One of the biggest mistakes families often make in the college search process is not talking about money. They assume “everything will work out” or their student will earn a “full ride” without really understanding how paying for college works. Parents often don’t want to let their students down, so they find a way to pay for a school. I’ve seen families sell their homes to cover tuition costs, take out thousands of dollars in loans, and drain their retirement accounts. But it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be this way. If you start with the money conversation right away, the college search will be easier, less stressful, and less expensive. Here are four numbers you should discuss with your teen ASAP.
1. Your college budget
Often, families don’t know how much money they’ll actually have to pay for their student to attend college. They may have some money in a 529 plan, have additional money in an investment fund, or have other assets they could use. Some families expect their students to either contribute from their summer job or take out federal loans. If you have other family members who intend to help, find out exactly what that support will be. Before your student begins thinking about college, it's essential to make a list of every asset you intend to use for higher education and come up with a total, then divide that amount by four. That is your budget for the cost of attendance for each year, including tuition, fees, room, board, books, and more. If it’s lower than expected, see if you can trim your household budget to up your savings, or talk to a financial advisor to see what investments could help the most. Once you identify this number, talk to your student. Explain to them how you came up with it and why it’s important to consider when they’re making their college list.
Pro tip: For more information, I highly recommend Ron Lieber’s book The Price You Pay for College. Your student can also start building their college list with schools that are generous with merit aid by checking out Jeff Selingo’s list of “Buyers and Sellers.”
2. Your Expected Family Contribution
Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is the amount a college thinks you can afford each year your student is in school. Colleges will use this number to determine the amount of need-based aid your student is eligible for (not what you will receive). If your EFC is higher than your college budget, you should look at schools that are generous with merit-based aid. If your EFC is lower than your college budget, you should look for schools that are generous with need-based aid. A good place to check for this number is through a college’s Net Price Calculator.
Please note: The EFC is scheduled to change to the Student Aid Index on the FAFSA for the 2023–2024 application cycle.
3. Percentage of need met and average student award amounts
If your family qualifies for need-based aid, this information is vital to know. Colleges aren’t required to meet your full demonstrated need, and most schools will “gap” a student, sometimes leaving them with thousands of dollars they’ll need to pay to attend. Have a conversation with the school's financial aid office or dig into their Common Data Set—a document of common figures and statistics about college admission cycles most schools collect—under section H2. In addition to the percentage of need met, Section H2 will also show the number of students who received need-based aid, those whose need was fully met without loans, the average need-based financial aid package, and the average loan amount, among other factors. Getting this information about colleges before your student applies can save everyone a lot of time, energy, and money.
4. Percent of students receiving merit aid and average award amounts
Most families plan to cover some college costs with scholarships. Colleges and universities often use merit aid or non-need-based scholarships and grants to entice students to enroll. Typically, the less selective a school is, the more likely they are to give these awards. Some schools award merit aid to every student admitted; others don’t grant merit aid at all. Some schools are transparent with this information and state that a specific grade and test score combination will earn you up to a certain amount, while others award scholarships to the top 10% of admitted students. If a school isn’t transparent with award information and doesn’t include a scholarship component in its Net Price Calculator, you can find this information in section H2A of the school’s Common Data Set. It’ll list the number of students who were awarded institutional non-need-based scholarships or grant aid (excluding athletic awards and tuition benefits) and the average dollar amount for those awards. You can follow up with admission or financial aid offices for additional information, like the number of students who received the most generous award and what that amount was.
If you let your college budget guide your student’s search, they’ll create a financially sound college list. They won’t spend time on colleges that don’t award merit aid. They’ll save hundreds of dollars in application fees, and you won’t spend vacation days visiting schools that don’t work financially for your family. These conversations can be challenging, but it’s much easier to talk to your student about college finances before they begin their college search than after they’ve been admitted to their dream school. You’ll be modeling financial wisdom for them that they can hopefully take into the future.
For more help navigating your role in your student’s college search, check out our Parents section.