Most families of high school seniors have completed the college application process. Some students have already been accepted through early decision and early application programs but, for those who went the regular application route, the final decision might still be up in the air. Usually by May, though, everyone has to commit to one specific college.
Now you really have to think about how much college your family can afford for your student. Based on your FAFSA filing each potential college has submitted a financial aid package with their admission acceptance letter. Now you must take a careful look at the total expenses involved in attending those schools, and balance that against the amount of financial support you are eligible to receive. Be very careful to take note of how much aid is being offered in the form of student loans, as those monthly payments in the future can be a financial burden on your student and on you, if you applied for PLUS loans.
The difference in your cost calculations and the amount of available financial aid is called the gap. This is the amount of money your family will have to find somewhere to make up that difference. It can play a role in the final college choice. Do you ask your child to attend a second-choice college that will cost less out-of-pocket, or do you allow your student to attend a first-choice college where the financial impact will be much greater? These are tough choices that only you and your student can make. If you really think the first-choice college still makes the most sense, here are some steps you can take to fill the gap between the amount of money you have and the amount of money you will need:
• Talk to the College: The financial aid office might be willing to take another look at your application form. Let them know if there have been any major changes in your life that could impact your ability to pay the necessary amount, and be prepared to provide documentation. Ask if they know about any other ways to pay less money out of pocket.
• Look for Scholarships: Not all scholarship applications are due in December. There are many types of college scholarships that have deadlines around the calendar. Conduct an in-depth search, and spend quality time on the application, to find these sources of “free” money.
• Carefully Consider Private Student Loans: These loans do not have all the benefits of federal student loans, and will only add to the payments your family will have to make after graduation. But, if a school is that important to your student, it may be a solution. Just be sure to agree with your child on payment responsibilities.
• Ask for Help: Family members might be willing to pitch in and help support such as good cause as a college education. Instead of a gift at graduation, create a specific list of financial needs and ask for help in particular areas. If you do receive money, live up to the commitment, and don’t let them see you going on an expensive vacation or buying your child a fancy new car, as they will certainly think you are misusing their gift.
• Have a Serious Money Talk: Have the whole family get together and really look for ways to save money, so there will be more available in the college fund. Consider cutting back on automobile payments, cell phone and data plans, dinners in restaurants, and clothing budgets. Anything saved goes directly into the fund. Also talk to the future college student about living on a tight budget, reducing personal expenses, and buying used or electronic books for classes.
• Earn More Money: One solution to the gap problem is to find more money. This might involve second or part-time jobs, selling items online, or holding a family yard sale.
If your student is a high school junior in the midst of the application process, take heed of these tips so you will have some ideas in hand if your student runs into a gap as well.