By Diana Simeon
For most of us, paying for college tuition is a worry: no surprise, when the sticker price at many colleges now tops $50,000 a year. Your Teen asked Lynn O’Shaughnessy—author of the bestselling The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price—for her advice.
The good news: “Sticker price is mostly meaningless,” O’Shaughnessy says. In fact, according to the latest statistics, 87 percent of students at private colleges receive some kind of scholarship or grant. And when you combine public and private institutions, two-thirds of students are not paying full fare. Here are five steps to lowering the college tuition costs for your student.
1. Understand what college tuition aid is available.
Both public and private colleges offer two kinds of aid: need-based and merit. Need-based aid is based on your family’s finances; merit aid is based on your teen’s achievements (academic or otherwise).
2. Calculate your EFC.
The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is calculated based on your household finances. It represents what you’ll be expected to pay, at a minimum, toward your teenager’s college tuition costs for one year. It’s officially calculated when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during your teenager’s senior year of high school, but you can calculate your EFC today using one of the free EFC calculators available online (O’Shaughnessy recommends the EFC calculator at CollegeBoard.com). For families earning around $50,000 a year, expect an EFC of $5,000-$6,000, while families in the $150,000-plus range could have an EFC of $30,000 to $38,000 a year depending on their assets. Need-based aid fills the gap between your EFC and a college’s sticker price.
3. Target schools offering the type of aid you need.
As you build a college list, use your family’s EFC to target appropriate schools. “If you have a lower EFC, then you are going to look for schools that are really generous with need-based financial aid,” O’Shaughnessy says. “If you are wealthy, and your EFC is $50,000 a year, for instance, then you are looking for schools that are generous with merit aid.” Schools vary widely on the merit and need-based aid they provide.
For example, at New York University, only three percent of students received their full “need”—as calculated by the EFC—while at similarly ranked Bucknell University, a whopping 95 percent of students received their full need. And merit aid? NYU averaged $7,300; Bucknell, $14,855. Meanwhile, other schools offer need-based aid in lieu of merit aid. Take Amherst College. It offers zero merit scholarships, but meets 100 percent of need-based aid, with the average award in 2012 totaling a whopping $43,000-plus a year. Note that you can find this kind of detailed information on individual school profiles at CollegeBoard.com
4. Encourage your teenager to be a good student.
Here’s the bottom line: colleges compete for good students. So the better your teenager’s grades, the likelier she’ll receive a robust aid package (and pay much less college tuition). “That doesn’t mean you need to be an A-plus student,” O’Shaughnessy says. Students with less-than-perfect transcripts can also land enough aid to lower the bill considerably, if they’re careful about where they apply. One tip: apply to colleges where your applicant is in the top third to 25 percent of applicants.
5. Look beyond the rankings.
While the media makes it sound otherwise, most institutions are “fighting in the trenches” for great students, O’Shaughnessy notes. “To get them, they have to give better financial-aid packages or better merit awards.” Indeed, applicants willing to look beyond the schools that top the ranks of U.S. News and World Report can get an excellent education at a much lower cost. “Those schools that are not on the tip of everyone’s tongue, which don’t have the highest rankings, are often less expensive than those with bigger names,” says O’Shaughnessy.
You can read more of O’Shaughnessy’s advice on paying for college tuition at her blog, TheCollegeSolution.com.