How to Approach Financial Aid + Planning Based on Your Needs

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It’s that time again: back to school season. For parents of students nearing the end of their high school years, the crunch of college expenses can feel like a cloud looming over you. But we don’t think it has to feel that way. Instead, we work with clients and families to help them plan for an affordable college experience, one that doesn’t stress parents out or leave students with crippling debt.

To help with this process, we really want to dig into the wide range of college options available… and how to narrow in on colleges where your student should apply.

Assessing Your Student’s College Options

The most important factor in your child’s college decision, contrary to popular belief, is not just your child’s grades. You need to take into account:

  • Location (costs associated with returning home, living expenses, etc.)

  • Yearly tuition

  • Textbooks and materials

  • Room and board

But before you can totally calculate how much a specific school will cost, you also need to factor in: 

  • Scholarships and financial aid available

  • Types of loans available

  • How much parents can contribute

  • “Unmet needs,” which is university-speak for “out of pocket costs”

  • State or local programs (University of Texas just announced that top students whose families make less than $65,000 get free tuition)

Some schools may offer more scholarship or financial aid money, and others may have cheaper tuition but more expensive room and board. For some families, FAFSA can help with financial aid, but the level of assistance goes down as your income goes up. That’s why it’s so important to lay out all of your child’s options, and have an open discussion about affordability, loans, and your student’s goals. 

In general, there are a few scenarios that would guide you and your student’s decision-making process, based on their merit and financial need.

High merit, low need

High merit, which is overall academic performance and a “college-worthy” resume, looks different for each school. Some schools seek students with high merit, meaning a 3.8 GPA or higher. Other schools only accept students who are in the top 8% of their class. If you have a lower financial need, your family can look for schools that have a high rate of merit support, such as private scholarships and other incentives. 

If you fall under the category of “low need,” your family may be paying out of pocket (or majority out of pocket) for this education. That’s great, but it’s also important to make sure you work with your student to find a reasonably priced school. You’ll also want to talk to your Certified Financial Planner™ about tax benefits and different tax planning strategies you can leverage to help you with this large (but very important!) expense.

High merit, high need

On the other hand, if you have high academic performance and higher financial need, you’ll need to search for schools that can offer more merit- and need-based scholarships, tuition and housing support, etc. Unfortunately, not every college offers this kind of support to high-need students, but sometimes it just requires a little bit of digging. 

Make a list of schools your child may be interested in, and ask the counselors or financial aid team about merit- and need-based options. This is also a time to discuss student loans and what your student’s expectations are, in case their school(s) of choice do not offer enough support.

Low merit, low need

Low merit doesn’t mean your student has immediately ruined their chances at a good college; it just means that a bit more research needs to be done. Your family will need to find colleges that accept your student for their grades/high school “resume,” and that have a reasonable sticker tag attached. 

If this is your scenario, it can also be helpful to talk to the admissions team to see if there’s anything your student can do to potentially qualify for admissions or even scholarships. For example, a school may tell you that if your student can get their SAT score up just a few points, he or she would be eligible for admission. It can take more time, but it could make all the difference for your student’s college experience (and your budget). 

Low merit, high need

Low merit, high need scenarios can feel like an uphill battle. Your student maybe didn’t perform the best in high school, or wants to attend a school that has very high merit standards they don’t quite meet. No matter what the exact situation is, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be paying “sticker price” on your student’s education. It simply means you’ll need to explore schools and options that make the cost of higher education more affordable. 

Find schools that have work-study programs, flat-rate tuition, legacy scholarships, discount incentives, etc. It also requires simply being on time, doing the application prep work, and getting to know the school. Ask questions of your students’ schools of choice; there is always a college out there willing to work with students and families, so don’t assume college is out of reach. 

A Note about the “Sticker Price” for Higher Education

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Regardless of your financial need or your child’s academic merit, you need to apply to schools to really understand the costs associated with each school. You really don’t know what it’s going to cost until you get that offer package in the mail, so don’t make decisions until you have all the information. 

It also helps to look at tuition over the course of 4 years, not a single semester or school year. That will help you understand what you can afford out of pocket, or what you will need to cover with loans if you can’t find financial aid. 

Also consider what your student wants to do after school, to make sure that it’s worth the cost — after all, this is an investment that you want to pay off. In the financial planning world, there is a general rule of thumb when it comes to taking out student loans: only take out 1x of your expected future earnings after-tax. 

If your student wants to be a teacher, a profession that pays about $50,000 a year, you might want to “cap” student loans at about one year’s net salary, if you need to take out student loans. This helps limit the excessive student loans we’re seeing so many graduates enter the workforce with, and can help narrow down a few college options for you. 

Setting Realistic Expectations

College is an underestimated emotional event: parents are sad to see their child leave the nest, but students tend to make decisions about their future without having the support or information they need to really consider all their options. In some cases, your student may be attached to one school or one program, and that desire can cause them to disregard the financial ramifications associated with this decision. Other times, students may pass up the chance at a really great education complete with scholarships to stay closer to friends. 

More than anything, students go into their college experience expecting the best — and they’re willing to go into debt for it. College towns and housing can be expensive: it’s easy to find apartments than exceed $1,000 a student in some areas, and then you throw in the cost of food, transportation, etc. It all adds up quickly, but they’re often footing the bill on loans or credit cards. 

This results in high student debt, the majority of which is just college living expenses, not actual tuition. That’s why starting the conversation about college options — and the costs associated with each — can help immensely. Your student will think about their education, not just the experience, and hopefully gain a better perspective on the dollar signs behind their decisions.

Financial Aid and College Planning Guide Better Decision-Making

At the end of the day, not everyone can get into Harvard — nor should they want to. Finding a college is nuanced and personal; it’s about finding the right personality fit, as well as the financial fit. 

Use the scenarios above to guide the conversation about what you (and your student) can and cannot afford. While your child may want to go to a specific school, it may be out of the range of financial possibility, unless they want to take on large amounts of loans. And for students who want to go to school for a specific degree, this is a great way for them to assess different colleges without feeling overwhelmed. 

Best of all, your child can get the education they want with less debt. Students now graduate with an average of nearly $30,000 in loans, making their entrance into adult and working life much harder than it needs to be!

If you have some time before your child leaves for college and want to ramp up your savings efforts, understand loan options, or are curious about tax strategies for paying for college, talk to a Certified Financial Planner™

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