5 Things to Remember When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s Dream College

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: 5 Things to Remember When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s Dream College

Written by: Morgan Hill

I’ve always dreamed of my son going to the college of his choice. Of course, in a perfect world, I also dreamed of him getting accepted into every college he applied to and choosing a college that offers him a chance to truly experience life outside the hometown he was raised in. 

Since my son was little, we’ve been building a college fund for him. Dutifully contributing every single month since the day he was born – a nice little education nest egg so he could have the freedom to choose a college that suited him. The world would be his oyster… nothing holding him back. 

My son has worked so incredibly hard, too. He has good grades, a strong work ethic and big dreams for his future. Since late middle school, he started researching colleges that interested him.

Frankly, we were excited and optimistic about venturing into the college process…

But then, I started researching the cost of college and my dreams for my son’s future were smashed. Although we’ve been saving for years, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed… and it’s heartbreaking.

According to US News & World Report, the cost of college per year in 2021- 2022 was:

Average Public Institution (In-State): $10,338

Average Public Institution (Out-of-State): $22,698

Average Private Institution: $38,185

And, according to collegetuitioncompare. com,

Average Annual Ivy League Tuition hovers around $57,509

What blew my mind, was this is merely the base cost of education – it doesn’t include housing, food, books, supplies, travel expenses or the cost of setting up a dorm room. 

Suddenly, the college nest egg we were so proud of and fought so hard to build had fallen from the tree.

I couldn’t help but think, “We should have sacrificed and saved more.” “We shouldn’t have told him he could attend any college he wanted.” “We never should have risen his hopes and told him we saved enough.”

And, it isn’t just my family facing this harsh realization. Families across America are facing the same reality. 

As Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) Tweeted in February 2021, “Student debt has more than doubled in just 10 years. Nearly 45 million Americans are now saddled with over $1.7 trillion in debt and the delinquency rates have nearly doubled.”

When I was in high school ready to take the next step into college, the cost of education was barely even a discussion. Higher education was achievable and affordable. Now, it’s a different world.

According to Educationdata.org “Since 1980, college tuition and fees are up $1,200% and from 1990-2021 public undergrad costs rose 2.78 times and private undergrad costs rose 2.03 times.”

It certainly hasn’t been an easy road for my family, but as a mom who’s had to make adjustments to her child’s college dreams, here are 5 things to remember when you can’t afford your child’s dream school.

5 Things to Remember When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s Dream College

1. You’re Not a Failure as a Parent

Listen up, parents, you’re doing your best. With the rising cost of education, not to mention rising inflation, nearly every parent is experiencing some form of sticker shock when faced with their kids’ education. Don’t consume yourself with guilt or frustration because you couldn’t save enough to send your child to their dream school. Redirect that energy toward your options and what you can do to provide your child a great education – even if it means making a few compromises along the way. 

2. Paint a Realistic Picture with Your Child

Sit down with your child and provide them with a realistic financial picture. Show them the numbers in black and white and help them understand, firsthand, the implications of being straddled with long-term debt. Chances are, they’ll be carrying some (in some cases, all) of the financial burden and they may decide to make adjustments to their plans, including potentially attending a community college for the first two years to lower costs or attending a less expensive college. 

3. Discuss the Overall Return on Investment of Their Education

Depending on their field of study and the competitiveness to land a position post-college, your child may be able to secure a great education at a smaller price tag with little to no impact when they enter the workforce.

Conversely, graduating with a degree from a particular college that offers a specific or highly specialized program and/or reputation may open doors and secure a higher salary upon graduation, which could be a factor to consider. It’s important that you speak candidly with your child and weigh the costs and benefits when taking out loans and analyze the overall return on investment of their education.

4. Fill Out the FAFSA and Apply for Financial Aid and Scholarships

Your first step in applying for financial aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid  (FAFSA) even if you don’t expect to qualify for aid. According to college experts, the FAFSA is your ticket into the financial aid arena. Submitting it puts you in the running to receive financial aid, work-study opportunities, federal grants, student loans and school-based aid. 

There are several financial aid options available for college-bound students including, grants, loans, work-study programs and scholarships.  According to Study.com, “There are advantages to applying for loans from the federal government, as opposed to a loan from a private institution such as a bank. For instance, federal student aid loans tend to have lower interest rates and more repayment options than private loans. Also, parents paying for student loans can deduct the loan interest on their taxes.”

Next, search for scholarships. Quite often applying for scholarships boils down to a numbers game – the more scholarships you apply for, the better chance you have of winning. With a little inside advice, your child can improve their chances of scoring scholarships to help them offset the burden of college expenses. Check out these insider tips!

5. Discuss Alternative Options

One thing I’ve learned is that where there’s a will there’s a way. There are plenty of options available to both students and parents to cover the cost of college. And, even a few things your teen can do on the front end to ensure they receive the most financial aid possible. 

  • Focus on Raising ACT/SAT Score: According to College Vine, “Raising your ACT/SAT score by even as little as 50 points can have a huge economic impact since that number alone impacts how much merit-based aid you receive.
  • Consider Commuting: Housing is expensive. Commuting can save a bundle on room and board. 
  • Consider Starting at a Community (or Lesser Expensive) College: Starting at a community college and transferring into a four-year program is another way to save on college tuition. After all, it’s not where you start, it’s where you graduate.
  • Negotiate Merit-Based Aid: According to College Vine, “These are dollars that schools set aside to attract highly qualified students to attend their school instead of one with a stronger reputation. If your child gets into two comparable schools but one is offering more merit aid, you can ask the other if it will match your other offer.”
  • Apply to “No Loan” Schools: The number of colleges that are meeting students’ full financial need without loans is on the rise. Before your child starts the application process, be sure they check out these “no loan” schools first. 
  • Tap Into Employer Tuition Assistance: Some companies, including a number of fast-food chains, offer tuition assistance to help employees offset the cost of college.
  • Advanced Placement & Dual Enrollment: Securing a high score on Advanced Placement (AP) exams in high school can help save on college tuition since many schools will award course credits based on AP scores. Students can also earn college credit through high school dual enrollment programs, which allows students to earn college credit while still in high school.
  • Tap Into 529 College Savings Plan: According to Citizens Bank, A 529 plan is an investment account that offers tax benefits when used to pay for qualified education expenses for a designated beneficiary. You can use a 529 plan to pay for college, K-12 tuition, apprenticeship programs and student loan repayments. If using a 529 plan to save for college, your savings will have a minimal impact on financial aid eligibility.”
  • Take Advantage of Grants and Work-Study Programs: The beauty of grants is that they don’t need to be repaid. Once you complete the FAFSA, your child will be notified whether they qualify for any federal or institutional grants. A work-study job is one provided by the Federal Work-Study program. This government program gives part-time jobs to college students who have financial need while they’re enrolled in school.
Paying for college is one of the largest single expenditures that most individuals or families will make in a lifetime. Still, there are creative ways to reduce the cost of college expenditures. Of all the things to remember when you can’t afford your child’s dream college, don’t get caught up in guilt, regret or feelings of inadequacy as a parent. There are plenty of other higher education paths your child can take without the burden of immense debt. 

About Morgan Hill:

Morgan Hill is an essayist and humorist. She has written for many online and print publications including Insider, Your Teen Magazine, Revel and MASK Magazine. She is the mother of freshman and senior sons in high school. When not writing, she can be found at flea markets, in her garden, photographing architecture, taking cooking classes or eating the stinkiest cheese she can find. You can also find her on Twitter @MorganHWrites or Instagram @MorganHillWriter

If you enjoyed reading, “5 Things to Remember When You Can’t Afford Your Child’s Dream College” check out these other posts!

How to Afford College – Everything You Need to Know

ACT Tips & Tricks: Help Your Teen Ace the ACT

Scholarships: 10 Tips to Boost Your Odds of Winning

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