The Cost of College

The cost of college tends to be the elephant in the room in any discussion about which college your student should attend.  When one goes house shopping or car shopping, price is the usually the first thing discussed.  For some reason, however, families delay the discussion about the cost of college.  And unlike the purchase of a car or a home, almost every family inevitably asks the question, “Where can we find money?” only AFTER the student is accepted to a college, even if they’ve been cautioned about this approach from the outset.

It seems that part of the problem stems from the fact that everyone has heard of some student somewhere who has paid for his or her entire education with a string of small scholarships that they have found on one of the scholarship search websites.  The problem here lies in “the rest of the story”: the student probably qualifies for need-based aid, the dollars that are awarded are generally small (think $500 – $1500), the awards are non-recurring so they may only be there for one year, and the process is very labor intensive.  (Think essays, essays, essays!) If you peruse these sites, you’ll see what you’re up against.  

Here’s a general primer about how things work: merit aid and financial aid generically refer to two different types of awards.  Merit aid is based on some qualification, whether academic honors or talent-based factors like artistic, musical, or athletic talent.  Financial aid is need-based aid, which may come in the form of scholarships, grants or loans.  Scholarships and grants do not have to be paid back; loans need to be repaid.  When looking at the cost of college, there are basically four options. Generally public in-state colleges are going to be the least costly option, with other public colleges next in line. Private schools are generally more expensive, though there are smaller, lesser-known private schools that are still cheaper than many other better-known private schools.  But there are always exceptions to the cost component of almost every category except the last one.  Once you start looking at that top level of more selective private schools, hopes for merit aid all but disappear, so you should be prepared to pay the asking price for your student’s education.

For families who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid but who have limits on the amount they can spend on their child’s education, the key to staying within the family budget is to look at schools that offer merit aid.  You’d be surprised at the number of colleges that offer financial awards for academics if your student has the requisite grades and standardized test scores.  Not only will those schools be a better value but also often they allow your student to have a richer personal experience because they’ve earned their way into an honors programs or some other scholars program.  In this case, I always recommend that the student consider being “the bigger fish in the smaller pond” as a way to have a more personal academic experience. In other words, it’s a great idea to focus on schools that WANT your student and not just those which will accept your student.

My recommendation is start the college search with a budget in mind.  To do anything less is to end up with a big – and not so welcome – surprise at the end.  As parents, we have to be the bad guy all too often.  Plan ahead for the college cost so that you don’t have to have the conversation that starts with, “Sorry, honey, but we can’t afford the school you just got into.”



Carol Doherty is the founder of Doherty Educational Consultants, based in Marietta, GA.  Carol is in her fifth year of providing individual guidance on the college search and selection process both locally and in numerous cities around the US.  An Associate Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, she enjoys working with students to find their “best fit” college academically and socially with a keen eye on staying within the family budget.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 202-558-5644 or