Run the Numbers
A few simple steps and some tough questions can help families tackle the cost of college
Once over the excitement, families can call the schools and ask for the total cost of attendance or estimate it by adding about $3,700 to tuition, fees, room, and board. To get the net out-of-pocket costs for the first year, just subtract grants and scholarships from each school's total cost. Loans and work-study jobs are often good deals, but they still eventually come out of the pocket of the student or parent.
Experienced students warn against stopping there, however. The goal isn't just to pay for freshman year but to get the student through to a degree. And that means asking the school-and the student-tough questions. Andrew Blucker, a freshman at Tennessee Tech, now realizes every student should investigate the rules for and likelihood of renewing each scholarship, for example. Money awarded because of a student's need, such as Pell grants, won't be renewed if the income of the student or parent gets a sudden boost. And Blucker was shocked to learn how easy it is to lose merit scholarships. He is about to become one of 50 percent of Tennessee HOPE scholarship recipients who lose them because of low grades after just one year. "College was quite a bit more difficult than I expected," Blucker says. It's more difficult than most students expect. Tennessee's research shows that more than 60 percent of students who leave high school with a B-plus grade-point average end their freshman year with a sub-B average. That's a warning to students who accept scholarships that require maintaining high grades in college.
How long? In addition, figuring out the cost of a degree means asking how long it will take the student to get through the coursework. Most college students now take at least five years. But there's a great variation from school to school, as a few quick clicks on the federal government's College Opportunities Online Locator website (http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cool/index.aspx) show.
Alas, once they've figured out their bottom line, most families are unpleasantly surprised. The ugly reality is that most colleges feel they simply can't afford to provide enough aid for every student. And that leaves students who can't afford college with two solutions: cut their costs, and raise extra funds. But the way students make up the cash shortages can influence their chances of graduating.
A growing number of students are saving money by living at home and spending the first couple of years in low-priced community colleges. Those students need to be especially disciplined, however, because many community colleges have a low rate of transferring students on to four-year schools.
Raising cash can also be tricky. Working no more than 15 hours a week can earn students about $2,000 over a school year, enough to cover books and extra expenses. Better yet, studies show the discipline of a part-time job improves grades. But working more than that tends to steal time away from homework and is associated with a higher dropout rate.
Nearly 7 percent of college students also raise extra cash through private scholarships from charities, clubs, and businesses. But the biggest prizes go to the early birds. Only a handful of contests are still accepting applications in April.