With decisions in and choices being made, questions about financial aid come up. My students (their parents, really) get the FA letters and for some they come as a shock. As expensive as college is it really can be daunting when the cold hard numbers stare you in the face. Although I don’t deal too often with FA questions (and don’t really have the expertise to untangle some of the complexities), I do at times have parents who are unhappy with the FA they get and protest that they can’t afford the EFC. I help as much as I can, mostly by suggesting that they call the FA office to make sure it’s taken everything into account. Sometimes that makes a difference, sometimes not. Sometimes parents get angry at the amount they’re expected to pay, even when the FA package is substantial. I’ve even heard parents say that they’ll have to dip into the college fund they set up for their child because the FA package is “inadequate.” (I, of course, think that that’s what a college fund is for, but perhaps I’m being naive.)
Now, I’m not a parent so perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on them when I ask (here, rhetorically), “Did you not see this coming?” Perhaps college isn’t the first thing on parents’ minds when a child is born, but the calendar doesn’t lie: Eighteen years after birth college arrives. I know it can be a struggle to save significant amounts, but it still seems that some effort should be made as soon as possible after birth. For the last several years I’ve contributed to a 529 account for my niece and nephew. Putting in only $50.00/month each, I’ve managed to accumulate a substantial amount for their educations over the last few years. My niece is in fifth grade, my nephew is in kindergarten. I also gave the account numbers to my brother and their grandmothers, who also contribute from time to time. It’s been a good investment and the nice thing is I control it so it can only be used for their educations (it’s tax-free as long as they use it for that). I know that at least they’ll have a good head start financially when they reach that magic number and they’re off to U of Whatever or Anywhere College.
I know it’s tough and I know the costs go up every year. Still, I wish parents would plan ahead about this one element of their child’s lives. Even if it doesn’t cover the full cost eventually, financial planning is still an important commitment to make early on.