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Parents, It's Time to Communicate About College Costs

Some parents put off the money talk with their students far longer than they should. Here's why you should talk about college costs early in the search process.

We all know college is expensive. Even state schools can sometimes cost $100,000 or more for a four-year education—and some colleges have broken the $300,000 barrier. Even though families are aware of these exorbitant higher education prices, decisions are still often made that have a negative effect on their long-term financial futures. It can take a lifetime of savings just to pay for one degree. Add an additional child or two and the total costs can be staggering. But with research, planning, and lots of communication, your family can make prudent decisions that will make the college journey more exciting, less stressful, and maybe even affordable.

The college talk: Expectations vs. reality

In theory, a family’s college journey should start with the parent(s) sitting down with their student during their junior year of high school to have a detailed discussion about the admission process. The conversation should ideally focus on the different types of colleges, academic requirements, possible majors, geographical preferences, and culture. In addition, a budget should be been set, and the cost of attendance should be researched for each college the student is interested in attending. But that’s all in theory.

In reality, these discussions rarely happen upfront. In fact, many students submit applications before any detailed conversations with parents or guardians take place. Parents may think they’re on the same page with their teen, but there’s usually a disconnect. The student may have worked hard in school and wants to go to their dream college, but the parents likely haven’t told their student what they can or can’t afford. No one in the family has focused on what attending college will truly mean from a financial standpoint. Getting into the school of choice regardless of cost is typically the priority. “Let’s see where you’re accepted, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it later” is a common refrain. Unfortunately, figuring out how to pay $100,000 or more later is a difficult proposition for most families.

Related: How to Help Your Student Through College Admission Season

The money talk: Being open with your student

The topic of money is personal. For many individuals, the subject is rarely discussed, and for others, the topic can be confusing or even boring. As a result, many families choose to ignore the subject. When it comes to the cost of higher education, many parents are embarrassed because they haven’t been able to save for college and their current financial situation means they won’t be able to contribute in a meaningful way.

How to approach the conversation

Another reason why the financial aspect of the college search process is pushed aside is because parents aren’t sure how to approach the conversation. It’s often easier for them to delay the money talk until they see where the student is accepted and then assess their finances at that time. However, leaving significant money decisions to the end of the college search process results in limited options and poor choices. Unfortunately, this is why there’s a $1.7 trillion student loan crisis. By not understanding the true cost of the education before applying, families may be limited to taking on a mountain of debt to pay for those schools or telling their child that they can’t attend those colleges—neither of which are good options. A college strategy that includes realistic estimates of the cost of attendance—tuition, room, board, books, and other expenses—should be done before the student starts applying. This is critical to ensuring that the best financial outcome can be reached.

Related: Financial Transparency: The FAFSA, Your Student, and You

The truth about scholarships

Private schools are generally more expensive than state colleges—significantly more in some cases. However, many families are often advised to apply to private schools because they offer larger scholarships that’ll bring the cost down to below that of state schools. “No one ever pays the full amount” is a routine comment boasted by colleges offering extensive financial aid. But conventional wisdom can be wrong. The reality is that although the largest amounts of scholarships are awarded directly from colleges themselves, there’s a limited amount available, and only a select few students will be offered the highest award totals. The mistake families make is assuming scholarships are guaranteed and that their student will receive the maximum allocation. As a result, many families end up financing a significant part of their education. This leaves students with high debt loads many years after graduation and parents that delay retirement due to aiding their students with college loan payments.

How to plan around scholarships and financial aid

A better way to approach this is to closely review the total published cost on a school’s website. If your family can’t afford to pay that total cost, you should put a strategy in place that will allow your student to go to that school (if accepted) only if they receive a certain amount of scholarship support. This ensures the college selection process is led by prudent financial decisions, as opposed to getting caught up in the emotions when acceptances start coming in.

The college admission process can take months of research, writing essays, and completing applications. It’s not until colleges begin to send out acceptances—along with those essential financial aid letters—that the process becomes real. Decision time is here! Of course, a lot of families are taken aback at the total cost that they’ll need to contribute once they see a college’s financial aid package. It’s usually at this point that the search for local scholarships begins because the school didn’t offer enough financial aid. However, local scholarships, although welcome, rarely make a dent in reducing your overall costs. 

Related: Get More Money by Appealing Your Financial Aid Award

Planning ahead is crucial

So what should you do? As a starting point, focus on finding colleges that will challenge your student academically but won’t result in your family taking on unrealistic financial obligations. Parents should have an honest financial conversation with their students early on in the process to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to paying for a college education. And continue to keep an open line of communication as the application process progresses. There are more than 4,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Many of these schools will provide students with a great education—and a lifetime of memories—at a reasonable cost.

Parents shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers. But we do! Find more great advice in the Parents section of CollegeXpress.

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