Financial Aid Advice for Parents

Here are some key steps you can take when paying for your kids to go to college.

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And don't think you've got the financial aid scene down just because you've done it before. "Along comes child No. 2, who may be attending a different institution or a different type of institution, and the parent who thinks they've got this process knocked may get a wake-up call," says Rubenstone.

From her parent's perspective, Ballard agrees. In her experience, figuring out financial aid and the entire college admissions process for her daughter was completely different from dealing with ostensibly the same thing for her son.

"There were lessons that I learned the first time around that saved me the second but also lessons that I never had an opportunity to learn," she says. Some schools discouraged students from seeking private loans, others insisted on individual financial aid forms in addition to the FAFSA, and many had school-specific guidelines for merit-based awards.

And the current economic climate is doing no favors for parents paying for a child's college education. To put it bluntly, says Ballard, "nobody's giving away money right now."

Credit crunch. Dealing with fewer banks offering private loans for education and tougher loan standards overall is difficult enough when one education is in play, but when there are two and three, it's even harder. "Particularly parents with poor credit who need to borrow more are going to be at a disadvantage," says Rubenstone.

For some parents, paying for college tuition isn't the only financial challenge they're facing in today's economy.

Michael Caraway, an IT director with a consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with daughters about two years apart, says both his daughters received full scholarships to the University of Florida. Still, he says, he's recently seen his savings account nearly empty as he tries to keep up both his home in South Florida and his daughters in Gainesville.

"It's been a little difficult, mainly because aside from our house payment and our rent, we're effectively maintaining, relatively speaking, two full households," he says. Caraway says that while he's not paying tuition for his daughters, both now in their final years, he's paying for everything else—rent, car payments, food, books, supplies, and whatever else two girls in college need. He puts the tab at up to $1,200 a month; unexpected expenditures like car repairs can push it even higher. Both girls have had jobs in the past, but neither has one right now.

"It's making choices as to what you do with the money," says Caraway. "Do you look at getting yourself a house, or do you stay in a rental and give that money to your daughters? Personally, I tend to go for the daughters, because that's where my first responsibility is."

Caraway's older daughter is looking at pharmacy school after she graduates from Florida. "When the bills come in and you've got to decide which ones to pay, and some of them are your daughters' and some of them are yours...that's a bit of a stress on the emotions," he says.

Still, says Rubenstone, parents of multiple children close in age have one thing going for them—they've already been coping with it for years. As she points out, "The parents have been dealing with some of the dynamics of this for two decades."