If you’re stressed about college costs, you’re not alone. Americans today owe more than $1.4 trillion in student loans, and that number isn’t getting any smaller. Fortunately, there are tons of resources out there to make understanding and securing financial aid easier. I’ve compiled the latest research and tools into a straightforward guide on what you need to know about paying for your kid’s college, including how to navigate tricky conversations with your teen about borrowing student loans if your 529 plan and other savings can’t cover their tuition. (70% of students need to borrow money.)
Don’t get discouraged. College is well worth the hefty investment — after all, grads earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetime than people who stop at a high school diploma.
Before diving into the details, it helps to understand the history of tuition costs and student loans. After all, college didn’t always cost as much as it does now. Perhaps when you were young, you managed to pay for college in full with a few summers waitressing — but that is hardly possible today. Familiarity with the current landscape is crucial for understanding what you (and your kid) are up against.
A 2016 survey found that the majority of high schoolers expect their parents to pay for all of college, but most parents cannot afford to foot the whole bill. The reality is, most families will land on a mix of parent’s savings and student loans. Telling your kid that she may need to go tens of thousands in debt for her dream school is no easy task — which is why it helps to have the Student Loans Talk early. Think ninth grade. Managing expectations and being transparent are key to this must-have conversation.
Now here’s a sticky situation: You’ve already put one kid through college, but you overestimated how much you could afford the first time around — leaving you with less money for your second (or third, or fourth) kid. Don’t beat yourself up; this happens to the best of us. If you find yourself in this position, find the time to have a sincere dialogue with your younger kid(s).
Now that you’ve got the hard stuff out of the way, it’s time for the, well…other hard stuff. Once your star student is ready to apply to college, you’ll need to actually file for, apply for, compare, and secure financial aid. This is a long and often tedious process, so make sure you’re prepared by learning about the different types of aid that you’ll encounter (scholarships, grants, federal loans, and work-study). Know what kind needs to be paid back and at what interest rate, and what doesn’t need to be. Be sure to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and — if necessary — the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. If this all sounds like another language to you, my Paying for College infographic will make you fluent.
I talked to Kentucky native Rainesford Stauffer, who dropped out of college after her freshman year, about her decision. Surprisingly, her only regret was being so hasty to accept her college offer in the first place — because it left her saddled with debt that she didn’t understand. If your kid expresses a desire to quit college, don’t immediately jump into defense mode. Try to understand where he is coming from and work out a solution together. Maybe he’s just not getting along with his roommates — which is a simpler fix — or maybe the school is truly a poor fit. Rainesford ended up finishing her B.A. a few years later at a different school that suited her needs far better — and was more transparent about financial aid.
Recently, I asked people of various generations how they paid for college, and even though we know tuitions have increased, it’s still shocking to hear how previous generations graduated with a lot less — or zero — debt. While you shouldn’t bring this up to make your kid feel bitter, it’s worth taking into consideration when giving her advice based on your personal experience. Working a part-time job on campus is a great idea (and is actually linked to higher GPAs), but both you and your kid need to be realistic about the fact that those earnings won’t cover tuition.