How to Trim College Costs

Submitted by Wes Moss on Tuesday, July 7, 2015 - 12:00pm
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The price of college these days can easily make you feel overwhelmed if you face paying tuition for your child. Though you’ll probably still pony up big bucks for higher education, many online tools can help you whittle down the price.

Ballooning college costs constitute a real and hard lesson: Over the last two years, expenses for higher education jumped at more than four times the Consumer Price Index that measures total inflation. The general cost of a college education jumped some seven-fold in recent decades and at more than twice the rate of health-care costs since 1983.

I recently wrote about why I think college remains a wonderful investment but not about how you can more easily afford it. Since many details figure into financing college, I reached out to Terry Wilfong, an expert in this field who works extensively on admissions both inside and outside universities.

Most recently he founded the College Options Foundation, which helps high school students in the Army Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps  and teenagers in military families apply for college and apply for financial assistance.

Terry says that, for a variety of reasons, any student’s absolute best opportunity to save money on college remains a good grade point average and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Testing (ACT) scores, as well as a well-rounded assortment of extracurricular activities.

Possibly your state can also help. Georgia, where I live, offers the Hope Scholarship, which essentially covers the cost of tuition of in-state colleges for students who graduate high school with a 3.0 GPA and maintain those grades in college.

Even if you and your future collegiate have such a program, Terry suggests that you still look into the Free Application for Federal Student Aid before settling on staying in-state. FAFSA, part of the U.S. Department of Education, offers more than $150 billion in government grants, loans and work-study funds each year to more than 13 million students. Eligibility depends on several factors, including the size and assets of your family, among others.

FAFSA bridges the gap between what college expenses your family must expect to cover (your expected family contribution, or EFC) and the school year’s total cost. For example, if you’re looking at a school where the academic year costs $40,000, FAFSA determines that your family must cover (or can afford) $15,000. FAFSA and the school may help with all or a portion of the leftover gap of $25,000 with a mix of gifted money and student loans.

FAFSA won’t cover all of a family’s need for the cost of many schools, often meaning that a student must take out additional loans to make up the difference. Visit collegedata.com and its Money Matters tab to see the general breakdown of costs to attend schools you’re interested in and profiles of schools’ financial aid.

Other tabs to help you better approximate what a given college will cost: a scholarship finder, a price calculator and an awards-comparison tool.

Depending on your qualification for FAFSA, don’t automatically disqualify schools on initial price alone. Understanding the mechanics of how a school supports your student’s ability to pay allows you to select the best school for your money.

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Wes Moss, CFP, is the chief investment strategist for Capital Investment Advisors and a partner at Wela, both in Atlanta. He hosts “Money Matters,” a live financial advice show on Atlanta’s News 95-5 and AM 750 WSB Radio. In 2015 and 2014 Barron’s Magazine named him as one of America’s top 1,200 Financial Advisors. His newly released book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think published by McGraw Hill, is available on Amazon, iTunes and at your local bookstore.

Wes writes weekly about personal finance in the “Bargain Hunter Section” for AJC.com, the site of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wes is also the editor and writer for About.com’s Personal Finance blog. Connect with Wes on Twitter at @WesMoss365 and on Facebook at Wes Moss Money Matters. You can also visit his website, WesMoss.com to learn more about Wes, and take his complimentary Money and Happiness Quiz.

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