When Debbi Ballard's children were young, she made a promise to them—she'd pay for their college education, no matter what.
Now, with her daughter already in college and her son about to start next semester, she's wondering exactly how she's going to do that. "I firmly believe that I've had 18 years to prepare for this moment and that it is my responsibility to provide them, at the very least, with an undergraduate education," she says. "So I work a lot."
Ballard is one of hundreds of thousands of parents dealing with the cost of putting their children through college. Because hers are only two years apart, she'll be paying for both at the same time: Lauren is a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, while Trevor, 18, starts at the University of Florida in Gainesville this year. Ballard, a single mom, lives in South Florida and works in sales; because she's on commission, her annual household income can vary from $80,000 to $130,000.
Ballard, like many parents, falls into a frustrating no man's land—she makes too much to qualify for significant financial aid but not enough to comfortably pay for both of her children. Her expected contribution is $10,000 to $12,000 per child, per year; right now, with Lauren in college, tuition, student loans, and living expenses add up to around $20,000 a year. With Trevor at Florida, that will go up to at least $30,000 a year.
"The biggest challenge is making a limited amount of funds go in a million different new ways," says Ballard, who's taken on extra consulting work, putting in 80 to 90 hours a week total.
Once Trevor moves out of their three-bedroom home with a pool, she says, she's going to sell the house to move into a smaller, less expensive apartment. "I need to redirect the money," she explains.
Finances played a big part in her son's college decision. A gifted athlete with excellent grades and a host of extracurricular activities—he appeared in the MTV reality show The Paper, about his high school newspaper—Trevor is clearly a promising student. He was accepted at seven of the nine colleges he applied to, including Northwestern and the University of Texas-Austin, but financial aid was hard to come by. Only Texas and Florida (where the state's Bright Futures program covers 75 percent to 100 percent of tuition for qualifying students) offered help. Because of Trevor's grades and SAT scores, his tuition at Florida is free (it would have cost $4,000 a year). His room and board, about $9,000 a year, is not.
Catching a break. Despite the Ballard family's example, some experts say putting multiple children through college at the same time could actually be financially easier than paying for one child at a time. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and author of FastWeb College Gold, says that while the overall cost of multiple children is certainly higher, the individual financial aid awards can also be higher than if there is only one child. The key: Make sure you indicate on the FAFSA form that you have multiple children in college. "A parent with two children in college is going to be taking out more loans than a parent with one child, because there are two of them," says Kantrowitz. "But the financial aid is greater." Moreover, he adds, some colleges—Roger Williams University in Rhode Island is one—offer tuition discounts for siblings.
Sally Rubenstone, a senior adviser with CollegeConfidential.com and coauthor of the Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions, agrees there are some financial benefits to putting more than one child through college. Colleges vary greatly in how much aid they offer, she says—some colleges will meet demonstrated financial needs, but others practice what's known as "need gapping," acknowledging that a family can afford to pay only so much in tuition but refusing to make up the difference.
And sending multiple children to college brings other challenges, not just writing that tuition check.
"Just in the same way when the kids were little and one of the kids got a new bike, you have to decide if the next kid gets a new bike or gets the older one's hand-me-down," says Rubenstone. "If the first child has the choice of a pricey college, does the second child get the same choice or have to go to a less expensive college?"