Help, We Don’t Have Enough Money for College!

MoneyHow many of us parents get a rude awakening about college costs when our oldest child is already in high school?  I had no idea how much the price of tuition had increased in the last 30 years!  So we ring our hands and pour over our budgets wondering how we are going to save up for four years of college in the two or three years we have left before that first tuition payment is due.  We look at the college brochures and see the variation in sticker prices between in-state public schools, out-of-state public schools and private colleges and wonder if we are going to have to say, “Sorry, we can only afford to send you to a state school.”  If we are lucky, our state has some great in-state public options and our children are happy to look at those!  drastically limit the college search to schools with the most affordable sticker prices.

Hopefully, we read or hear the statement that goes something like this – The college sticker price is rarely what you will actually pay out of pocket!

Hearing that statement should provide some relief and ease the worry that you don’t have enough money for college, but don’t stop there.  It’s time to dig into all the options that decrease the college sticker price and figure out what the most likely option will be for your family situation.

Ways to Decrease the College Sticker Price:

  1. Full Ride Merit Scholarships – If our child is in the top 10-20% of his/her high school class, we’d all like to think that he or she will get full ride merit scholarships.  To be realistic, the likelihood of that is very low and these scholarships are very competitive.  However, they are worth looking into.  Check out my Full Scholarship List for details on over 400 different full ride merit scholarships and full tuition merit scholarships.  These are primarily based on ACT/SAT score and GPA or National Merit status.
  2. Smaller Merit Scholarships – Smaller merit scholarships will be easier to come by for top students than full ride merit scholarships.  Some diligent online research should yield you a wide variety of public and private schools that offer merit scholarships of up to 1/2 off tuition.  I have found that students with ACT scores in the high 20s and up and GPAs over 3.5 tend to get the best of these smaller merit scholarships.
  3. Need-Based Aid – There is plenty of need-based aid out there for families who are determined to “need it” by the federal government and the colleges themselves.  The best kind of need-based aid is the “free” aid, in the form of scholarships and grants, that you do not have to pay back.  Of course, the determination of “need” can seem to be pretty limited.  You may know you need help paying for college, but the FAFSA calculation may not agree!
  4. Athletic Scholarships – Keep in mind that these are very limited and only available at specific types of schools.  See 7 Things You Need to Know About Sports Scholarships for a dose of reality.
  5. Talent Scholarships – Does your child have exceptional ability in music, art or theater?  This may be a great opportunity for a scholarship.  Most schools offering talent scholarships require the student to major in that area.  Again, extensive online research may be needed to find matching schools.
  6. Outside Scholarships – These are the ones offered through local organizations and at the national level through websites like fastweb and cappex.  Keep in mind that local scholarships are much easier to win.  Check with your school’s counseling office to see if they maintain a list of local scholarships.

If you find yourself at the point of panic over not having enough money to pay for college, merit scholarships and/or need-based aid are your best bets.  Check out Net Price Calculators on the college websites to estimate how much you can cut the sticker price.


Paying for College, Scholarships

Can Your Child Graduate College in 4 Years?

College GraduationThis week, one of my favorite college-subject authors, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, wrote an article on Why Your Child Won’t Graduate From College on Time.  This got me thinking about the factors that increase your child’s chances of being able to graduate college in 4 years.

How To Increase the Odds that Your Child Will Graduate College in 4 Years:

  1. Start with College Credits – AP classes and dual-credit classes taken in high school will help your child walk into college with a nice base of college credits.  Of course with AP classes, your child has to meet his/her chosen college’s threshold for granting credit.  This varies from school to school so make sure you research this ahead of time.  I wrote more about this in my post, Earning College Credits in High School.
  2. Have a Solid Plan – This can be tricky if your child isn’t sure what he or she wants to major in.  For these students, make sure that Freshman year is spent getting general requirements out of the way, but also encourage them to dip their toes into any subject areas that might be candidates for majors.  These two things can usually be accomplished at the same time by carefully selecting courses that meet general requirements.  Most schools don’t require students to select a major until the end of sophomore year, but if no classes that are required for that major are taken until Junior year, it may be a struggle to get all classes needed within 4 semesters of college.  At that point, summer classes and a possible extra semester of college may be needed.
  3. Effective Advising – This one is also tricky because students don’t have much control over who is assigned as their advisor.  My oldest daughter started out in the “exploratory” program for students who haven’t selected a major.  Her advisor was terrible and provided no guidance to help her figure out her major.  My advice to her was to go ahead and select a major, even if she was only 50% sure that was what she wanted to study.  At least it got her in a better position for guidance.  Poor advising was one of the top factors cited in Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s article for students not being able to graduate college in 4 years.  If you suspect this is a problem for your student, there are two things I recommend.  First, encourage him or her to take the lead in the process, be more assertive and ask a lot of questions.  Students need to own the process and not just sit back and expect the advisor to tell them what to do.  Second, sit down with your student with the course catalog and help them map out what should be taken each semester in order to graduate college in 4 years.  You won’t know when classes will be offered, but you can map out the basics.
  4. Choose a Major and Stick With It – For some students, this is going to be the hardest thing.  You don’t want your student to stick with a major that he or she has lost interest in, but changing a major after sophomore year can derail the plan to graduate college in 4 years.
  5. Strong Course Load – Some students might love the idea of only taking 12 credits per semester, which typically equates to four classes.  Encourage your child to take at least five classes every semester.  This should equate to 15 credits or more.  Most students can handle this load even with a part-time job and extracurricular activities.

Of course there isn’t really a guarantee your child will graduate college in 4 years, although some colleges do advertise a four-year graduation guarantee.  If your student is looking at one of these schools, be sure to read the requirements of how the school promises to accomplish this.  There may not be much flexibility.  In general, the more you can do up front to prepare a four-year plan, the better the chances that you will not be paying for an unexpected extra year of college.

Going to College, High School Preparation

Taking the First ACT/SAT

Standardized TestMy high school junior daughter takes the ACT for the first time in December.  She hasn’t done any test prep and hasn’t taken any practice tests.  This is not the way I would prefer to go about it, but given that we are two weeks out and she hasn’t wanted to prepare, I don’t think it’s going to happen!

Taking the first ACT/SAT is an important step for most college bound students.  Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Baseline – Use the first ACT/SAT scores as a baseline.  Are the scores “good enough” for what your student wants to achieve?  Given that there is usually room for improvement, this baseline will help you work with your student to set a goal of what he or she would like to achieve on the next test.
  2. Test Pacing – Taking the first real test will help your student determine pacing.  Maybe he or she spent too long on a section and had to rush through others.  Help him/her think about what to do different the next time.
  3. Test Prep – Are there specific areas of the test where scores need to be improved or is overall improvement needed?  Think about the amount of test prep needed before the next test and plan accordingly.  For those taking the ACT, I have a spreadsheet of different ACT test prep options that will help when you are considering what kind of prep you are willing to consider.
  4. College Search List – Having the first ACT/SAT scores will help your student narrow down schools by admissions standards.  This is where you can really start refining the college search list.  Look for schools that would be matches or reaches based on those first ACT/SAT scores.  It is reasonable to improve your scores by 10-15%, but probably not by more than 25%.  This is especially important if you are counting on significant merit aid to afford college.
  5. Merit-Based Aid – The best merit-based aid opportunities are usually found at schools where your student’s GPA and ACT/SAT scores would put him or her in the top 25% of applicants.  Use the first ACT/SAT scores to determine where this will be possible.  Also, if a school includes merit-based aid on their Net Price Calculator, you can plug in the ACT/SAT scores to estimate what the school might offer.

I am looking forward to my daughter getting this first ACT test out of the way.  I am hoping it will give us the opportunity to encourage her to study and set a goal for the next time around.


The Appeal of Large Public Universities – Part 2

IMG_14532Opportunity – That’s one thing that large public universities can offer.

Last week, I wrote about the “cost” appeal of large public universities.  This week, I am focusing on the tremendous opportunities they can provide.

Opportunities Offered by Large Public Universities

  1. Majors/fields of study
  2. Student Organizations
  3. Research Opportunities
  4. Sports
  5. Cultural Diversity

University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC), which I recently visited with my middle daughter, offers over 150 majors.  That seems insane when compared with colleges with 5,000 or fewer students that typically offer less than 100 majors.  For the student who isn’t sure what to study, this can be a definite plus – more to choose from, more to try out, and definitely less risk of deciding you want to study something that isn’t even offered at your school.  There are over 1,000 registered student organizations to participate in.  At small schools, there are usually less than 100 student organizations.

Opportunities go beyond just majors and student organizations.  At many large public universities, research is a major focus.  Undergraduates can find great opportunities to get involved in fascinating research studies, both as participants and as assistants.

Don’t forget about the sports.  In addition to massive football stadiums and basketball arenas filled with screaming fans (think Big Ten or other major conference), large public universities offer a wide variety of intramural and club sports that any students can get involved in.  Most also offer state-of-the-art workout facilities.

Cultural diversity is also prevalent at large public universities.  Back to my UIUC example – it is the #3 university in the United States for international students.  It attracts students from all over the world.

Think of a large public university as a microcosm representing a large metropolitan area.  These campuses really are like their own cities offering everything a student would need either right on campus or close by, including restaurant and shopping options.  A student population of 20,000 or more attracts many more businesses in the surrounding area than a student population of 5,000 or fewer.

Are large public universities for everyone?  Of course not.  Some students will be much more comfortable in a smaller environment.  My advice to parents is just don’t assume that your child won’t be interested in one.  You might be surprised.  The first wave of college visits should include visiting campuses of all different sizes to help your student narrow down what feels most comfortable to him or her.  Find out if size is going to be a deciding factor or if your student is fine with schools of all different sizes.

The cost/value and opportunity at large public universities may be appealing enough to keep them on your student’s college list.



College Search

The Appeal of Large Public Universities – Part One

Football GameBack when I was looking at colleges, I never would have considered any large public universities.  I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Badgers are king, had been around the campus of UW-Madison several times, and my mother spoke very highly of her alma mater.  But I didn’t even consider it.  I didn’t want to be a face in the crowd.  I was convinced that small to medium-sized private colleges were the only ones for me.

When I started the college search with my oldest daughter and saw how well regarded both UW-Madison and our home-state flagship University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) were, I started reconsidering large public universities.  However, there was no selling my oldest daughter on even visiting UIUC – not from me,  her teachers, or her friends.  Like me, she was looking for a small to medium-sized private college.

The first thing I find potentially appealing about large public universities is the cost.  In many cases, the only appealing cost option will be your in-state options.  Unless, of course, your state has good reciprocity agreements with other states.  This is demonstrated in my example below.

My middle daughter has been a Badger fan ever since she was little.  She has often talked about going to UW-Madison.  When I dug into the cost difference between UW-Madison and UIUC, I said, “No way.  You are going to have to learn to like the Illini.”  Illinois does not have a true reciprocity program with another state for students to go out of state at reduced tuition.  There are some agreements with smaller Wisconsin campuses for reduced out-of-state tuition, but nothing like Minnesota and Wisconsin’s reciprocity agreement.  Minnesota students can attend UW-Madison at 25% above the in-state tuition cost.  Illinois students (and other non-residents) pay 2.5 times the in-state tuition rate!

UW-Madison Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • WI Resident – $19,010
  • MN Resident – $21,796
  • Other State Residents – $35,260

U of I Urbana Champaign Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • Illinois Resident – $26,450
  • Other State Residents – $41,076

So this tells me that for my daughter to be a Badger, I’d have to be prepared to fork out an additional $9,000 per year, $36,000 total assuming she graduates in four years.  Would it be worth it?  I’d have to say, No Way.  The schools are neck and neck in most college rankings, including US News and Forbes.  Money Magazine ranks UIUC a slightly better value for your money.

Do I think it is unfair that as a resident of Illinois, I pay $7,400 more per year for my child to attend my state flagship school than if I was a Wisconsin state resident paying for the Wisconsin state flagship university?  Of course I do, but I am told I pay less in state tax and property tax so I guess it all evens out.

Here’s where the value proposition really comes in.  The sticker price of UIUC is less than or equal to the net price I would pay at many private colleges IF my child gets a major merit scholarship.  And Illinois is a high-priced school.  Many states have much lower in-state costs that make the large public option more appealing than private college options.

As a parent, can I count on my child receiving a large merit scholarship at a private college?  Well, no, not really.  I can work with my child to narrow down the college list to schools that offer merit scholarships that would put us in the right net price range, but unless the school offers guaranteed merit amounts based on GPA and ACT scores, it’s out of my hands.  It depends on how well she sells herself and what her competition looks like.

To me, the best thing about the cost of the in-state public university is, it’s a sure thing.  I don’t need to hope for merit scholarships, although if they offer some, that’s great.  I basically know the maximum I am going to pay up front.  Also, in the case of Illinois, and many other states, the tuition amount is guaranteed not to increase for four years of continuous enrollment.  Compare this to my oldest daughter’s private college where rates go up approximately 5% per year with no corresponding increase in merit aid!

So cost can be a major appeal of large public universities.  Next week, in part two, I will focus on why the size of large public universities can be appealing.

College Search

Are You Too Wealthy for Financial Aid?

1195437419219858921johnny_automatic_bag_of_money.svg.medHow do you know if you are too wealthy for financial aid?  The answer is, there’s no easy answer!  Generally speaking, most schools will not give need-based financial aid to families making $150,000 or more per year, but there are exceptions.  Princeton University, for example, is known to be the most generous ivy league school, is on the list of schools that meet 100% of an applicants need, and may give a small amount of aid even to families making over $200,000.

When information like this is shared, it is always based on having one child in college.  One important thing to keep in mind:  The more dependent children you have in college at the same time, the more financial aid you may qualify for.

Strictly speaking, if you have two kids in college at the same time and your expected family contribution for one child in college is around say $40,000, your expected contribution for each of the two kids will be around $20,000.  However, you may find that this doesn’t come into play at a school unless you make under a certain income amount that the school considers to be low enough for need-based aid.

In a prior post, Determining Your Eligibility for Need-Based Financial Aid, I talked about other variables besides the number of kids in college that go into financial aid determination and how to calculate your eligibility.  Make sure you estimate your general eligibility for financial aid through the FAFSA4caster and make sure you estimate your school-specific eligibility through Net Price Calculators.  Don’t just assume you’re too wealthy for financial aid across the board.

If you find that your family is unlikely to receive any need-based financial aid based on these calculations, there are other ways to save money on your student’s college education.  In another prior post, How High-Income Families Can Save Money on College, I listed some tips.

One other thing to note: Just because the net price calculator for a school doesn’t show any need-based aid does not mean that you definitely won’t receive any.  Sometimes, a school that admits your student will come up with a small amount of aid as an extra way to attract him or her to attend.  It may not be much, but every little bit helps!



Financial Aid

College Preparation Timelines – Is Your Student on Track?

ChecklistWondering whether you are on target for preparing your high school student for college?  There are some great college preparation timelines you can use as guides.

Here are some options to check out:

  1. adMission Possible – Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz has detailed college preparation timelines for freshman through senior year of high school.
  2. Petersons – There are separate college preparation timelines for students and parents
  3. Big Future – This site has parent action plans for each year of high school

Check with your high school counseling office to see if they have their own college preparation timelines for students to follow each year.

Once you have decided on a timeline to follow, make sure you have a way to track progress.  This could be a paper checklist, an Excel spreadsheet, online task management software, or a whiteboard.  It can be as high-tech or as low-tech as you want.  The important thing is having the tasks in front of you and your student and establishing deadlines for getting them done.

College preparation timelines give you a guideline for making sure your student is on track for college admissions.  Using them every year of high school will help you and your student avoid extra stress in the college preparation process.


The Lowdown on College Scholarships

1317230_29811116One of the topics I think perspective college students and their parents often misunderstand going into the college search is College Scholarships.  Misunderstandings usually lead families to believe one of two things – either assuming that they will get scholarships to make college more affordable or assuming they won’t qualify for any college scholarships.  Here are some facts to clear up the confusion:

  1. There are four basic kinds of college scholarships – merit-based, talent-based, need-based, and combined.  Merit-based scholarships are based primarily on GPA and ACT/SAT scores.  Talent-based scholarships are awarded to students with a particular talent, often things like athletic talent (Division 1 & 2 schools and a few other types offer athletic scholarships), musical talent (primarily for students planning to be music majors), artistic talent (primarily for students planning to be art majors), theatrical talent (primarily for students planning to be theater majors), and a few other odds and ends.  Need-based scholarships are based primarily on a student’s need for financial assistance to go to college.  These are usually based on the FAFSA or other reporting of your family financial picture that includes household income.  There are also some scholarships that look at a combination of factors, like merit, leadership and financial aid.  These are usually looking for “great students” who also have a large financial need.  I only separate this category out because there is a clear line between college scholarships with no financial need component and those with a financial need component.
  2. The largest source of college scholarships is from the colleges themselves.  Colleges usually offer all four types of scholarships mentioned above ad these vary from a few thousand dollars all the way up to full-ride scholarships.  Check the college websites for details.
  3. Not many students can hit the “jackpot” – Yes, there are full-ride scholarships out there and they aren’t all for athletes.  There are merit-based and need-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships, but they are out of reach for a majority of students.  That doesn’t mean they are impossible to find, though.  Once again, fact #2 applies.  My Full Scholarship List is a collection of merit-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships offered at colleges around the country.  It is worth checking into if your student has a top GPA and high ACT/SAT score.
  4. Private scholarships, like the ones listed on sites like fastweb, and cappex are a crap shoot.  Private scholarships usually get thousands of applicants and your student has a very low probability of winning one.  It’s better to look into the next category.
  5. Local private scholarships can be a good source for small amounts of supplemental college money.  These aren’t listed on the big scholarship websites. Most high school counseling offices have a list of local college scholarships offered to their students.  These also tend to be written up in the local newspapers.  Clubs like Kiwanis, VFW, Rotary and others award scholarships to high school seniors in their community based on certain criteria.
  6. Colleges have rules when it comes to outside scholarship money.  Many schools limit the amount of outside scholarship money (private scholarships) that can be applied on top of the school’s own discounts.  In other words, a school might reduce the aid it is providing a student if a student is also coming in with scholarships from outside sources.  Make sure you understand the rules for college scholarships at your student’s chosen school.

College scholarships are a great way to make college more affordable.  Just be sure you understand the different types and what your student may be eligible for.  Talk to the colleges about your student’s chances at different types of merit and talent based scholarships.  Ask about their criteria for need-based scholarships to see if your family may qualify.  And when it comes to outside scholarships, make sure your student spends his or her time wisely, applying for those where he/she has a realistic chance at winning.

Paying for College, Scholarships

Don’t Break the Budget on ACT and SAT Prep Resources

Standardized TestACT and SAT prep resources can help your student be better prepared to take the tests and achieve higher scores.  Some of these resources run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.  Does spending that much really result in a score increase that justifies the cost?  I have not seen any data that supports this.  I would argue that with enough time and discipline, your student can benefit just as much from low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources.

I have listed some great low-cost and free test prep resources below that I would encourage you to check out.  You can also see the full range of ACT resources out there in my spreadsheet, ACT Prep Resources.

Low-Cost ACT Prep Resources

  1. Books – There are some great guides available through Amazon or your local bookstore including The Real ACT Prep Guide, Barron’s ACT 36 and Cracking the ACT.
  2. Official ACT Online Prep Program – $24.95 for a year of access
  3. YouTube – Type “ACT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on ACT topics
  4. Free Online ACT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  5. Free Online ACT Prep Course through

Low-Cost SAT Prep Resources

  1. Books – Some of the best ones include The Official SAT Study Guide, Cracking the SAT, and Kaplan SAT.
  2. YouTube – Type “SAT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on SAT topics
  3. Free Online SAT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  4. Free Online SAT Prep Course through

Are there others you have found?  If so, please leave a comment with the details so that other parents can benefit from these great low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources!

ACT/SAT Tests ,

Getting the Most Out of College Fairs

College fairs are great for students and parents just starting to think about the college search.  They give you the opportunity to learn about many different colleges at the same time.  However, college fairs can get really overwhelming if you go in expecting too much.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of College Fairs:

  1. Don’t expect to talk to people at each booth – If you stop to talk at each booth, you are going to have information overload before you even make it all the way down one aisle.  Stop and talk only at colleges you or your child already has interest in, not those you have never heard of.
  2. Gathering information to take home should be your main goal – Pick up lots of brochures, take them home, and sort them into piles like “interested,” “not interested,” and “maybe.”  These can help you get to the next step in the college search and decide which schools to investigate further.  Put the “interested” and “maybe” schools on a college search spreadsheet.
  3. Focus on the basics – For booths you stop and talk at, focus on the basic questions like “how many years of science are required for admission?”, “what’s the typical ACT score range for admitted students?”, and “when are your scheduled visit days?”  While all of this information can be found on the college website with some digging, the reps are there to provide fast answers.  If you have more complex questions, get contact information for the admissions rep and call or email.
  4. Think “demonstrated interest” – If there is a school your student is definitely interested in, have him or her stop at the booth, talk to the rep, and share his/her contact information.
  5. Selectively pick the right college fairs – Some fairs attract colleges all over the country while others only attract regional schools.  Pick the right college fair according to how far your student wants to travel from home.  The big national college fairs are great if your student wants to keep their options wide open.  Students who only want to go a few hours from home will be better served through college fairs that offer a large selection of regional schools.

Again, college fairs can be a great first step in the college search and can get your student excited about looking at schools.  Just be sure to maximize the opportunity by not getting into too much detail at this point.

College Search