Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

5 Top Tips for Easing Financial Fears About Paying for College

by | Mar 17, 2020 | Ask the admission office | 0 comments

If you could make a list of fears about your child going to college, what would they be? Safety fears, illness concerns — the world is a scary place to the parent of a 17- or 18-year old kid, isn’t it? Then there are concerns about athletics (if he or she is an athlete), whether he’ll be able to keep up with classes, and on and on.

One major concern is pretty much a given — paying for college. 

I spent 12 years in college admission and some of the fears parents expressed took my breath away. Heck, I couldn’t sleep at night. I can assure you, there weren’t enough ways for me to express, “I’m here to listen, and we’ll do everything we can to help.”

Parents, you’re well aware that financial aid awards are rolling out the door, if you haven’t already received them. Here are five major fears about paying for college — and what I can tell you about each one.

1. “I’m not sure I saved enough.”

Nothing gets your heart going more than sitting with a financial aid officer or admission counselor during a college visit, especially when he or she shows you a scholarship sheet and the full cost. It might be the first time you’ve really sat down to think, “How will we pay for this?” 

Or maybe you don’t start asking the question until all the financial aid awards start populating your mailbox and inbox. 

How have you approached the conversation with your family? Which sounds most like you? 

a. You clam up when the conversation turns to paying for college.

You can’t even bring yourself to talk about your financial concerns at all — not with your partner, your family or even your son or daughter. You’re dreading the conversation, so you don’t bring it up. Or think about it. At all.

b. You chat about the basics.

You’re all about mentioning your financial concerns but avoid having a real nuts-and-bolts conversation about how you’ll handle the cost of college as a family.

c. Everyone hears about it. All the time.

You know for sure what you’ll do about college costs — and you discuss it with your family and graduating senior every chance you get. Maybe you can’t spare an extra dime for college, can only pay a little bit or are more than willing to pay the whole bill in full.

Which scenario fits you best? Maybe your approach doesn’t fit into any of the above. Or maybe you’ve done all of these at different times. Don’t feel bad at all if you’ve experienced any of these scenarios. Every person’s journey is different and every family handles college costs in various ways.

That said, if you’re “A” or “B” and you’re afraid to talk about paying for college with your family, it’s time to rip off the Band-Aid. You’ll have to, anyway, because financial aid awards are here — or looming closer.

If you’re still not sure how to handle college costs, I recommend talking with a few experts:

  1. First, contact the financial aid office where your child wants to attend college. There are often ways to make choosing a college less expensive. Check out 6 Ways to Handle a Disappointing Financial Aid Award to learn more about cost savings.
  2. Second, check in with a financial advisor who can help you determine how much you can pay (or how much you shouldn’t pay!) Did you know that it’s often smarter to save for your own retirement if you haven’t saved for your golden years? Your child can get loans for college — you can’t get a loan for retirement. Ask trustworthy people in your community who they use as their financial advisor. Your first consultation is usually free and you’ll usually get great insight on paying for college.
  3. Finally, tap into a trusted tax professional who can also help you understand how having a child in college may save you money.

Finally, why use your money if you don’t have to? There’s a reason your child should have focused on good grades, high standardized test scores and academic and community engagement — so he or she can get scholarships to pay for college.

2. “I’m nervous about my child’s debt load.”

Your child may need to take out a loan — or several. (Especially if he or she isn’t super gung-ho about applying for scholarships.) Remember, many schools’ financial aid awards build loans directly into the financial aid award.

It’s easy to be nervous about debt. You can find so many startling statistics. For example, debt.org totals U.S. student loan debt at $1.4 trillion. tudent loan debt accrues at a rate of $2,858 every second and the average student debt as of 2017 was $37,172.

For every dismal statistic you read, you’ll find some like these, from The College Payoff, published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. These reinforce why you’re encouraging your child to go to college. Degree levels and lifetime earnings are as follows:

  • High school dropout: $973,000
  • High school diploma: $1.3 million
  • Some college but no degree: $1.5 million
  • Associate’s degree: $1.7 million
  • Bachelor’s degree: $2.3 million
  • Master’s degree: $2.7 million
  • Doctoral degree: $3.3 million
  • Professional degree: $3.6 million

You may also be worried about your own debt load when you take out a Parent Plus loan or co-sign private loans with your child. You’ll bear the responsibility for paying back a Parent Plus loan because you, as the parent, sign the master promissory note. As for any private loans, always remember that once you co-sign, you’ll be responsible for paying back the loan if your child defaults.  

Break down every single out-of-pocket cost, exhaust all scholarship, grant and work-study options and your own funds (and your child’s!) before you pursue various loan options. Ask the financial aid office at schools for additional scholarships and work-study money. College isn’t free, but it is possible to break it down. 

3. “The college might not be a good fit — and therefore, a costly failure.”

This one is a real fear, isn’t it? What happens if your daughter wants to transfer after you’ve put all of your resources into finding the right college? College is only one of a handful of high-dollar investments I can think of in which you put money into an assumed experience and outcome before it actually happens. You put a lot of faith into the picture painted by admission counselors, coaches and others.

I caught up with Danny Kofke, financial expert and best-selling author of “The Wealthy Teacher,” and asked him about paying for college. His daughter, Ava, will launch her college search soon. Kofke is a money maverick (he teaches teachers how to handle their money) but he’s still nervous about choosing the right option. “I want to make sure we choose the correct college for Ava. I know for some majors, it really doesn’t matter where she goes, but we just want to set her up for future success,” he says. 

It’s impossible to know exactly what will happen down the road. That’s why you want to do as many visits and develop as many relationships as possible. It all makes a difference because you’ll be that much closer to helping your child find the right fit.

4. “I’m worried that my student won’t be successful or find a job.”

The last thing you want is your son or daughter sitting in your basement after college, eating Cheetos and watching “Family Guy” reruns.

In 2017, 60 percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This six-year graduation rate was 60 percent at public institutions, 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions and 21 percent at private for-profit institutions. 

I know, I know you don’t want to hear that close to 40 percent don’t complete college. But here’s a little-known secret: Check out College Navigator through the NCES. Look up colleges your child has on his or her short list and click on “Retention and Graduation Rates.”

Some schools truly have some dismal retention rates. You don’t want your child going to a school that doesn’t work hard to keep kids there once they’re enrolled. Some colleges really focus on retention. Make sure your child goes to a school that does.

5. “I’m worried that the college isn’t offering me the best award possible.”

Wondering whether a college has your best interests at heart? In general, colleges try to make it possible for as many individuals to attend as they can.

Here’s something that compounds the confusion: No award letter looks the same. They’re all different! Some award letters list scholarships, then list grants and loans. Some add loans in at the top, others put work-study at the very bottom. It’s up to you to understand everything you see. Use the Compare Aid Calculator to make sure you’re comparing each college, apples to apples. Note: Colleges only provide a one-year financial aid snapshot. Make sure you consider all four years. 

Ease your financial fears

Now, my goal with this post about paying for college isn’t to get your heart rate up. It’s to get your talking with your family about all the possibilities.

I also wanted to mention this: A school must be the perfect fit. But what if it’s more expensive than other options?

For example, if a school is $2,000 more expensive but you know in your heart that it’s the best place for your son or daughter, it may be worth it to figure it into your budget. Your child’s odds for success are higher if he goes to his first-choice institution.

Finally, talk it out. With everyone. Chances are, your daughter’s best friend’s parents are feeling the same way. Others can sympathize because they’ve been in your shoes. Use the resources at your disposal to make the best decision for your family. You’re not alone!

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