Updated: Jan 16
Affording a university education, especially in certain parts of the world like the US, is difficult, to say the least. We regularly dole out the following guidance to families during their final two years of high school, but some of this advice needed to have been embraced far earlier. To be clear, we feel that these are options that every student should consider, especially when they are considering taking out large loans. We are not certified financial planners or otherwise authorized to give you advice on how to take care of your money, but these points all come from experience in working with families throughout the years.
Save. This may seem trite, but there have been some bad rumors out there about how you may as well not save if you are not uber-wealthy. This is not the case. (I have read that it does not make sense to reroute a parent’s retirement contributions into savings as colleges do not take that into consideration in their calculations.) Do what you can to tuck away money for college! Consider a 529 or some other savings product. Every little bit helps.
Be Open-minded. When families are sensitive to college costs, one of the first things that we counselors have to do is make sure that the students and parents are not overly focused on one single institution. Keep your options open and be open to many possibilities. This only makes it easier in the long run!
Be Clear About Your Priorities. If you are indeed cost sensitive, then be sure to communicate that to your counselor. And, parents, be sure to communicate this with your children. This is very much related to the previous comment, but by being clear that your top priority is affordability, we can all work together to find appropriate fits.
Figure Out Your Budget. It is certainly worth the time for parents to sit down and to figure out what they believe that they can afford and then to go through the process of figuring out what colleges think that you can afford. In the US, go to any college website and use their net price calculator to see what that might look like. It is really important for families to understand the difference between what they think that they can pay and what universities will expect of them. Waiting until senior year for this is generally too late.
Choose cheaper colleges. Again, this may seem obvious, but within most countries, there is an array of different costs for attending university. Within the US, while some private colleges have surpassed the US$80,000 per year price tag, there are others safely under US$30,000. Additionally, it is worth exploring those places where you might be granted in-state, resident, or citizen discounts. Does your passport country provide a cheaper rate for citizens? (For example, did you know France passport holders pay domestic tuition in the province of Quebec in Canada?) Be sure to explore all avenues!
Pursue Schools that Want You. This one may seem obvious, but colleges pay a lot of money to access databases that target the types of students that they are interested in. If you are receiving emails and notifications from schools, take the time to explore them. If they are interested in you, then they are more likely to provide you financial support, whether need-based or merit-based. Similarly, consider a disproportionate number of LIKELY schools; if a school is categorized as a "likely" for you, then that means that your academic profile is higher than the school's average student, which puts you in a category where colleges-that-can will try to incentivize your application and enrollment, often through financial methods. Take a look!
Apply for Financial Aid. Be sure to read all you can on university websites about need-based financial aid applications. In the US, most schools require the FAFSA and/or the CSS profile. Be sure to complete these documents if they apply to you. In these cases, you cannot be awarded aid if you do not apply.
Enroll in Recruitment Programs. There are a number of programs out there that work to connect students with interested universities. Two notable programs are Questbridge and Meto, which students should research and consider. These programs work to introduce students to appropriate fit institutions. Aside from these two, be sure to vet any with your counselor before signing up, especially if they ask for money, which is generally an indicator that you should avoid the program.
Explore Institutional Grants & Scholarships. Scour those websites. There are plenty of universities that have application-based scholarships that maybe are not advertised as well as they might be. Of course, they might require additional essays or letters of recommendation, but, again, you cannot get the money if you do not apply.
Search for Independent Scholarships. We recommend using the website Fastweb, but there are other tools and resources out there that students have successfully used. Most scholarships out there are in the US$500 to US$2000 range, but every little bit will help… and there are some much larger, competition-based awards out there. This takes time and effort, but they add up and are worth it!
Get a Part-time Job During School. It is not an uncommon thing for students to work while studying. Factor this potential in while developing your list. One colleague of mine always discourages cost-sensitive students from applying to rural universities because of the relatively larger potential for part-time employment in urban environments. Also, if you qualify for financial aid, some of your aid package may come in the form of a work-study on campus.
Exchange Service for Tuition. Of course in the US there is the GI Bill that can help students with tuition in exchange for military service, but there are other options out there including through the Peace Corps and Americorps. There are also employers post-university who often offer loan assistance programs. And there are models for service exchange for medical school.
Start at Community College. Beginning at a two-year US community college or similar pathway in other countries (e.g. college in Canada) provides a cheaper beginning to the college experience and reduces costs. In this way, students can pay a far-reduced tuition for two years before transferring to a 4-year institution for the final two years (ideally).
Defer Enrollment and Save Money. One additional opportunity is the often-misunderstood Gap Year. Simply put, take a year or two to get a job and to save money as an individual. In the US, this might allow the student the opportunity to establish tax independence, but, at the very least, it allows more time to save and even to figure out what pathway makes the most sense.
In the end, families that are cost-aware are forced to confront questions that all students should. Remember that college, as with all education, is not a race to be won but rather an experience to be optimized. Be sure to consider each of the above options!