Brace Yourself for That First College Tuition Bill
July and August mark the arrival of fall semester tuition invoices.
Families of first-year students should prepare for the shocking numbers;
explore all options early for college borrowing and financial aid
Families of first-year college students should brace themselves for the big numbers in fall-semester tuition bills, and take action early to be prepared with all options for financial aid and student loans.
American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC) is advising clients and other households to take a comprehensive and strategic approach to paying college bills for the 2021-2022 academic year. That means identifying the best college loan options for your situation, and exploring all forms of aid before and during the academic year.
“The sticker shock from the cost of college is probably at its most severe for families when that initial tuition bill arrives in July,” said Allen Amadin, President and CEO of American Consumer Credit Counseling. “In some ways the annual bills for a college education can feel more overwhelming than a household mortgage. It can be hard for people to process that a single financial obligation can total $50,000 to $60,000 every year for four years.”
Some families have spent years carefully planning for college costs and contributing to 529 education savings plans. However, many Americans aren’t in position to put money away for long-term goals, while others must choose between college savings and building a retirement nest egg.
The common ritual in American households of figuring out how to pay for college almost always begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAfamii). This federal form, once completed, gives colleges and universities an accurate picture of a family’s finances such as assets and income – and enables each school to determine what they believe is an appropriate family contribution for tuition and fees, based on need. Parents may want to speak to a tax professional about claiming children as financial aid is based on need not want.
“Families with a student entering college in the fall of 2021 are almost certainly well acquainted with the FAFSA at this point,” said Amadin. “It really establishes your baseline as a household and makes clear the most you will have to pay once your student is accepted and decides on a college.”
Need-based aid is often the first thing families think of. But colleges and universities use the application process to also make decisions on merit aid such as scholarships and grants – recognizing an applicant’s high school academic record, achievements, and activities and prospects for success as a college student.
Students entering college for the first time in 2021 may have a slight advantage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While applications have surged for admission at the most elite schools in the U.S., hundreds of high-quality but less competitive schools are trying to maintain enrollment as their application numbers drop in the wake of COVID-19. That means many schools are competing to attract students – and using more generous merit aid packages as a tool.
“One of the most effective strategies right now for accessing more aid is to simply ask. Make a strong case for additional merit aid once your child is accepted,” said Katie Ross, Executive Vice President of ACCC. “A college acceptance is essentially an offer, and the fierce competition among many schools to attract students means those offers can be sweetened.”
Ross says ACCC is advising clients and all consumers looking for guidance on paying for college to develop a comprehensive strategy and to use that eye-popping first tuition bill as motivation to be creative. The good news: there are many options to be considered as part of an overall college financing package:
- Private scholarships – Thousands of scholarships from just about every kind of organization imaginable are available each year to help defray the cost of college. Start looking right in your own community as local civic organizations are a major source of scholarship programs. The same goes for professional organizations and associations in your field of work. And finally – students themselves should commit considerable time to researching competitive scholarships that they can apply for directly. Good resources for this include Scholarships.com, Collegedata.com, and Niche.com.
- Direct Student Loans – The best interest rates and most comfortable terms – including full deferment until after graduation – are generally available to students themselves through the Federal Student Aid program of the U.S. Department of Education. Credit checks and consigners are also not needed. American colleges, banks, and the federal government together are prepared to finance the education and bet on the future of most students. But the national epidemic of crushing college debt is a major warning sign for all households. President Biden and Washington lawmakers right now are fiercely debating some form of student loan forgiveness or cancellation for those who have accumulated the nation’s $1.7 trillion in college debt.
- Federal Parent PLUS Loans – Credit standards are more relaxed, but parents will pay loan origination fees and often higher interest rates. Delayed payment until graduation is not automatic with this program. Borrowers must apply for a deferment that allows repayment to begin six months after a student stops attending school. Parent PLUS Loans must be applied for each academic year, making them a more complicated option for financing four years of college. With this loan, parents have 100 percent responsibility for the debt. The student has no legal responsibility to the loan.
- Private College Loans – The options are numerous, and some are very competitive on interest rates and terms. Private lenders – including traditional banks as well as Web- and app-based financial-tech companies – have recognized the tremendous need for new and flexible options for financing college costs. Both students and parents can find options for private loans, but be prepared for traditional and sometimes tougher credit standards and terms to apply. Most private loans to students have a cosigner and deferment is generally not offered after graduation.
“Saving meaningfully for college expenses is a long-term goal that many families hope to achieve, because the reality of actually paying the bill once your student goes off to school can be harsh and even paralyzing,” said Ross. “Families should start early planning their strategy. But they can always be looking at new ideas and different programs throughout their child’s college career.”
About American Consumer Credit Counseling
American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC) is a nonprofit credit counseling 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to empowering consumers to achieve financial management through credit counseling, debt management, bankruptcy counseling, housing counseling, student loan counseling, and financial education concerning debt solutions. To help consumers reach their goal of debt relief, ACCC provides a range of free consumer personal finance resources on a variety of topics including budgeting, credit and debt management, student loan assistance, youth and money, homeownership, identity theft, senior living, and retirement. Consumers can use ACCC’s worksheets, videos, calculators, and blog articles to make the best possible decisions regarding their financial future. ACCC holds an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau and is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®). For more information or to access free financial education resources, log on to ConsumerCredit.com or visit http://www.consumercredit.com/financial-education.aspx