It’s that time of year again! College students and their parents are shopping for new laptops and iPhones, picking out their extra long twin mattress sheets, and stocking up on junk food. For college freshman, this is a time filled with excitement while for many parents, and some students these last few months are filled with anxiety.
For parents, the anxiety isn’t coming from the thought of their son or daughter moving across the state or country. They are anxious because they have no clue how they are going to pay that tuition bill that just arrived. According to the College Board, the average tuition, room, board and fees in 2015 for an in-state public institution was $18,943. Parents footing the bill for the cost of private education at a four-year school are spending on average, $42,419. So, that bill that just arrived for the fall semester is possibly between $8-20k and due very soon.
For the parent who has to have an incredibly tough conversation to break the news to their child that they can’t go to the college of their dreams, it is going to be okay. Your child will forgive you, life will go on and they can still graduate and get a job with a degree from a more affordable college.
I know it will be okay because I’ve been on the other side. I was an honor roll student, took honors and AP classes, I was a varsity athlete, played in the band and had a part-time job. I worked hard to gain admission to all five colleges I applied to, only to be denied by my parents. They didn’t have the money and no amount of pleading and begging could change their minds. In that moment, I didn’t understand their decision to not go to the ends of the earth to meet my wishes, borrow against retirement or take out a second mortgage. Wasn’t that what they were supposed to do? They also wouldn’t allow me at 17 to make a financial decision to take on loans that I couldn’t understand the full ramifications of. Ultimately there is a happy ending of course, but I was not a happy camper back then.
My parents were completely behind me going to college, but it had to affordable. My options were a 4-year public school as a commuter student or a community college. I chose the community college. I approached my education with as much excitement as I could muster. Even though I was thoroughly disappointed, I had still achieved the step of being the first in my family to go to college and I had to let that be my focus.
Fast forward to a 15 year career in higher education as a college admissions professional and internship program manager, I have learned that there are many parents who will not have that tough conversation with their child. Rather than deal with the reality of the situation and face the truth, some parents will elect to tap into home equity, max out PLUS loans, private student loans and borrow against a retirement plan. I may not be popular for saying so, but you are not doing your child any favors. You are not doing yourself any favors. Also, after working for six public and private colleges and placing over 400 students from ivy league institutions to small public/private schools you’ve never heard of in internships with major companies, I know it is more about the student and their effort than just the name on the diploma.
The student loan debt in this country has reached an astronomical $1.2 trillion. I encourage families to just take a step back, be strategic and avoid massive amounts of student loan debt. I don’t have a magic money pill to give you or super creative way to make $20k in six weeks. What I do have are a few basic ideas to tackle that tuition bill in your inbox.
1) Get on the school payment plan. Many colleges have tuition payment plans that will allow you to divide your tuition into even monthly payments. I suggest your son or daughter get a job as soon as possible and contribute to the monthly fee. Depending on the cost, mom or dad may elect to pick up additional work as well to meet the monthly obligation. This is one way my parents and I were able to pay for school. While working additional hours or jobs is not a pleasant thought in the short-term, in the long run you are avoiding unnecessary debt.
2) Ask for additional financial aid. Now having been on the other side of these phone calls, there are not unlimited funds available to everyone who calls. If, however, there has been a big change in your financial situation (layoff, job loss, reduced hours) you can let the school know your situation and see if there is additional aid available. The scholarship search doesn’t have to end.
3) Keep looking for scholarships. The scholarship search doesn’t have to come to and end just because it is summer. Keep trying and digging to find every extra dollar possible. Check out the The College Money Maze and College Prep Ready for scholarship resources for freshman and continuing students.
4) Live at home. It is not the popular option for those craving a little freedom, but it is one of the best ways to cut costs drastically. Living on campus is unique and if possible, should be something every college student gets to experience but living at home can drastically cut costs. I lived at home and commuted for my first two years, while I lived on campus the last two and got the traditional college student experience.
5) Get a job. Working and going to school at the same time is very doable. I worked throughout college and worked multiple jobs over my summer breaks. There are tons of other people who have done the same. It is totally possible to work 20+ hours, keep your grades up and still maintain a social life. You can also be strategic about where you work. Many companies offer scholarship programs or tuition benefits for employees. Find a company that will not only pay you, but give you money towards your education as well.
6) Go to a cheaper school. August is very late in the game to try and get into a different college but, I will tell you it is not impossible. When I worked in admissions, I did admit students that late in the game. You have to have everything together, you have to qualify for admission and the school has to have space in the incoming class. Community colleges generally have open enrollment that allows students to enroll even after the semester has started.
As a parent myself, I totally understand the desire to give your child the best in every area of life. It is well within your rights to max out your credit cards, co-sign, take on a PLUS loan and do all you can to make their dream a reality. I am just echoing the advice of many financial professionals who say that at this stage of the game, your focus should be on retirement. It is not the time to go further into debt, but rather time to get out of it.
Working in higher education, I have had countless conversations with students who wish they would have done it differently. Wish they would have avoided the heavy debt, worked more hours to earn money or picked a cheaper college all together. I have also had to be the bearer of bad news to parents pleading for more financial aid because they wanted so much to support their child. I’ve seen the GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns of students trying to live out their college dreams to create better futures. I’ve also coached and counseled students facing the tough decision to drop out for a semester because of the financial burden. Often, one semester turns into two semesters and eventually, life happens and college is completely on the back back burner, but the loan debt still has to be paid.
If you have to take drastic measures to find money for the first year, how in the world are you going to pay for five more years? Yes, I said five because only 19 percent of students at public colleges graduate in four years. At selective flagship, research institutions it gets only slightly better at 36 percent. Most students will be on the 5-6 year plan if they don’t pay very close attention to the courses they take. Even on a four-year plan, if you are already tapped out financially at the end of the first year, you are playing with fire. If you avoid this open and honest conversation about what you can afford now, you will really not want to have to tell your son or daughter they can’t return for their second or third year.
I earned my A.A degree and received a transfer scholarship that helped me attend State University of New York (SUNY) College at Oswego were I earned my B.A. degree. I graduated in four years even with transferring. A few years later I earned my M.S. from Towson University. It matters not where you start, but where you finish. Take a moment, be strategic and don’t let the college dream today turn into a future financial nightmare.
For more information and tips on saving money for college get my free guide, Simple Solutions for Parents Struggling to Pay for College.