Back when I was a teacher, my former student Sarah told me about a conversation she had with her parents during her senior year. Sarah was trying to convince them that they could afford and should pay for her to attend an undergraduate private school in the northeast. Sarah was pretty nervous they’d say no and she didn’t really know where to start. Some schools were offering her a generous financial aid package. Were her parents aware? And did Sarah really know much she would need to afford tuition, books, room/board, and living expenses?
Without anything prepared, Sarah stumbled through the conversation; she brought up paying for college in the middle of her little brother's 8th birthday party, and she left the conversation with more questions than answers.
Her biggest complaint was that her parents didn't want to compromise. My immediate response was to empathize with her. Navigating budgeting for college is an intimidating process. Shout out to her for even having the conversation with her parent! That said, I think anyone would agree that having a college cost conversation at your little brother's birthday party might not be the best idea.
Ultimately, her story had me thinking about ways to make the college cost conversation easier for high school students and parents. To help you navigate the important discussion of college costs, we've created a comprehensive checklist that covers all the key points. Let's dive in!
On a second attempt, Sarah could have asked her parents if they’d be willing to have a conversation about paying for school after dinner on a weekday when her parents aren’t busy or tired. Parents could also recommend a time they think their kid won’t be stressed out from school, work, sports, and social activities. Picking a good time and then letting other people know you don’t want to be distracted for 1 or 2 hours will help you both focus on the task, which is to agree on college costs you can afford. Let’s assume that this happened and Sarah and her parents had set up a date to talk about college cost.
Next, Sarah should shock her parents with some prep work - a few hours of online college research. Before the conversation, Sarah should do a quick online search to find the cost of three large college expenses: (1) tuition, (2) estimated living expenses, and (3) textbooks. These numbers will make up the core cost of college. Her parents might write these numbers down and listen to Sarah with an open mind. Parents should also be interested in what the total cost of college would be with the expected or received aid package.
It should go without saying that completing the FASFA has to happen before Sarah and her parents can have a complete conversation with a more accurate sense of expectations for need-based aid. That said, for Juniors mapping out college finances it is worth keeping in mind that you wont have access to FASFA until you are a Senior. Still, we think it’s important to have these conversations as soon as possible, and we’d recommend revisiting the conversation again after the FAFSA is completed.
The FASFA will gave Sarah and her parents a good idea of how much need-based aid they will receive from the government and the schools they are looking at. After writing down the expenses, Sarah’s parents should consider the total price of college after financial aid and grants are factored in. Sarah might want to discuss private scholarships and work-study programs if the schools she applied to are out of the families price range.
A caveat. Talking about how much a parent can contribute to college expenses can be sensitive. Sarah should be wise enough to talk about ways she can help pay for college if the schools she applied too are outside the budget. Sarah should probably avoid pressuring her parents to take out loans. If loans are required, Sarah might want to let her parents evaluate that option and the repayment implications of a loan on their own.
At this point, Sarah’s parents could recommend certain cost-saving measures, including living at home and transferring from a community college. In some places compromises might be hard to make but both side should look them and reach an agreement. By the end of the conversation, Sarah and her parents will have some type of plan for the future or at least a better understanding of college costs.
A meaningful conversation about college costs between high school students and parents is crucial for financial readiness and successful college planning. Use this checklist to address essential aspects of affordability, explore financial aid options, and find a fair agreement.
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