Pay For College-Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

pay for college

Posted on November 28th, 2022 to College Admission by

Let’s call out the elephant in the room. It is uncomfortable for adults to talk with kids about money, especially when figuring out how to pay for college. Whew 😅, doesn’t it feel good to acknowledge that?! Maybe, maybe not. Either way it’s true. Too often when it comes to paying for college I have heard parents and family members say “we’ll figure it out”. Well like I mentioned in my earlier blog article, you might not. In my experience when the issue of cost comes up, it quickly gets shut down. Parents don’t want to (and are unsure how to) navigate the awkward conversation around family finances. Students, as much as they are interested in learning, are not sure how to receive that information.

So what do we do? Ignore the whole thing completely and pretend like it doesn’t exist? I don’t recommend it. What happens if a student’s top choice school, which they are admitted to, is financially out of reach? Do family members and the student take on mountains of debt they cannot afford? Do family members create disappointment by telling their student they cannot pay for college?

These situations don’t sound like a good recipe for success and happiness. So here are 3 steps you and your family can take to figure out how to pay for college. These steps will help you all get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

pay for college

Step 1: Learn what you need to pay for college

When we have conversations around how to pay for college folks tend to focus on tuition, room, and board. They aren’t wrong to do so, most news articles or data analysis around college costs focus primarily on those categories. However, in reality there are more expenses connected with earning a college degree than that. When determining what the entire cost to attend a school is students and families should factor in the following:

  • Tuition,
  • Room and Board/Housing and Meals,
  • Fees,
  • Transportation,
  • Personal Expenses,
  • Books, and
  • Health Insurance (this is only necessary if a student already isn’t covered OR their coverage won’t extend to where the college is located)

These costs fall into 2 categories, Direct/Billed and Indirect/Non-Billed. Direct expenses are ones associated with services provided directly to the student by the school. For example, tuition pays for the classes a student takes. Indirect costs are items all students are responsible for, they just aren’t services provided directly by the school. For instance, when a student is booking their flight home they will just book the tickets themselves.

To help you determine how to pay for college you need to learn the cost of attendance for any school. Use this handy worksheet to start!

pay for college

Step 2: Paying for college starts with a difficult conversation

OK, now that the sticker shock has set in it’s time to talk about it. That doesn’t, however, mean this very moment. Sometimes the best way to get through a difficult situation is to invest time and energy into preparing.

In my experience, families have some sense of their financial situation. Thus they are able to make an on the spot guesstimate of what they would likely be able to pay for a college education. If that’s not you, then you should take time to assemble your financial snapshot. That way you can have a sense of what’s within your price range.

Next is to have a relatively honest conversation. This is a great opportunity for everyone to learn the costs associated with a college education. It is a chance for everyone to get on the same page as far as what the family can afford. It also sets the expectation that if you were to go higher, your student would need to secure scholarship funds to defray the cost. Is this easy? No. Will having facts and specifics help make it easier? Yes.

pay for college

Step 3: Make a plan to pay for college

In all honesty, this conversation is probably going to take an emotional toll. A moment like this has the tendency to bring about a needed (though not wanted) reality check. It will take some time for everyone to digest this information and realign their hopes, dreams, and expectations. So take that time! Process what you’ve learned; conduct some more research; talk it through with friends.

Once everyone is in a decent place, it’s time to make a plan. You can use these guiding steps to help:

  • Be clear about what is affordable, then use that as part of the search criteria,
  • If a school exceeds that amount, decide how much scholarship money will be needed to meet the gap,
  • Work out a savings plan, where the student is a contributor,
  • Talk to folks in your support network for more information/support (financial advisor, school counselor, etc.)


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