Paying for College

California College for East Coast Student with Limited Funds?

Our family lives on the East Coast and my son wants to go to college in California. We have saved $20,000 for him to go to college, far less than he needs. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you so much!
We live on the East Coast, too, and my son considered several California colleges. Our priority was those that might award him merit aid … places where his GPA, test scores, and overall profile put him at the high end of the applicant pool. Yet, of all of the confusing aspects of the admissions process, merit aid is near the top of the list, and it can be practically impossible to predict whether a student will land any merit money and … if so … how much.  It’s important to read college websites to view the range of merit scholarships (which can be something of a treasure hunt to find) and to try to get a sense of which students are likely to get them. But colleges are commonly vague on both counts, resorting to descriptions like this one:We offer Alfred E. Neuman Merit Scholarships from $2,000 to half-tuition which are awarded to students who have demonstrated strong academic achievement and leadership.

Doesn’t tell you much, eh?

But the first thing that you should do is to play with the “Net Price Calculator” for several of the CA colleges that your son has mentioned. Colleges are required to post an NPC online to help families assess and compare college costs. (There should be an obvious link on each school’s Financial Aid Web pages. If you can’t find it, just Google “Net Price Calculator+[College Name]”).  You will need your most recent tax forms in front of you … or an impressive memory … to complete the NPC. While you can never take the NPC results as gospel truth, they usually will help to give you a ballpark idea of what your bottom-line cost will be. Note, however, that some colleges try to include potential merit aid in their NPC algorithm but not always with great success, because merit aid evaluation is often a subjective process. (And many colleges don’t even try, which can make the NPC misleading for merit-aid contenders.)

Depending on your household income and assets and also on where your son is admissible, your $20K might be enough to cover all college costs even without loans. But that’s a big long shot … we are probably talking Stanford and not Chico State. Pricey, elite private colleges with big financial aid budgets can be great bets for students from disadvantaged and even middle-class households because financial aid packages are usually generous and include more “grant” money than loans. But, typically, private colleges expect students or parents to use loans to make up the difference between merit or need-based scholarships and the total cost of attendance. Public colleges offer financial aid to out-of-state students as well and usually even merit aid, but out-of-state costs can rival private-college costs, and again, you may find that you will need to take on some debt to cover the entire price tag.

My own son was keen on escaping the New England winters which is one reason why California colleges were so attractive to him. But ultimately he accepted a very generous merit scholarship at Tulane University in New Orleans. It wasn’t the Golden State, but he loved Tulane, the price was right, and it’ll probably be a couple degrees warmer at Tulane next February than it will be at Stanford. So, depending on why your son hopes to head to the Left Coast, he may find equally attractive colleges elsewhere that could turn out to be more affordable.