater the likelihood of reaching your personalized goals. It is often unfeasible to handle the college search process alone due to demanding extracurricular, academic, and family schedules.  

I often present affordable colleges (which, in some cases, a family may never have considered!) that offer strong academics, generous merit aid, and fit the personalized goals of your student.

Partner with Campus to Career Crossroads on the college journey. Campus to Career Crossroads welcomes the opportunity to provide short or long-term planning to safeguard your college investment. Call today for a free consultation.


Q: How do you plan for college costs?

You can approach financial planning for college in many different ways. There are several methods of tackling the out-of-pocket costs on the financial aid award letter, including scholarships, merit-based aid, federal and state financial aid, using your monthly earnings and more. Partner with Campus to Career Crossroads to get a full understanding of all of your options.

Q: How can I increase my financial aid for college?

One of the best ways to increase financial aid for college involves talking to everyone you can — at colleges and universities (make sure you do not miss out on any grant programs), your college and career counselor (for local scholarship opportunities), your job (for scholarships), and more. You also want to team up with Campus to Career Crossroads to get other ideas for increasing your financial aid for college.

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