Paying for College: Beyond the Numbers

It’s no news that college is expensive. College finance considerations, however, go far beyond the simple price on a college’s website. Everyone’s financial situation is different, but every prospective freshman should know that in every case – advance planning is key. Here are some guidelines to consider before taking the plunge into your first year.

Talk to a counselor. If you anticipate needing financial aid or scholarships, talk to a counselor, preferably at the university you plan to attend (or the one you hope to be admitted to). Learn about the school’s financial aid and scholarship policies. Does the school itself offer scholarships? If you receive an outside scholarship, will it reduce your financial aid award by an equivalent amount (meaning that you see no difference in your fees)? If the latter is true, for instance, a student receiving a lot of financial aid might not want to spend time applying to small scholarships. Scholarship applications can take a lot of time and effort; the last thing you want to do is invest heavily in a scholarship application, only to find that you can’t actually benefit from the scholarship.

Know the deadlines. If your school of interest offers scholarships, peruse the school website to find out if those scholarships have special deadlines. For example, USC’s Trustee scholarship requires students to submit their admission applications earlier than the normal admission application deadline. Mark any special deadlines on your calendar to be sure you don’t miss them; school scholarships are more than worth the extra work.

Have a work-study plan. Think long and hard about how much you’re willing to work during your undergraduate career. Too many students send their SIR’s (statements of intent to register) to expensive schools they can’t quite afford, assuming that they’ll simply get a job once there in order to offset the costs, and end up with heavy student loans. Getting, keeping, and regularly working a job is a lot harder than it sounds, especially for students with little to no prior work experience. Working long hours can exhaust you, or can detract from your social, academic, or extracurricular undergraduate experiences. Before planning to get a job while at school, put together a balance sheet to see how many hours you’d need to work to make up the difference—and decide whether you can actually commit to those hours.

Foresee your expenses. Come up with a four-year financial plan, and note any potential changes to your financial changes or aid package. Are you guaranteed a four-year scholarship, or are you relying on aid which will change depending on your school’s finances and your parents’ income level? If your financial aid offer decreases, are you willing to take on loans; and if not, do you have other options to afford tuition? Are you willing to graduate early by a semester or two in order to save the tuition money? If so, are there community college classes in the area that can help you finish your major and graduation requirements more quickly? Plan ahead to avoid a budget crises down the line.

Remember that advanced planning can set you up for financial success in college. Best of luck to you in your application process!

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.