Admissions

High Income but High Debt, Too: Can We Get Financial Aid?

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Question: My husband and I each make six figures, but we're really living hand-to-mouth, believe it or not, because we incurred a lot of debt when we were younger and didn't save for college. We met with a financial advisor who said we are unlikely to get financial aid, which seems impossible to us. We aren't sure what to do. Is it a good idea to look for outside loans if we can't get financial aid due to our income? Or is there a way to appeal since we really don't have much disposable income? We always assumed our debt would be taken into consideration during the financial aid process but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Officially, your “Expected Family Contribution” will be high, as your financial advisor has explained. However, when your child applies to college, you can send a supplemental letter to each financial aid office citing extenuating circumstances not reflected by your income and explaining that your child might not be able to enroll without assistance.


This letter should provide specific information about the nature of your debt and the amount of your monthly payments. In the subjective and often inconsistent world of college admissions, it’s likely that some schools will take this into consideration when assessing your child’s needs and others won’t. So if you want your child to create a college list that is top-heavy with places that are likely to respond favorably to your aid request, you can send a brief query similar to this one to every college on the preliminary roster and then wait for the replies.

If your credit is good in spite of your debt, you may be best served by taking out Parent PLUS loans that you can arrange through your child’s college. If your credit is not good and you are refused a PLUS loan, then your child will be able to take loans in his or her name and will be allowed a higher maximum than that allotted to students whose parents haven’t been turned down for a PLUS loan.

However, given your family history, perhaps your wisest route would be to avoid further borrowing and instead seek out colleges where your costs will be lowest ... either in-state public institutions, out-of-state public institutions that have reciprocity with your state (or that grant in-state tuition to the top candidates from elsewhere) or any  college--public or private--with generous merit awards that are not based on parent income (which means most merit awards).

If your child has strong grades and test scores, you should be looking at colleges with merit money where these grades and test scores are above the median range. You’ll find many threads on the College Confidential discussion forum that list large (even full-ride) merit scholarships and the qualifications required to snag them. However, be wary. While some merit awards may seem head-spinning at first glance, they don’t necessarily make a college cheaper than a public institution that isn’t doling out merit aid but that has a far lower price tag in the first place. Often less-selective private colleges will woo candidates with big merit bucks ... $20K or even $25K per year ... but this still won’t bring the bottom line below what you might pay at a public school — and often a more selective one, to boot.

Throughout the eons, I’ve encountered many other parents in your situation who feel guilty when they end up limiting their children’s college choices to the most affordable options because of their own youthful overspending and meager savings. And while some of this guilt may be unavoidable, do take comfort in the fact that, when you have an honest talk with your offspring about the price of an education and the perils of debt, you may be providing more valuable lessons than even the snazziest of colleges will offer.

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