Advice for College from Higher Ed Experts: Brendan Coughlin, Financial Planning

by
President, Education Finance, RBS Citizens Financial Group

Ever wish you could get the college facts straight from the source—those higher ed MVPs like deans of admission, directors of financial aid, and executive coaches? Well, we’re bringing you the next best thing: a one-on-one chat with the people at the top! So keep reading for an expert take on the ins and outs of admission, college life, and paying for it all.

Planning for college really starts far before junior year of high school. Reading voraciously to develop language skills, working to gain life experience, volunteering to grow as a person: the sooner students invest in these things, the more prepared they’ll be when application season rolls around.

But that long-game planning is as much about figuring out how to pay college expenses as it is about studying hard and developing as a person. That’s where advice from a financial guru like Brendan Coughlin comes in handy! Stressing about those incoming (and practically unknown) college costs? Put your mind and wallet at ease with these insider insights.

How and when should students and their families begin assessing their incoming college costs and assets?

It is never too early to start planning for college. Saving for college should ideally begin years before high school. But parents and students should be in full financial planning mode by the students’ junior year. Once families have decided how much they can afford to spend on college and compare it to the cost of the university of their choice, there is often a financial gap. To help fill this gap, we encourage them to explore all their funding options so they can make informed decisions that best fit their needs. Typically, applying for scholarships and taking out a Stafford loan is the best primary option. If that still doesn’t fill their entire gap of cost of school, there are still a few options. For some families, an unsubsidized federal loan is a good choice, and for others it is a private loan typically from a bank. For others still, it is both. We encourage families to look into each of these options and compare all rates and fees before making a choice. 

(For families looking to begin the process to save for college very early, which we highly encourage, we created a savings program called CollegeSaver, a monthly savings program that rewards customers with a potential $1,000 bonus towards school costs.)

To what extent is the financial aid application process incumbent upon the student? Upon parents and guardians?

It is completely incumbent upon the student and their parents and guardians to apply for financial aid, but there are lots of places to turn to for support and advice along the way. (We have a special section on our website for students that provides tools and resources to help navigate the process of planning and budgeting for college.) Every school has a unique timeline and process, though, and we always encourage students and parents to consult with the financial aid office at the university for advice.

What recourses are available to students who, even after receiving their aid packages, find they are unable to afford their school(s) of choice? How might students and families broach the subject with schools?

Students and their families should consider discussing their financial concerns with the school to see if there is any additional assistance available. Each school is different in how they will respond, but having an honest discussion about your challenges is always the best approach. If they cannot offer more financial help, they will typically provide recommendations and advice on what to do next.

There also are a lot of private scholarship programs out there. We offer one ourselves, for example. Over the last two years, we have awarded 60 TruFit Good Citizen Scholarships totaling $100,000 to college students whose volunteer efforts have made a difference in their communities. This summer, we will award another 40 scholarships totaling $50,000 to college students across the country.

What advice can you offer students and families considering federal and/or private student loans?

My biggest piece of advice is “do your homework.” Both products are well suited to meet this need, but which one is better depends on the situation. For many customers, private loan rates can actually be substantially lower than the federal programs, especially if a parent or other qualified co-signer applies with the student. At the same time, federal programs typically offer additional options in the unfortunate case of unemployment after graduation, such as income-based repayment, which is typically not available with private loans. We always encourage families to do their due diligence and to shop for the best loan option that fits their specific needs.

What is the secret to graduating debt free?

To me, it is not about whether you have “zero debt,” but it is about whether your loans are manageable and whether the investment was worth it. Parents and students should consider how much they can afford for college and how much debt—if any—they want to take on when considering what college to attend and what their career aspirations are after graduation. “Can I afford this payment with the job I want” is a critical question students should ask themselves before enrolling in a school and taking a loan. College is a major investment and we are committed to making a college education more affordable for students. Some customers choose to begin repaying their loans immediately so they can stay ahead of them and owe less when they graduate.

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