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Getting Your Student Engaged in Conversations about College Costs

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Robyn Stewart

Written by Robyn Stewarton April 14th, 2022

Prior to joining College Coach, I was a financial aid officer at the College of the Holy Cross and an education advisor at two TRIO program locations. I work with the Massachusetts Education Finance Authority (MEFA) to present paying for college workshops to hundreds of families across the state. I'm a graduate of UMass Amherst and have a master in counseling from Northeastern University.
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Many of the educators at Bright Horizons College Coach are also parents of high school students. We are excited to share with you some personal insights on college admission and finance as we navigate this process with our own families. by Robyn Stewart, former financial aid officer at College of the Holy Cross All day, every day, I speak to parents about the college finance process. I help them identify their financial priorities and create a budget. I walk them through applications, how to research merit aid criteria, and review financing opportunities to cover costs when other funding sources fall short. I help structure private scholarship searches and review special circumstances letters. I listen to their hopes for their students and their regrets about not saving enough. I provide resources, guidance, and an empathic ear as they determine what their unique goals are in this process. Fast forward to today. Let me tell you, decisions are always easier to make when it’s other people’s money and children that you are talking about. You would think after spending over two decades in this field that suddenly finding myself with a sophomore in high school would be a cake-walk. In the spirit of trying to follow my own advice, here’s what I am starting to learn about the college finance process. Talk to your kids early about costs. My oldest daughter has a part-time job and knows that she is expected to save a portion of earnings for college. Is she going to be paying her tuition with the money from her part-time gig? Not exactly. What she will be doing is saving towards indirect costs (think laundry detergent, pizza, and other personal expenses that she may have.) By starting the conversation early, our goal is to help her eventually build a budget for these expenses and not blow through all her money once she arrives on campus, wherever that may be. Not only does she understand her role in our larger paying strategy, she loves seeing her bank balance grow over time. Connect with financial aid officers. Just because I used to work at a financial aid office doesn’t mean that I know everything I need to know about paying for college. For families with students heading off to school in the 2024-2025 academic year, there are some changes to the way a school may be evaluating your financial need, and it’s important to find out how each specific college will implement these changes. One financial aid officer was particularly eager to take time out of her busy day to spend some time with my daughter. This lovely woman (financial aid officers are good people) provided some helpful links for my daughter to consider way beyond the generic scholarship search engines that may be provided by your child’s high school. Merit is a choice. The decision to prioritize merit aid—money given to families for non-financial reasons—in this process is a choice. As a family we recognize that we have veto power over what schools our daughter applies to and we understand that some colleges don’t have to offer merit awards at all. We have started to do some early research about what schools may offer institutional scholarships that match our daughter’s interests and activities. Certainly there are many factors to consider in this process, however, if we decide to pursue merit opportunities (who wouldn’t want a discount?) this exercise is a great first step for our family. Determine your bottom line. This is something that we have started to consider: how will cost factor into where my daughter (and her sister, right behind her) apply to college? Like most parents, we want to help our children to the extent that we are able. We try to balance our family’s value of education alongside our hope of retiring someday. Remember, the days are long but the years are short and before you blink you will have a high school student (or two) of your own.

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