As a parent, you probably find yourself at some point asking questions like: When should we start looking at colleges? How do we get the most financial aid? Should a community college be the first step? What if my child doesn’t want to go to college? How much money should we have saved? Is it too late to start saving?
I was a single parent during my daughters’ college years, scared I could not financially support them. I was racked with guilt for not saving more while they were growing up. I spent a lot of time looking for ways to help them have the means to attend the college of their choice.
Planning for the journey needs a road map
We made tracking spreadsheets and taped them to the walls of our dining room; there were stacks of resumes, reference letters, and portfolios ready to mail with applications, plus thank-you cards pre-signed for scholarship organizations. Most importantly, my daughters did their best to maintain high GPAs, spending their nights studying for standardized tests and logging more community service than sleeping hours.
We looked at dorms, dining rooms, lecture halls, and gyms. We suffered through the stifling heat during campus walking tours. We talked with financial aid counselors, advisors, and alumni of the colleges we visited. With each tour, each application, each essay, and each letter saying yay or nay, we grew increasingly aware it was going to be a long journey.
I wish I’d had the benefit of Ron Lieber’s book, The price you pay for college, at the start of our journey. It would have been an invaluable tool in helping us navigate the system. The subtitle, An entirely new road map for the biggest financial decision your family will ever make, is aptly chosen. Lieber walks the reader through many areas of the college experience, and the information is crucial to the entire decision-making process, not just helping you know how to cover kids’ college expenses.
Every journey is different, the first steps are the same
My older daughter started college with $10,000 in community scholarships, graduated in 3 years, and had $25,000 in loans. During her time in college, I was still married. A combined high level of income was counted on her FAFSA as part of our EFC. There are a lot of acronyms in the college world, and FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and EFC (Expected Family Contribution) will be two of the most common ones you hear.
My younger daughter also started college with over $10,000 in community scholarships. She, too, graduated in three years, but with no student debt. I was divorced by this time, and my income was the only one used for her FAFSA-determined financial aid package. Because of this, she qualified for the Federal Pell Grant Program, substantially lowering our EFC.
Here are videos to help you understand FAFSA and EFC:
Ron Lieber breaks down the process of applying, choosing, accepting, and making the commitment to attending college. He asks questions like:
- Why is the price for college so high?
- Can my child count on an athletic scholarship?
- Is my child guaranteed a good job just because she goes to college?
- What about joining the military or taking a gap year?
- What if my child has mental health issues that make college seem impossible?
Key takeaways from the book
1. The journey should be transformational, not transactional
Lieber begins by addressing the question of why college is so costly. He gives specific formulas for how the cost of college attendance is calculated at both private and public institutions. As he notes, in order for college to be transformational instead of transactional, parents and educators have to remember to look at college as a learning and growth experience, and not just an economic undertaking.
Lieber explains why the FAFSA and EFC cause anxiety for a family. The FAFSA, an 8-page application with over 100 questions, can take days to complete because of all the details it requires about family finances. There are parents who feel the federal government is invading their privacy by asking for such detailed information about their financial situation. Once the information is provided, it’s the federal government, not the family, that decides how the EFC will affect each year of a student’s financial life at college.
Lieber goes on to offer advice on hiring a college consultant to walk you through the process. He discusses how merit aid can help-or hurt-your child. For families who are beginning their journey, he explains the history of higher education to help them understand the obstacles they may face along the way.
2. Think through all the feelings during the journey
In part two, Lieber gives parents the right to all feelings: guilt, fear, selfishness, selflessness, and even pride. He encourages them to think through feelings of wanting to give their children everything, no matter what the cost. There’s a reference to a study that states:
58% of Americans believe that the children walking around today will be worse off financially when they grow up than their parents now.-Pew Research Center
Lieber addresses the pride you may feel when your children attend Ivy League schools as many believe that only these institutions will provide the absolute best. He asks parents to decide if it’s worth an extra $100,000 a year for the chance of a better job or happiness. The local state university may provide the same chance, he says, with a much smaller price tag.
3. Determine the purpose of going to college
Does your child want to go to college for the degree? Is it for the life-long friends they hope to make or for the sheer experience it provides for their future?
Lieber spends a great deal of time in part three talking about the value of college as determined by the quality of instructors, engaging learning environments, the level of diversity, and job placement after graduation.
Part three also gives readers a glimpse into women’s colleges, which have a value set all of their own. The career counseling offices and mental health support systems of quality universities get lengthy treatment from Lieber as he helps parents understand the nuances in areas often overlooked during this process.
Lieber specifically mentions the Stress Management & Resiliency Training (SMART) Lab at Ohio State University. It is an important example of a college taking the mental health of its students seriously.
4. Keep some money in your wallet
In part four, Lieber really gets into cost-saving strategies for the college road map. He explains how honors colleges can make a large school seem much smaller, allow students to sign up for classes before non-honors students, and give a boost to their resumes. The author sifts through the option of enlisting in the military and then using the Government Issue Bill (GI Bill) to pay for college. He addresses gap years, which you may not have thought about but could be a viable option for your child.
Lieber also provides more information about skipping college altogether, using athletic scholarships to cover the costs, and attending a community college. Our family benefited significantly from opting for our local community college. We enjoyed cost savings, smaller classes, and a more specific network of people who helped with future job opportunities.
Both my daughters used the community college’s Dual Enrollment courses and Advanced Placement (AP) classes as part of their high-school curriculum. Taking advantage of these options, they transferred a combined total of 60 credit hours for average savings of $145 per credit hour, or $8,700. These savings equal the cost of a dorm room for two semesters at university, so community college was good for family finances.
5. How to plan for the journey
Part five of the book includes a lot of practical applications for the next steps in the college journey. The biggest financial decisions in a family start with asking, “How do we pay for college?”
The book answers this question and helps you find starting points on your journey for:
- How to talk with your child about the cost of college
- Which is better-public universities or private institutions?
- How can you appeal financial aid decisions?
- Those complicated student loans
The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. It contains a lot of information, so ingest it in small bites. You can pick chapters that apply to your situation and skip those that don’t.
Maybe you could grab a pen and a notebook and embark on the college journey with this book as a guide. I recommend reading the very last chapter first. It’s about hope, and that’s something every family needs these days.
The price you pay for college
- Look at college as a learning and growth experience, not just an economic undertaking.
- Your child should have a defined purpose for going to college.
- Cost-saving strategies are equally important.
You need this if...
- Your teen is preparing to go to college
- You're looking for ways to save, borrow, and bargain for a better deal
- You want to understand the value of college education that's worth paying extra for