Beyond Scholarships: 3 Insider Tips on Lowering College Costs

“She used to be a financial aid officer at a school in Ohio [and] her coworker awarded based on how she felt that day. Having a good day, she gave a good offer; bad day, not as much.”

How do people pay for college?

Does everybody else have way bigger college funds for their children or stinkin’ rich uncles?

How are our coworkers with $3 million homes getting this much financial aid for their kid?

This is just a sampling of college finance questions we get from parents all the time. Read the highlights from three interviews with college financial aid insiders, sharing sage advice on paying less for college beyond just applying for scholarships.

  • The Estimated Family Contribution can be misleading. Here’s what to ask for instead.
  • The people you shouldn’t trust too much with answering your financial aid questions
  • The most effective and efficient way to pay less for college — not applying to scholarships
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Ask for an early pre-read from colleges

“We offer an early decision pre-read. A lot of schools do that for athletes, but we will do it for anyone that’s seriously interested in early decision. We have them submit their tax returns and W-2s along with the net price calculator results.” — Leah Young, Dickinson College Director of Financial Aid

Let’s say a parent fills out the FAFSA and receives an EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) estimate of $12,000. Many parents assume that they will only be liable to pay up to $12,000 of their child’s college tuition.

These parents are often shocked when they’re asked to pay thousands more than the $12,000 EFC. The EFC is not a reliable predictor of total out-of-pocket college costs.

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Instead of relying on EFC estimates and waiting for financial aid letters to arrive in April, parents can start planning for college costs even earlier. Colleges like Dickinson offer a pre-read in the fall. Financial aid officers review your family’s financial documents and provide an early financial aid letter, which is more accurate than the often-misleading EFC. If college budgeting matters, set up a time to a college financial aid officer and ask for an early pre-read. Especially if your child is applying early decision, an understanding college should understand your need to know exact (or close to exact) costs before committing to a college.

Enlist a financial aid advocate outside the university

“Financial aid officers, at the end of the day, are employed by the university, and they’re going to do what’s in the university’s best interest. I have on my team three former financial aid officers who worked at private universities, and they helped navigate this. One of them told me that when she used to be a financial aid officer at a school in Ohio, her coworker awarded based on how she felt that day. Having a good day, she gave a good offer; bad day, not as much.” — Andrew Hathaway, college financial aid advisor

FAFSA, CSS Profile, college savings funds, work study jobs, loans, grants, scholarships… the college financial aid to-do list and vocabulary can be overwhelming. Many parents find that university financial aid officers give vague answers to their valid questions or avoid them altogether. Financial aid officers must look out for the college’s bottom line — consider them the accounting or budgeting office of the business.

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By hiring a college financial aid advisor,

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