What Happens to Student Whose Parents Can't Pay for College as Expected?

Question: I will be a freshman at USC in January 2012. I never applied for financial aid because my parents said not to. However, recently my parents told me that their finances are running short and that I should apply for financial aid. The deadline has passed, so what should I do?

I’m sorry to hear of your plight. It can be stressful to learn that your family’s financial picture isn’t as rosy as you’d thought, and you’re probably angry at your parents for springing this on you at such a date late. Unfortunately, once college budgets have been finalized, there is usually not a lot of wiggle-room to make late adjustments.

When an economic situation changes radically and unexpectedly due to the death or serious illness of a parent or when a parent suddenly loses a job for some other reason, then college officials will often try hard to dig up some scholarship bucks for the student who has been left stranded. But in this case, it sounds like you are a victim of poor planning, so it’s likely that the college folks will be less sympathetic. In fact, some colleges have a policy that requires all students to wait two years before applying for financial aid if they didn’t apply at the time of their initial application to the school. I don't know if that's true at USC or not.

It won’t hurt you, however, to contact the USC financial aid officials and explain your dilemma. If there is a specific reason why your parents are rethinking their ability to pay, then be sure to say so (e.g., one of them lost a job or had to take a salary cut; or maybe there was an emergency expense for health care or some other critical need). Chances are, all you will be offered at this point are loans, but it won’t hurt to ask ... and perhaps the loans will be enough to help you get by.

However, you and your parents should discuss a Plan B. That is, if you don’t get any aid from USC besides loans and if you are wary of taking on excessive debt, what will your next steps be? Can you afford to enroll at USC in January as planned or should you consider applying elsewhere for the following September (this time applying also for financial aid)? You could use the year ahead to get a job and help brighten the family financial picture a bit.

Good luck to you, whatever you decide.

(posted 6/13/2011)