Note: this article was originally written in the fall of 2017 but was updated October, 2019.
It’s that time of year again… It’s time for 17-year-old kids to make one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives. It’s time for these kids to decide what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. It’s time for seniors in high school to choose a college.
My daughter had to make these decisions in the fall of 2016. She began her junior year of college at Northern Kentucky University last month. My son Joey is a senior in high school and going through this process now. I have two stepsons attending college as well. I’m going to tell you some of the things you are going to be told your child must do and then I’m going to tell you the truth based on our experience.
Things Other People, Including High School Guidance Counselors, are Going to Tell You and Your Children:
- You should apply to five to seven schools to make sure you get accepted to one.
- You should apply to schools you know you can’t afford.
- There are plenty of scholarships out there and you’ll be sure to find one.
- You can wait until after you graduate to make a final decision on which college you will attend.
- Students with high GPAs and ACT scores will get a full ride.
- You have to live on campus to get the full college experience.
- You will find some way to pay for college, even if it’s loans.
- College is really the only way to make something of yourself.
- Books will cost at least $1,000 a semester.
- Don’t fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) if you know your child won’t qualify for free grants.
- Your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is what you should be able to pay toward your child’s college.
- You can’t receive new scholarships after you start college.
The Truth Based on Our Experience:
- It costs between $25 and $100 to apply to each school. Instead of applying to five to seven schools, apply to schools you know you will be accepted to and are seriously considering. You can check requirements on the school’s website. That $700 can pay for a semester or two of books, your acceptance fee (you have to pay a fee to accept your offer) or for the required orientation you must pay for.
- Why bother paying an application fee for a school you can’t afford? You know you can’t go there and now you have wasted money on applying to a school you can’t attend.
- There are hundreds of thousands of scholarships. That part is true. However, you are competing against hundreds of thousands of people. You might think you have it in the bag because you worked at a nursing home all through high school, volunteered for your local library, did yard work for free for your elderly neighbors and played sports but the thing is, so did thousands of other kids. Most of these scholarships come down to “your story.” The kid who lost a parent at a young age, survived cancer or overcame a huge obstacle is going to get it over the kid that has had a pretty easy life, no matter how much volunteer work they have done. I’m not saying you shouldn’t apply for scholarships, I’m just saying you shouldn’t bank on it. I definitely suggest people apply for scholarships that the school they are attending offers. Also, most scholarship applications can’t be turned in until January and aren’t awarded until some time between March and May. You will probably choose your school before knowing whether or not you received a scholarship.
- You can wait until after your graduate to make a final decision on which school you will attend. However, most schools have application deadlines to be able to qualify for merit aid and other scholarships. I know a kid who was so set on going away to school that he didn’t apply to his local university until after the merit aid deadline. He ended up not being able to afford to go away so he is attending the local school but missed out on $3000 a year in merit aid.
- I know a student who took every AP class she could, had over a 4.0 GPA and a perfect score on the ACT. She received nice scholarship offers to several different schools but was not offered a full ride to any.
- I graduated from college 20 years ago but I did not live on campus and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything except for more debt. My daughter has chosen to live at home to avoid debt. Tuition is $4,500 a semester at her school. The cost of the cheaper dorms and food plan would have cost about another $4,500 per semester. Her tuition is pretty low compared to many other schools. She has chosen to join student groups and spend a lot of time on campus studying so she can meet new people.
- It’s not 1992 any more. You can’t receive student loans for large amounts, even more than you need. There is now a federal cap, which is lower than tuition at most colleges. Instead, parents can apply for a Parent Plus Loan. This is a loan that would be in the parent’s name and impact their credit. We did not consider this option as I do not want that debt on my credit and we have always told our children they will be responsible for college. Instead, my daughter worked two jobs all summer in order to pay what wasn’t covered by merit aid and her small student loan.
- I urge people to get a degree. But if a four-year university isn’t for you, don’t go. Instead, learn a trade. Get an apprenticeship, attend community college or trade school. Just find something that you enjoy doing and can make a living from.
- Books are expensive but make sure you look into all of your options. Don’t buy your books until you have gone to your first class. There might be books listed that the teacher doesn’t require. My daughter spent less than $300 this semester. She had to buy two new but was able to rent one book, buy one used and buy another as an e-book. She also didn’t buy them all at the campus bookstore. She used Bookfinder.com to find the cheapest price on each book. She found that Chegg and Amazon tend to have the best prices.
- Fill out the FAFSA no matter what. This is required for many scholarships, including merit aid. The earlier you fill out the FAFSA the more likely you are to get aid (if you qualify). Oct. 1, 2019 is the first day it can be filled out for students going to college in the fall of 2020. You will need your 2018 tax information.
- EFC is determined by FAFSA. This amount is based on your income. It does not consider medical bills, mortgage or any other obligations your family might have. If I actually paid what my EFC is, my family of four would be living in an efficiency apartment.
- You absolutely can find and apply for new scholarships after you have started school. In fact, there are a lot of scholarships that require students to be at least a sophomore.
The bottom line is that college is expensive but I believe it’s worth it. Make sure your child understands their financial obligation. Help them realize that a cheaper college doesn’t mean it’s not a good college. Help your child focus and choose classes that will go towards graduation, even if they change their major, so they don’t run up the cost by taking extra courses. If your child is an underclassman and has their hopes on a certain school, take a look at costs now and help them plan for that.
What Myths and truths would you add? What surprises you?
Gina Stegner is the public relations coordinator for the Kenton County Public Library. Her daughter is currently a junior in college, her son is a high school senior currently making these decisions, one of her stepsons is a sophomore at Gateway and the other is finishing up college by taking online classes through NKU. She has chosen to write about their college search, senior year, college and other related topics to help other parents.
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