Understanding College Costs

Many families have misconceptions about college pricing and financial aid. They might be the result of lack of experience or dated information. They could also stem from viewing results in a friend’s situation as a universal truth, rather than the result of a combination of specific factors. In any event, what you don’t know about college costs could hurt.

Things you might not know about college cost and financial aid

  • Most colleges consider how much financial aid a student needs when making admissions decisions. (They are Need Aware, not Need Blind.)
  • Colleges use merit aid tuition discounts to encourage students to enroll. Colleges hire enrollment management professionals to maximize student enrollment while minimizing their financial aid costs.
  • The largest amounts of financial aid usually come directly from colleges, not from outside scholarships, making the choice of which college to apply to a significant factor in reducing costs.

As Ron Lieber mentions in this article about college costs, “High School Grades Could Be Worth $100,000. Time to Tell Your Child?” one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making as their kids approach colleges is not having candid and continuing discussions of college costs and family expectations about family budgets for college. It’s not surprising that parents would shy away from these conversations. Few would relish telling their kids that there are limits on what they can hope for, and conversations about money can bring on feelings of inadequacy and shame.

I encourage families to have the conversations anyway. As Lieber argues, understanding the connection between high school grades and the potential for merit aid may give a student a reason for continuing to persist in hard classes. Also being clear about family budgets and expectations related to financial support is kinder than revealing hidden constraints when it’s too late to add more affordable options. If savings for college can only cover in-state tuition, better to explain that up front. If there are other expectations, like starting with a lower cost community college, living at home, or working in the family business during the summer; these are also better discussed openly. Brené Brown introduced me to the motto “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” It certainly applies here — mismatched expectations can be the root of family strife over college choices.

I suggest reading Lieber’s article and using it as a springboard for family discussions.

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