It’s August, and college tuition bills have been coming due all month. I am often surprised when people tell me, “I didn’t know how much the bill would be.” I’m such an over-planner that this seems foreign to me, but there are quite a few ways that it happens. I want you to know that while you can’t avoid every single surprise, you can gather as much information as possible to make the best possible financial decision that fits in your family’s budget. Obviously, it’s too late if you’ve already moved your kid into the dorms, but if you have a high schooler, this is for you.
Before you get started, you need to figure out some sort of way to capture all the information. I use a spreadsheet, but you could also use paper and pencil or whatever other tool works for you. Here’s a very basic version of the spreadsheet I used:
Be Sure You Are Comparing Apples to Apples
Then, you need to know the school’s cost of attendance. While there is a generally accepted definition, you need to be sure that you’re comparing the same things between schools. It doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you are consistent and it fits with your vision. For example, when we were doing the math for my daughter’s college search last year, she rightly pointed out that for some schools, I was including transportation and personal expenses, and I wasn’t including that for other schools. She was right, and at about $3,000, that could make a big difference! And don’t forget about fees…
Find Out About Fees
Find the FULL fees schedule for the schools your considering. Not just the simple schedule on the pretty part of the school’s website, but the big old list of everything they can charge. You might find it in the college catalog, or you may need to Google “(name of college) fee schedule.” Here’s an example from one of the schools my daughter considered: https://www.sju.edu/studentaccounts/parents-students/tuition-and-fees As you can see, there are a LOT of miscellaneous fees at this school.
Variable Tuition Can Be A Surprise
Check to see if the tuition rate changes after a certain number of credits, or if you are in certain majors, or at any other point. If you can’t find the information, call and ask. Schools are not trying to hide this info, but it might not be obvious if you don’t know where to look.
For example, the University of Virginia has announced that it will charge an additional $2,700 in tuition to third- and fourth-year students in the College of Arts and Sciences, with a rolling introduction starting in the 2021-2022 school year. In another variation, the University of Texas at Dallas has two different tuition rates: a guaranteed tuition rate, which starts higher and remains the same, or a variable tuition rate, which starts lower but will increase each year.
Tuition Will Increase – But How Much?
Do some research into historical tuition increases at the schools you are considering. You should expect that everything will go up, every year, unless your child selects a school that guarantees not to increase costs. If they do go to a school with such a guarantee, find out WHAT costs are covered. Do an internet search for “(name of college) tuition increase” to see if there are any relevant news articles discussing the school’s financial situation and whether there is an expectation of big increases.
Use The Net Price Calculators
Every school (that I know of) offers a tool called a Net Price Calculator (NPC). If it isn’t obvious on their website, do an internet search for “(name of school) net price calculator. While the the NPC isn’t precise, it is fairly accurate for the vast majority of people. Run the NPC on a ton of schools. . . it can be really fascinating!
Have A Back-up Plan for Financial Aid
While it’s fairly safe to include guaranteed renewable merit-based financial aid, be sure you have a back-up plan for need-based aid and outside scholarships. Need-based aid can vary from year to year, depending on a variety of factors, and you just never know which scholarships you’ll be able to earn each year. While it is absolutely fine to be optimistic about those forms of support, figure out what you’ll do without them BEFORE you made a college decision. It might be more loans, it might mean taking on another job, or even taking a year off of school – there are no wrong answers.
There are a billion strategies for finding the right financial fit for your kid, but you can’t know if it’s the right financial fit if you don’t have all the information. And frankly, that information isn’t always obvious. You have to do your own research, and your own math, to come to your own decisions.
If you’ve got a high school student, this stuff is essential. And if you know someone with a high school student, please share.