College decision-making and financial considerations

decision makingThese are the decision-making months that try the souls of both parents and seniors. While students wait for the thick envelopes from Admissions Departments, parents are hoping for even thicker envelopes from Financial Aid offices. Most colleges will be sending out these financial awards – grants, loans and scholarships – during the month of March. In March and April colleges also ramp up the competition for your student by phoning or by sending letters from Alumni, tee shirts, lanyards and bumper stickers. With any luck they will also be sending additional offers of financial aid!


Most colleges and universities grant you until May 1st to make your decision and to send in your housing deposit. Check closely for your deadline in the acceptance letters your student received. Try to have your student make his/her decision during the month of April. You don’t want to be stuck sending multiple, non-refundable housing deposits because your student hasn’t yet made a decision.

While your student may be concerned about where his or her friends plan to attend school, your job is to bring a little financial reality into the picture. This is the perfect time to review finances, both yours and your student’s, and to review the guidelines that you set when you started the college search process. My older son graduated in 4.5 years from a state school in December 2006. He is now paying back $30,000 in educational loans. While this is a modest loan by many standards, it is scary for a 22 year old in his first job to discover that he must pay $300 per month in loans for the next 10 years.

Items to consider

  1. Most scholarships are limited to four years. Since most students take 4.5 or 5 years now to graduate, this often means additional loans need to be secured for the last semester/year. Our older son didn’t qualify for additional Federal loans to cover the missing scholarship money; I had to cosign loans for his last two semesters.
  2. Look carefully at the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) amount you received from the FAFSA. This will be on the Student Aid Report (SAR) which was sent to your email address. You will need to plan to meet that amount via savings, loans, 529 accounts or begging from rich relatives, whatever works for you. Federal loans will not usually cover any of your EFC amount.
  3. Have your student apply for as many scholarships as possible. No amount is too small! $500 will cover most of the costs of books for the quarter; $100 could cover the cost of a used Calculus book or a semester’s load of laundry.
  4. Look carefully at transportation costs to the schools that your child likes best. Airfare or train costs can add significant costs to your annual outlay of money for college. Search the college website for their Academic Calendars. You can start to purchase airline tickets now (when prices are usually lower) for holiday visits home. Determine if a round trip visit to the school can reasonably be done in a day by car. You will need to define “reasonable.” If not, you will need to plan for overnight stays for Orientation and for moving your child in, and out, of the dorm each year. If the colleges are in-state, check to see if bus transportation exists for your child to return home at break times, e.g., mid-term break, Thanksgiving, between quarters/semesters, spring break, holidays. We made the 8 hour round trip to pick up our son for a three day trip home; however, a $70 bus ride saves a lot of wear and tear on middle-aged parents with arthritic knees!

Understanding College Costs