Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Paying for College—Giving Families the Help They Need

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

College application season has shifted from getting into college to paying for college.  Each new senior class brings parents who don’t understand the basics of paying for college: some think they won’t qualify for help, so they don’t apply; others are sure they will qualify for help, even if they don’t apply, and some just wonder what to do first.

As busy as school counselors are in January, now is the time to provide a set of clear facts about paying for college.  If you don’t, parents will find “information” on their own—and then the task shifts from telling them what they need to know to telling them what they think they know is incorrect.  That’s a harder task, and with your student’s college plans on the line, it isn’t worth the risk.

If you’re short on time, here’s an overview on what to do:

Give them a brief overview of the big picture.  Begin your discussion by talking about “paying for college”, NOT about “financial aid.” This may seem like a small difference, but this slight change opens the conversation to many more families—not every family thinks they qualify for financial aid, but every family would like to know more about paying for college.

This approach is covered nicely in the new US Department of Education site on college costs—direct parents to; after that, direct them to a nice scholarship overview at , followed by a visit to to learn more about merit-based money.

Guide them to the right source for Federal aid...  The new US web site is really a one-stop shopping place for information on paying for college, and it’s the place to go for information on the FAFSA.  Direct your families to , and be sure to steer them towards the glossary, where terms like EFC are explained.

...and steer them AWAY from the wrong sources.  The first F in FAFSA stands for “Free”, but some parents don’t know that—and the trouble begins when parents go to instead of the Student Aid site listed above. is very up front about charging families to help them complete the FAFSA, (another popular site that charges for help, Student Financial Aid Services, is a little more vague), but with the online resources at and free help programs like College Goal Sunday ( ), parents can get the help they need without paying for it—provided you tell them.  Otherwise, they won’t know.

Have them check the Web sites of every college they’re applying to. Some colleges require parents to complete more than one financial aid form—it isn’t uncommon for a college to ask for the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE  ( .)  Encourage your parents to read each college’s Web site for their requirements.

Make them aware of the plusses and minuses of loans. has a nice introduction to college loans.  Combined with , your families will have a firm grasp on how to manage their loans in the best possible way.

Consider some alternatives.  College isn’t always a four-year experience at the same school—and some creative approaches to college can really cut costs.  One approach is outlined at ; another resource is Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette, which offers a reminder that a great college doesn’t always cost a great deal of money.

It’s better if parents and students had the “money for college” talk in 10th or 11th grade.  Since that rarely happens, counselors need to make sure senior families make sound college decisions their hearts, minds, and wallets can handle.

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