Paying for College 101

Around this time of year, focus turns to students receiving their college decision letters. Just as important: the financial aid award letters, which can either accompany the decision letter or follow shortly thereafter.

When I work with students, I always stress that finding good fit colleges means academic, social and financial fit. There is no benefit to gaining admission to a college that is a great academic and social fit but that is unaffordable; in fact, that is disappointing. Here are a few tips and resources that can be useful to families concerning paying for college.

  • Have a realistic understanding of costs at the beginning of the college application process. By law, all colleges and universities are required to have a “Net Price Calculator” on their website that can provide families with an estimate of what their college expenses will be. The College Board also has a net price calculator at https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/tools-calculators#.
  • Talk to your children about paying for college. Applying to college is your child’s first step toward adulting – a bridge between childhood/high school and young adulthood/college. Part of that process can be adult conversations about the costs of college and how to pay for it. Brennan Barnard and Rick Clark’s The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together is a wonderful book that can help parents frame that conversation.
  • If your family is not likely to qualify for need-based financial aid, merit scholarships that come directly from a college or university may be best way to pay for college. Ron Leiber’s new book, The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make, is a comprehensive look at how to pay for college and the importance of merit aid.
  • Families can compare their Award letter to others at Tuition Fit (https://www.tuitionfit.org). Tuition Fit’s mission is “to build a world where everyone can find a college option that is affordable.” To that end, they “empower the public to create real college price transparency by sharing actual pricing information.”
  • Families who believe the financial aid package should be appealed (and this may be especially the case this year, because awards will be based on 2019 tax returns and may not represent current financial circumstances due to COVID) can use SwiftStudent (https://formswift.com/swift-student), a free online resource to help families write a financial appeal letter.


The financial aid landscape will be changing in the next two years as well. When the FAFSA opens on October 1, 2022 (for the 2023-2024 academic year) it will be shorter; the current “Estimated Family Contribution” nomenclature will be changed to the “Student Aid Index;” and Pell Grant eligibility will have expanded. You can read this article in Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/advisor/student-loans/fafsa-changes) for more details.


One of the more controversial changes involves how the new FAFSA rules will impact those who have multiple children in college at the same time. Middle and upper-middle class families with two or more children in college may be expected to pay more, as this article in The New York Times addresses more fully: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/29/your-money/fafsa-changes-college-aid.html.


Paying for college is expensive, and those who want to understand the value of college – the Return on Investment – can find great information here: https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/collegeroi/.