You’ve gone on a dozen college visits with your son or daughter and watched as he or she applied to just as many schools. You’ve waited months for the financial aid award from his or her first-choice school to land in your inbox. You open it nervously and your eyes dart immediately to the bottom numbers. The out-of-pocket cost. The amount you and/or your child will need to pay for college.

You may think it’s a lot of money. 

Before you set that award aside and start poring over the financial aid awards for other (less expensive) schools, stop for a second. This could be an opportunity — a challenge! It’s time to get creative, ask a lot of questions about cost savings and stay positive. You can do this.

I caught up with Dr. Terri Snyders Crumley, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Mount Mercy University, to get her perspective.

Crumley said, “Everyone wants college to be free, but colleges have to pay their faculty and staff, electricity and more, just like any business. If a family thinks of paying for college as a partnership — where the college helps a bit, the student helps, the family helps — it’s usually doable. And that’s the same whether it’s a state school or private college.”

In other words, there are things you can do if you feel the financial aid award is a lot pricier than you anticipated.

1. First, breathe.

It can be hard to focus on anything but those final numbers. You want your child to go to his first choice school — especially when he’s worked so hard to get into the school of his dreams. Stay calm and know that there are things you can do — and a lot of what you can do involves a little bit of creative thinking. 

2. Talk to the financial aid office.

Crumley suggests picking up the phone and directly talking to financial aid personnel at your son or daughter’s top choice institution. This is when the relationships you developed during college visits may come in handy. Ask a few questions: 

  • Are there other scholarship opportunities available? Find out whether there are additional scholarships your son or daughter can still apply for. He or she may still be able to apply for a last-minute music scholarship or a writing scholarship — just ask! 
  • Is work-study available? Work-study is a federally-funded program that can help your son or daughter pay for college. They do this by earning money through an on-campus job. Your son or daughter may not have been awarded work-study at all, and this is the time to ask whether it’s available. If work-study is already plugged into the financial aid award, ask if more work-study money can be added. It’s a little-known secret — and to get it, all you might have to do is ask.
  • Was my FAFSA information correct? Ask some deeper questions about the FAFSA, says Crumley, because it’s very possible that you could have filled it out incorrectly. Work with the financial aid office to double-check. Did you accidently include your 401(k) retirement? Was your expected family contribution (EFC) inflated due to one-time income? (EFC is an indicative number that colleges use to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for.) Find out through the financial aid office whether you need to fix what’s on your FAFSA.

3. Evaluate whether you qualify for special circumstances. 

Colleges know that financial setbacks happen. You might have caught a bad break or two since you filed your FAFSA. Your son or daughter’s first-choice school may be able to take special circumstances into account and adjust your financial aid award. The following situations could qualify as special circumstances. You may: 

  • Support multiple households (married family members may live apart or you may support elderly family members or family members abroad)
  • Experience one-time income, such as withdrawing retirement funds for emergency purposes
  • Be paying funeral, medical or dental expenses
  • Have education debt yourself
  • Experience a job loss or a significant reduction in income

Check with the college financial aid office to find out whether you’re eligible to fill out its special circumstance form.

4. Consider cost savings.

This is where you get to think outside the box. Put all your creative juices into overdrive and figure out how much cost savings are in store. How much money will you save when your child is no longer living at home (if he or she is going away to school)? How can those savings can be applied to college costs? 


How much do you currently spend on groceries? Imagine how much you’ll save if your son isn’t home to drink four gallons of milk per week and eat two meals in one sitting!


How much do you spend on utilities? How much cost savings will you incur when your teenager isn’t taking two showers a day, leaving all the lights on or cranking up the heat without your knowledge?

Car insurance and other vehicle-related expenses

Your student may not need a car at college. Unless he or she has an off-campus job, the reality is that your student can catch rides with friends to Walmart or take public transportation. That means you could even sell the car! You’ll also save a lot of gas money — no more, “Hey, Mom, can I have $40 for gas?”


You won’t have to stock your house full of toilet paper and Kleenexes for your high school student — major cost savings. Plus, if you really wanted to, you could encourage your student to come up with his own funds for deodorant, soap, shampoo and whatever else he might need. He can get a job, use birthday cash — it’s a great time for him to get creative with money.

Lessons and athletic fees

You won’t have to pay for piano or voice lessons anymore. That’s a lot of savings right there, especially if you’re spending hundreds of dollars per year on athletic club participation or whatever else your son or daughter participates in at his or her high school.

How can you save save money in college in other ways? Why not make a long list?

5. How can your student pitch in?

How much can your child work and save over each summer break? Don’t discount what your student can earn at the public pool, waiting tables or even freelancing. Add that to the pile! A summer job earning $4,000 can make a huge difference. 

6. Break it down.

Once you’ve done steps one through five, take a look at the out-of-pocket costs again. Pretend it’s a puzzle you need to solve (and can solve!) and break it into chunks to make it more palatable. Encourage your student to figure out how much he or she can contribute. Determine how much you can each feasibly add and consider the cost savings mentioned above. Maybe grandparents want to chip in, too! 

Another way to break the cost into manageable chunks is to opt for a 10-month payment plan at your child’s school. The 10-month payment plan divides the out-of-pocket costs into 10 separate payments over the course of a school year. Once you do that, does it seem so scary anymore? I hope not. 

Finally, decide whether you need a private loan for the rest. Note: Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans, which are both federal loans for eligible students who will attend four-year colleges or universities, could also be built into the financial aid award. Talk to the financial aid office about loan options for you and your family.

Get excited and have a family conversation

I love Dr. Crumley’s approach — that paying for college can be a partnership between the parent, the student and the college. Tackle that out-of-pocket cost with some energy! Once you and your family sit down and actually tackle the financial aid award head-on, it can even be exciting! 

It doesn’t have to be daunting. Work with the financial aid office to break down the out-of-pocket costs. Make it your mantra! Break it down, break it down, break it down.

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