Once you’ve started squirreling away some cash, it’s time to select a college that you can pay for.
First, ignore the sticker price; very few families pay that. You’ll pay the net price, which is the actual cost after discounts and financial aid. It’s a big distinction. The average advertised tuition, fees, room and board for in-state students at public universities is $20,770 and at private colleges, a daunting $46,950, according to the College Board. But the average net price is $14,940 and $26,750, respectively.
“Many of the more expensive schools actually have the most generous financial aid packages, so parents may be pleasantly surprised,” said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and a former financial aid officer.
Find any college’s net price on the net-price calculator the government requires schools to post online or — because many schools make it hard to find — on the federal College Navigator website. (When estimating costs, also remember something many families forget: Fewer than 40 percent of students finish in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and more than 40 percent take six years or more.)
3. Understand financial aid
Now that you’ve picked a school (and assuming it has picked you), go after all the scholarships and grants that you can get. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required to apply for the principal source of federal help, the Pell Grant, which provides up to $6,095 per year, per student, based on income. Most colleges also use the FAFSA in their calculations of institutional financial aid; it focuses more on family income than assets and is based on the tax return from two years before the student is enrolled, so avoid cashing out investments or taking other capital gains that could spike your earnings in that year (the January your child is a sophomore in high school through the December of her junior year). Up for a big bonus? Defer it if you can.
“If they make that withdrawal in a year the college is going to look at, they end up inflating their income in the amount of the withdrawal and shooting themselves in the foot,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, a former university financial aid officer and now a college financial consultant at College Coach.
Don’t overlook private scholarships from a parent’s employer or the local Rotary Club or chamber of commerce; you can find them online, though be careful to avoid the many scams that will inevitably pop up in your Google search, and never pay a fee to learn about free money. The Post-9/11 GI Bill also offers college funds for dependents of some military veterans. Most states have their own grant programs, though many are first come, first served (and often run out of money), so resist that impulse to procrastinate, and apply early and often.
Meanwhile, the college will be busy preparing its own financial aid package for you. School officials use not just the FAFSA but other forms and sources of information, and will seem to know even more about your personal finances (including income as well as assets) than Facebook. They also will present an offer in a way that can be dense and hard to understand, making it difficult to compare with offers you receive from other schools. Loans, for instance, may look like grants. Unlike new cars, mortgages and credit cards, higher education is a purchase for which no standardized disclosure is required. It’s one of many reasons to keep in mind that the college is not necessarily on your side.
“Parents think, The college is going to be showing me how I can pay less money to them,” said Chany. “That’s not what they’re doing. They’re trying to fill their enrollment and maximize their revenue. Even though they’re nonprofits, they’re not charities.”
They will negotiate, however. Many colleges have been suffering a years-long decline in enrollment, and especially if your kid has characteristics and credentials that an institution wants, it will often up its offer — something many families don’t know they can request.
“Most parents have never heard of the idea of negotiating for college," says Vasconcelos. “It’s certainly not a slam dunk, but it costs you nothing to ask the question.” She pointed out that an informal survey of her company’s clients who did this received an average of $3,000 more a year. Scholarships and grants cover an average of 35 percent of college costs, according to the Sallie Mae survey.