The Cost of College

"I thought I did everything right. I insisted on academic rigor.  I insisted she join a sport, volunteer, and then drove her back and forth to a part-time job.  I went to parent/teacher conferences, joined the PTO, and baked more cupcakes than I want to think about.  She held up her end. She got honor roll and made good choices.  We started looking at colleges. And it all fell apart."

Yale College Tour- was fabulous. No one in this house is going to Yale but was a beautiful day with loads of information given by a top notch college admissions officer.  A great place to kick off the college search.

That could be any parent. Could just as easily have been me. The reason it isn't is because I knew we were in trouble a long, long time ago.

I've been a high school guidance counselor for years.  I've been watching and listening.  I can find the stats that show just how many kids from each high school go to college. But that's much less telling than the stat that says how many kids go to college and then actually graduate.

Most kids aren't even graduating in four years.   The average four-year graduation rate for Maine public colleges? 28.3%.  Find out all the stats you want using The Chronicle for Higher Education's website. Try six years.  Six years only to graduate with crippling debt hoping they find a job instead of coming home to live in their 10x12 bedroom and jockeying for position in the driveway.   Average debt for the graduating class of 2016? $32,000 and change.  Average monthly payment? $351. Buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. For more scary facts, check out Student Loan Hero.

But before we even have to deal with the debt a college education brings, first we need to figure out how to finance college.  A summer job is nice.  Good life experience.  Good for developing that sense of responsibility in a teen.  But don't expect the earnings to cover much of the college bill.  At best, they might save enough for spending money for the year- assuming they can even find a job.

How about scholarships? Must be plenty of those around, right?  Some, there are definitely some.  Check your high school guidance office for the local scholarships.  Competition is much less fierce for these. Usually, the competition is limited only to the immediate geographical area versus the national scholarships.

How about merit money?  A lot of colleges offer merit money. The catch here is your child will most likely need to be in the top twenty-five percent of the applicants at that particular college to be eligible. Check the freshman profile for that college (profile usually means GPA, rank, and SAT/ACT scores). Look on sites like Collegedata for that information. Curious about the University of Southern Maine? Here you go.  Google "merit scholarships University of Southern Maine".  Here's  what you can find...the Presidential Scholarship.

Want to know if there is any possibility of this earth you can afford that college?  Try using the college's Net Price Calculator.  Every college and university is required to have one. The reliability depends on how good the calculator is that the college has put up.  Here is Bowdoin's.

You can also fill out the FAFSA4caster.  Everyone should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)- even if you think you won't get federal aid. By filling out the FAFSA4caster you can get an early idea of aid eligibility; grants, loans, or work-study.  If you aren't sure of the difference between a loan or a grant or what work study means, here's a glossary.

By the way, if you have a senior, the FAFSA can be completed beginning October 1.  You'll need your tax information and a FSA ID.  You can apply for these now (one for you and one for your child- you both need one to electronically sign).  If you feel overwhelmed already and that's pretty normal, FAME (Finance Authority of Maine) can help. Outside of Maine, there is probably something similar in each state. Connecticut, for example, offers College Goal Sunday.

You may also need to complete the CSS Profile.  It asks for more detailed information than the FAFSA and it's not free to fill out (bummer, right?). But a lot of private colleges will insist they receive it in order to decide how to disburse non-federal aid.

Here's a golden nugget of information...if your child qualifies for free or reduced lunch there are PSAT, SAT. ACT, CSS Profile, and college application fee waivers available in your high school guidance office. Ask for them! Don't be shy.

Look for the deals.  Maine residents apply free at USM and sometimes if you attend a college tour, you may get the application fee waived.  Ask.

Help is out there. Join a Facebook group. Paying for College 101 is a great one for tips and support. You are not alone. Parents all over are struggling to make this work.

You will need to be your child's advocate.  You will need to be involved. You will need to understand what you can afford.  Your child will need to understand what you can afford.  It will save so much heartache when you feel it's all falling apart.

The cost of college is out of control. But you don't have to feel like you have no control. You do. Community college, in-state colleges, generous private colleges- investigate all of them.  Throw a wide net and always, always have a backup plan.


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