A Dad’s-Eye View: The Emotional Impact of College Financial Aid Offers

Contributed by a TuitionFit parent:

If you have looked eagerly forward to the day you may retire comfortably, you know you need to figure out 2 things:

  1. What college will the kids get accepted to
  2. How is it getting paid for

I’ve been anticipating this day for more years than I can count. I got closer to knowing that college cost when our first college financial aid offer arrived in the mail.

If you have received one of these offer letters, you likely had the same emotional rollercoaster of feelings that I did. If you haven’t received one, let me give you some Cliff Notes to help you brace for it.

At this point, I think a lot of people realize that the advertised sticker price that colleges put out to the public is rarely the real price you pay. But you probably have a hard time figuring out what your family’s cost might be. Maybe, like me, you think if your kid does really well in school, is involved in activities outside the classroom, and scores respectably on the high-stakes ACT or SAT then it’ll be smooth sailing with a financial aid package that drops your cost enough to make it reasonable and affordable.

Before I take a dad’s-eye view on the financial aid package, let me share a few words on one of the steps in the process. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application is simply not a fun process. It pushes out an interesting number when you get through it called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number. I’m not sure what we entered into this form that made this EFC so high, but brace yourself for a little shock and awe when you see it. Ours was about 27% of our annual household income. Mileage may vary but be wary of this process. We opted to link an IRS data retrieval tool to “save time.” But it ended up being a multi-day headache.  In the end, that number was terrifying because I had no idea where that money was hiding.

About a month after completing the FAFSA application process, we received our first financial aid package in the mail. Terrified that this would confirm that college would be unaffordable for us, we opened it.

We knew before we opened it that our son qualified for a scholarship that was worth 40% on the advertised sticker price of the college. This letter added 3 more scholarships that would bring that 40% discount to 50%. It also noted a few loan opportunities that meant our out-of-pocket cost could be $0/year. Or we could pay out the remaining 50% of the advertised sticker price to get out debt-free.

Here’s the reality: college is expensive. A $60,000/year school might not cost $60,000 a year, but you really don’t know how much it’s going to cost until you get deep in the process. I think that’s unfortunate, and I’m hoping we can work together to make this process a little more transparent for the families coming up behind us.  I wish I knew years ago how our household income, our savings, and our son’s transcript would factor into calculating the true cost of college.

Next step for us is to wait for a few more of these financial aid packages to come through and then weigh our options. How much we can actually afford every year for the next four years, how much debt we think we will take on, and the true cost of that debt are all things we’ll be considering over the next month or so.

Let’s do better together and share more of these stories. The more we know, the better we can prepare. The future is coming whether we are ready or not.

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