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  • Writer's pictureJulie Simon

So, You're Not Sure How to Pay for College?

“We really want our son to go to Harvard.” (Parent)

“Will you qualify for financial aid, or have you budgeted for $330,000 for your son’s undergraduate degree?” (Me)

“No, but he’s very bright, and we’re sure that he can get an academic scholarship.” (Parent)

The problem here is most selective colleges don’t provide merit-based (academic) scholarships. Harvard doesn’t. Stanford doesn’t. Georgetown doesn’t. Generally, the more selective the university, the less likely they are to offer merit-based scholarships. Why? Because they don’t have to. They receive plenty of applications from students who can afford the full sticker price and abundant resources to support students who require financial aid.

It’s important to know which category you fall in. Will the financial aid office determine that you can afford the full price of tuition, room, and board? Or will you qualify for need-based financial aid? You don’t need to wait until your child has applied to college to determine this. If you have a freshman, sophomore, or junior in high school, follow this:

Five Steps Families Should Take Before Building a College List

1. Read this Introduction to Financial Aid which my colleague, Meghan, put together for our families. It answers all the basics: The difference between grants and loans, how to apply for financial aid, and the difference between need-based and merit-based scholarships. It’s great. Seriously. Read this now.

2. Complete the federal student aid estimator. It takes less than 10 minutes and will give you an idea of the federal student aid you may be eligible to receive.

3. Meet with your financial planner. This is the time to ensure your college savings plan is on track. Your financial planner can recommend how to make the most of your savings.

4. Do a deep dive. Still confused? Still have questions? I strongly recommend this book, The Price You Pay for College, by Ron Lieber. It is full of terrific information to help you and your family, including:

  • An overview of the different types of colleges and their value

  • How to make a financial plan

  • How to have the money talk with your child

5. Have the money talk with your child!! Seriously, this is a tremendous investment. Be honest about what your family has budgeted and set realistic goals.

I’ve learned that people love to talk about selective college admissions and how to get admitted. Nobody wants to discuss how they will pay for it because it’s painful. And boring. And scary. But these are the types of conversations you should have because they allow students to get excited about affordable schools and prevent disappointment down the road.

By senior year, you don’t want to be panicked about how to pay for college. Instead, you’ll be able to spend your time shopping for XL twin-size sheets and shower caddies… with all the money you saved by planning ahead.

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