Five Questions For College-Bound Students

by Ann Garcia

1. Have you talked with your parents about how much they’re willing to pay for college?

Most families finance college through a combination of savings, cash flow and borrowing. A short-cut to how much you can afford is to add ¼ of your college savings, the amount you expect to pay from cash flow (parents and students), any outside resources you might have (outside scholarship, grandparent assistance), and the annual direct student loan amount. That’s what you can reasonably pay for college.

2. Have you filled out the FAFSA (seniors) or estimated your EFC via the FAFSA4Caster?

This will help you to determine whether you’re a candidate for need-based or merit-based aid. And of course, you may be a need-based candidate at one school and merit-based at another. If your EFC is higher than the annual cost of attendance, then you will not qualify for need-based aid so you should target schools that offer merit aid. Families with multiple children should do EFC estimates for each number of college students that they may have, since financial aid can change due to having multiple college students in the same year.

3. Do you know how much in-state colleges and universities will cost you? What about any private or out-of-state schools you’re interested in?

Families should investigate all in-state options: free community college (if applicable), requirements for merit and other scholarships from in-state universities, and state-based financial aid. Every state (and state university) has its own programs and many students will find options that bring costs down substantially. Similarly, families should do net price calculators for private schools and out-of-state public schools to avoid sticker shock or other such unpleasant surprises. A low EFC is no guarantee of financial aid, and it’s especially not a guarantee of grants.

4. Have you looked at outside financial aid sources?

Institutional aid from your school is generally the largest source of scholarships, but there are other scholarships out there that can add up. Many companies have scholarships available for their employees’ children, and most community-based student organizations have scholarships. Not to mention countless others. Fastweb and your high school’s college and career center are great sources for locating scholarships.

5. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Take a step back from imagining ivy-covered buildings for a minute and think longer-term. Students who foresee a path that includes graduate school should recognize the financial impact of those additional years of schooling. Not only does it mean a period of minimal or lost earnings, but students who have debt from undergraduate studies will find it compounding during graduate school, likely with interest accumulating as undergraduate loans go into deferment. Completing undergraduate studies with a minimum of debt is an imperative for students who think they might attend graduate school.

This article originally appeared on


Ann Garcia is the owner of Independent Progressive Advisors, a fee-only financial advisory firm in Portland, OR, and author of The College Financial Lady blog. A CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) (CFP(R)) specializing in helping families plan for affordable education and mom of college-aged twins, Ann has been featured in the New York Times, CNN/Money and more. Please visit or

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