Can You Afford Your ‘Dream School’?

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD

Does your child have their heart set on a “dream school”? If determination carries her forward, that dream could become an admissions reality. But, depending on your family financial situation, that dream might become a financial nightmare. Rather than taking the chance that you might have to confront the heartbreak of telling your child you can’t afford the school she has toiled over a year to receive an offer of admission, or sacrificing your retirement to send her there, read on.

First, let’s take a look at some actual college costs. Within California, the estimated Total Cost of Attendance—tuition and fees, room and board and incidentals such as books, transportation, and entertainment—for a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is $28,400 and at UCLA it’s $35,700. At Santa Clara University, a selective private school, it’s just under $72,000 and at Stanford, among the most selective schools, it’s about the same. Tuition and fees typically rise by three to four percent each year; the other costs will likely rise, too. Four years at Cal Poly may cost a family over $125,000 and it will cost about $160,000 for four years at UCLA. Stanford will likely cost over $300,000.

Most colleges award merit and need-based scholarships, but the most selective schools, like Ivies and Stanford, grant awards strictly based on demonstrated need. Financial aid officers use information from the College Board EFC Calculator. Read my article on Need-Based Financial Aid to learn more.

Most colleges will not meet your full need. And many may not even come close. Fortunately, if your dream school is a UC or CSU campus, you can find out if you qualify for the UC’s Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, Cal Grants or the Middle Class Scholarship Program. Clicking the links and reviewing the requirements for these programs is a good starting point.

If merit scholarships are available to make up any difference, you should know in advance if your student qualifies for them. Many college admissions offices post information on their web pages that gives you the dollar amounts and requirements for scholarships, and what it takes to renew the award each year. Often a minimum GPA requirement is needed for renewal. You should be confident that your child can maintain the grades to keep the award. Tuition and fees rise each year, while merit awards often remain the same. So, remember that your family may need to make up the difference.

College admissions offices use merit scholarships to attract excellent students, an enrollment management strategy used to fill the freshman class with the most academically desirable students money can buy. The general rule of thumb is that a student who falls at or above the 75th percentile of the college’s applicant pool that year would be eligible for the highest awards. Typically, the college’s most-awarded scholarships require a student to do nothing more than apply for admission and be accepted. Other merit awards require separate applications that might require additional essays or even an interview. Many colleges do this for their largest awards or for those tied to a unique academic opportunity, such as an honors college.

Private scholarships may also help lower college costs. Competition for the larger four-year renewable scholarships that are available, such as the Coca Cola Scholarship, is often greater than competition for admission to the most selective colleges. Smaller awards from local businesses and community organizations are far more within reach. It is well worth your time to research these local scholarships and awards through your high school’s college counseling office.

When costs are a consideration, as they are for most families, it is important to teach your student how to balance dreams about college with reality, especially if your child has ambitions for further education. Life after college is far better, when it is not dominated by the debts incurred during the undergraduate years.