Ms. Corie McDermott-Fazzino

College is expensive. There is literally no other way to put it. It requires long-range planning…like way longer than you might think. I will admit that when my son was born, we opened a 529 account for him. We try to drop a few bucks in here and there. That is when we aren’t managing his equally expensive daycare bill.

As I said, children are expensive.

The Abbey College Counseling Office advises families to have a conversation about the expectations and realities surrounding the cost of college. Be honest and clear, we suggest. But practically speaking, for that conversation to be timely, it needs to happen in a student’s Fourth Form year because families applying for need-based financial aid will have to use their prior-prior tax year (which aligns with their child’s Fourth Form year in high school) in the application process. And I’ll be honest, rarely are Fourth Formers ready to have a full-throated conversation about the financial burden associated with their next academic step.

Of course, some families are financially secure enough to absorb the college tuition bill. They are full-pay. But even full-pay families will be asked to fork over a hefty sum and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It presents an opportunity for families to discuss the cost and value of higher education. The privilege of having ready access to earning a college degree. But even if the money discussion can be delayed until the deposit due date (May 1st of the student’s Sixth Form year), how many 18-year-olds are really ready to have that conversation?  

I wish I could provide some magical advice, a way to engage in the higher education marketplace that would ensure affordability. But I can’t. Nor can anyone, really. Instead, the best suggestions are about dealing with the reality that is. A reality in which the bill will almost always be a bit of a sucker punch.

With that, here are a few quick tips for families when planning for the cost of college:

Do Your Homework: Even without an official college list, families can still complete the Federal Student Aid Estimator to reveal the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)/Student Aid Index (SAI). Families can also bop around to various college websites and do individual Net Price Calculators (NPC) to get a sense of the range of packages. And it will be a range as often need-based financial aid is both federally (FAFSA) and institutionally (CSS Profile; endowment) sourced.

Prepare for Prior-Prior: The taxes parents submit to the government during their son or daughter’s Fourth Form year in high school will be the documents used for the initial application for need-based financial aid during the student’s Sixth Form year. (Families will need to reapply each year.)

Apply on Time: When the FAFSA and CSS Profile open in October of your son or daughter’s Sixth Form year, fill them out. On time. And follow up with colleges where appropriate. You will discover that the financial aid application process involves more than a few steps, including: obtaining an FSA ID (electronic signature); completing documents, or if you file taxes electronically, using the IRS Data Retrieval tool to populate the FAFSA; completing the CSS Profile; submitting additional documents to certain colleges; completing a FAFSA verification if requested by a college. The money coffer for need-based financial aid is a limited resource—so if you aren’t on-time, you are likely out of luck.

Find the Helpers: Some states fund an organization dedicated to helping local families navigate the college financial aid process. For Rhode Islanders that organization is the College Planning Center of Rhode Island. It is also reasonable to call individual college financial aid offices once you have started the need-based aid application process at a particular institution. These folks are experienced professionals who can help clarify particular questions and requirements.

Be a Savvy Consumer: This doesn’t mean dicker about the package you are offered. It means pay attention to the details. Think carefully about how you will cover the yearly tuition bill. Note the financial burden of loans: origination fees, terms, interest rates. Consider hunting through the College Navigator, which is a free resource hosted by the National Center for Educational Statistics. On it you can search particular colleges and learn more about their financial aid statistics and loan default rate. Review the US Department of Education’s College Score Card where you can research the percent of students receiving federal loans, the median total debt after graduation, the typical monthly loan payment, and detailed information about Parent PLUS loan debt. Consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook to learn the going salary for various professions. If you have had a change in financial well-being (lost job; dramatic change in earnings; etc), reach out to each individual financial aid office to appeal your award package. If you do this, be prepared to share detailed documentation to explain your change in financial health. And, if the bill is just not do-able, be honest with your son or daughter about that fact.