So, you know that one time where you just had to have That? You had your mind set on That, and there was no way around it. It caught your eye, and the impulse to buy was just too much to contain. So you fully committed, and then . . . you saw the sticker. And that’s when it hit you: Sticker Shock! Your heart sank and it felt like someone punched you in the gut. You felt like you could get sick. (Don’t kid yourself; some of you DID get sick!) If there ever was a picture next to “sucker” in the dictionary, it would be you.
Unfortunately, I see this too many times when people choose to attend college. Despite all of the available information, I’m still amazed that so many students just pick a place and completely ignore the sticker price.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: college is not cheap. In some instances, it’s REALLY not cheap. Sometimes we can get blinded by all the excitement surrounding the mascot of our college choice that we forget there’s a very real price to pay. We imagine all the grand possibilities that college will bring, but we don’t always realize that we could quickly exit with debt equivalent to a 30-year mortgage.
So how do you avoid the gut punch that comes with staggering amounts of debt? Here’s a few tips.
First, do your homework on the college or university of your choice. By law, every school is required to publish their Net Price Calculator (most do on their website). This tool is designed to provide transparency to the affordability question by providing you with a reasonable estimate of what you can expect to pay at a particular school. More than just tuition, the Calculator takes into account aspects such as books and supplies, housing, and food and other miscellaneous costs. It also attempts to understand what you’ll be able to pay for college and provides you with the gap, or net price, that’s left. If you want to avoid sticker shock, use this tool before a college asks you for your credit card number.
Second, fill out the FAFSA, which is the free federal application for financial aid (fafsa.ed.gov). Now, I hear people all the time that tell me they’re not going to apply because they KNOW they won’t get anything. Well, how do I put this nicely? That’s just not smart. For one, you won’t know if you don’t try. And while this is the federal application, many states use the FAFSA to determine their awards and may use different criteria than the feds. But here’s the other thing, some schools use the FAFSA for their own grants and scholarships. If you don’t fill it out, a college can’t figure out how much gap they can help you cover.
Next, apply for any and every scholarship you can. In fact, some colleges and universities have trouble giving away all their scholarships. Contact the Financial Aid or Foundation offices at your college and ask how you can get in on the scholarship action. Most places require an application and maybe an essay. Please don’t let the essay be a turn off because that’s just absurd to pass up money because you have to write something. Sit down for an hour or two and write, because it’s not that difficult. It took me an hour to write this article (and I’m not even getting a scholarship). Plus, just google scholarships. There’s literally thousands out there.
Lastly, avoid loans at all costs, because NEWS FLASH! You have to pay back your loans! It’s not free money. If you think you can get out of it, trust me – you won’t. If you do have to do loans, only take out the bare minimum to cover your costs. If you need loans to cover your everyday living expenses, I’d caution you to think long and hard about the financial situation you’re risking.
Here’s a bonus: don’t be afraid to negotiate with a financial aid office. Some schools with lots of resources can adjust your award package if they feel they need your enrollment (which most colleges do). So . . . if they think there’s a chance that they might lose you to another school, they just might be willing to sweeten the pot to keep you. Squeaky wheel gets the oil.
Remember, the condition known as Sticker Shock is completely avoidable. Don’t get gut punched!