by Frances Nan, college counselor
When I first began learning about the college financial aid application process, my brain glazed over like a donut. What did all these terms mean? Why was this so confusing? Why did the added burden of navigating this labyrinth fall on already underprivileged students and their families?
That was a decade ago, and I’m here to distill those years of guiding students from all socioeconomic backgrounds through the process into foundational knowledge and key takeaways for any student or family to begin tackling college affordability. As with any daunting process — whether filing your taxes or that big school project — we need to start early, break the task into smaller steps, and use the resources at our disposal. It’s also important to note that it’s just as important for full-pay families to understand college affordability as it is for families for whom affordability will be a crucial deciding factor in their student’s process.
“How much does college cost, really?”
The answer is that oft-heard college counselor's response: it depends! There’s how much college costs… and there’s how much college will cost you.
The total cost of attending college (also known as COA or “the sticker price”) covers both what may appear on your bill from the school — direct costs — as well as indirect costs. Direct costs usually include tuition (the fee for attending a school) and possibly room & board (housing and a meal plan) if the student will live on campus. Indirect costs may include books required for classes, travel to/from campus (such as plane tickets), and even personal expenses such as a new laptop, weather-appropriate clothing, etc.
While COA will vary from school to school, the costs beyond tuition may make up 25-65% of the total COA, as Paul Martin of College Money Method cites. In their marketing materials, each college and university will likely provide updated estimates of the COA.
But remember: the sticker price is not necessarily what your family will pay!
Even at public universities, your cost may depend on several factors:
- Will you be an in-state student (for instance, to the University of Washington, Washington State University, or Evergreen State College)?
- Or will you be subject to the costs of an out-of-state (OOS) student (for instance, to the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, or the University of California schools)?
- Or will you be applying to an eligible major at a participating Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) school, which caps non-resident tuition at 1.5 times the in-state tuition rate?
Families are often bewildered by the differences in COA between public and private universities, which often come down to differences in tuition. However, depending on your eligibility for financial aid, private universities may be able to provide a more generous aid package that greatly reduces the COA.
Key takeaway: Do not confuse the total cost of attendance (the “sticker price”) with what your family may have to pay.
“Paying for college, affordability, financial aid… what does any of that mean?”
Financial aid is an umbrella term. Within financial aid, there are:
- Varying types of aid (ranging from grants or scholarships that you never have to repay to loans that you do).
- From various sources (either institutional aid from a particular college or university or outside scholarships from third-party organizations).
- With varying spans of time and eligibility requirements.
Broadly, there are two types of aid based on eligibility. Need-based financial aid is based on the college’s calculations of your family’s ability to pay, as assessed by two methodologies: The federal methodology assesses financial eligibility for aid or loans from the U.S. government, whereas the institutional methodology allows colleges/universities to assess eligibility for aid from their own budget. In order to apply for need-based financial aid, families should prepare to fill out two additional forms due around the same time as college applications: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and perhaps the CSS Profile (for colleges that also assess need based on the institutional methodology).
Lakeside families should also be aware that a college/university’s calculation of their eligibility for need-based financial aid may differ from what Lakeside financial aid offers. In other words, the financial aid that a student receives from Lakeside is not an accurate indicator of what a family may be eligible for in college.
While recipients of need-based aid are certainly also meritorious, in this context merit-based aid refers to an award given without regard for financial need. Merit aid is given on the basis of some achievement, whether athletic, academic, service-oriented, or otherwise. Depending on the source of merit aid, a student may need to fill out additional essays, with deadlines throughout the year.
Key takeaway: There are different kinds of financial aid, varying by source, eligibility, and components. You will have to determine which kinds are the best fit for your family!
“How should I approach the college affordability process?”
Try to assess your family’s realistic ability to pay. Assuming that the student attends four years of college, what range of costs can your family realistically afford per year? Paul Martin of College Money Method encourages families to be specific: What range of costs would be a financial reach, target, or safety?
Another important snapshot is to assess what a college or university believes you’re capable of paying, also known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Are you eligible for need-based aid? Or will you have to seek other sources? Resources like College Board’s EFC Calculator provide anonymous estimates of what your EFC could be — under both methodologies, federal and institutional — without collecting information about you. One way to gauge whether a college/university would deem your family eligible for need-based aid is to compare your EFC to the COA at that school: if the COA is the higher number, then your family will likely be eligible for some need-based aid (the difference between COA minus EFC) — on the other hand, if the EFC is the higher number, then your family should pursue merit-based aid.
Most important is preparing to speak candidly with your student about affordability in their college process, early on — that is, early in their 11th grade year. Many families shy away from this topic, but you can transform these conversations into valuable teaching moments for your student’s financial responsibility and awareness. In my experience, families who approach this conversation candidly and proactively will avoid an even more difficult conversation later in the student’s college process, when a student learns they have been admitted to several universities that they cannot afford to attend.
Key takeaway: Before a student’s 11th grade year, families should realistically assess and be candid with each other about their ability to pay, and they should determine what ranges of costs are a reach, target, or safety in terms of financial fit.
Lakeside families have access to webinars by Paul Martin, of College Money Method. Read more about our programming with CMM here. We strongly recommend that any family wondering about their ability to pay for college participate in the following upcoming webinars. (These sessions will be Zoom webinars, meaning participants can see and ask questions of the presenters, but cannot see other participants’ names or faces.)
While each session is targeted at specific grade levels, Lakeside families with students of any age may attend any session. Students are welcome to participate, too. Links to join each webinar, as well as webinar recordings and other resources, are available on the resources page; find the link in Veracross.
Families can never begin planning too soon for the cost of college. We hope you’ll consider participating in these webinars.
Nov. 15, 7-8:30 p.m.: Learning how the financial aid process works and exploring your financial fit
Recommended for 5th-12th grade families.
This webinar provides families with an orientation on the various college financial aid policies and how colleges use expected family contribution and financial need to determine aid, so that families understand their future financial aid potential.
Jan. 24, 7-8:30 p.m.: Evaluating student loans and borrowing for your college investment
Recommended for 11th-12th grade families.
This webinar supports students and families with a detailed understanding of how student loans work, which personal finance principles to use when considering loans, and how to right-size their borrowing based on future financial goals and earning potential.
Feb. 7, 7-8:30 p.m.: Building financial fit and affordability into your school lists
Recommended for 11th grade families.
This webinar supports students in taking a data-driven approach to researching each college's financial aid practices and policies, allowing them to make more evidence-based decisions for financial fit.
March 20, 7-8:30 p.m.: Comparing financial aid awards and considering appeals
Recommended for 12th grade families.
This webinar supports families with a framework on how to standardize and compare disparate financial aid awards to understand their full four-year costs, as well as provide guidance on when it is appropriate to appeal and how to do so successfully.
May 4, 7-8:30 p.m.: Understanding how colleges assess your financial situation and aid eligibility
Recommended for 9th and 10th grade families.
This webinar supports families with in-depth knowledge of how the applications' (FAFSA and CSS Profile) formulas assess their income and assets, so that families can make decisions earlier in high school to increase their eligibility.
Frances Nan (they/she) is a college counselor at Lakeside School, building on admissions and application-reading experience from Pomona College, QuestBridge, the Jack Kent Cooke College Scholarship, Stanford University, and Barnard College. Reach them and other members of the team at email@example.com.