My first admissions gig was working for a small liberal arts college with a pretty hefty price tag.  Picture me at a college fair: name tag in place, pile of brochures ready to go.  An eager family would walk up and we’d start a conversation.  One of the first questions I’d get from parents was about cost and the moment that $50,000-plus figure left my mouth I would see the terror in their eyes and watch them back away as if I had the plague.  I did my best to follow up that figure with assurances that we were very generous with aid but the damage was already done.  That is, until they walked up to the next table and heard the same number.  And the next.  And the next.

As a college counselor I often meet families on the other side of this blind panic.  The unfathomable expense of college is becoming a reality and the only options they see is to saddle themselves with loads of debt.  There are better ways of tackling the expense of college, and the earlier it’s addressed the better.

  1.  Be Realistic.  Working in admissions I’d often get calls this time of year from devastated parents who had promised their child they could go to school wherever they got accepted but then realized this was not a financial reality.  There’s little to be done at that point in the game so it’s important for parents to be open at the beginning of the college search.  Helping your son or daughter to understand what their options are early will help avoid disappointment later on.
  2. Community College. I know I’ve already lost some of you.  True, going to community college can negate that traditional college experience but this isn’t a priority for every student.  For the kid who is more focused on getting the degree without incurring financial hardship this is an option to consider.  Quick fact: your diploma will say Harvard whether you start as a freshman or a transfer.  Food for thought.
  3. Outside Scholarships: There are some great search tools out there for both national and local scholarship opportunities, many available to high school underclassmen.  A quick essay could be your ticket to a few thousand dollars to spend as your family sees fit!
  4. Institutional Aid: Most schools will automatically consider you for merit scholarships when you apply but it pays to do your homework on the front end here too.  Ask colleges what their scholarship ranges are--do their top students get half tuition or a full ride?  All schools offer a cost calculator on their website to help you estimate what your eligibility for both scholarships and financial aid will be.
  5. Big Fish, Small Pond:  It is understandable that students want to be admitted to the most prestigious school possible.  A great option may be to find a school in which your student will be in the top 5-10% of their incoming class, targeting their top scholarship award.  This might also come with other perks like priority housing or an honors program.  What a win-win!
  6. Financial Aid:  By filling out a FAFSA early in the student’s senior year you are in consideration for any need-based aid that a school may be able to offer you.  This is also your ticket to the Stafford Loan, which offers a low, fixed interest rate, regardless of your need, so it’s always worth submitting!
  7. Bargaining:  I wish families relied on this less than they do.  Families think that if School A gives them a $20,000 scholarship and School B offer $5,000 they can call School B and get them to match School A’s award.  This is often unsuccessful.  While always worth a try there are a million reasons this might not work.  School B may be much more competitive than School A.  School A may cost much more to start.  School A may simply be unwilling to change awards based on policy.

It is so important to start talking about the cost of college early.  Meet with your financial advisor and college counselor to put yourself on the path to finding a school that is academically, socially, and financially the perfect fit.