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HerMoney Staff  |  July 22, 2020

How will you pay for college? Answers to some of the most common questions about paying for college — and expert advice on how to make it happen. 

Note: This content is part of a paid partnership between Citizens Bank and HerMoney Media.

As if the college search process weren’t overwhelming enough for students and parents, there’s also the looming question of how to pay. The good news: If you’re just starting out on this journey, you’re not alone. There are myriad road maps for how to pay for college with a combination of savings, student loans and everything in between, and HerMoney is here to help you navigate the process. Read on for some of the most common questions about paying for college — and expert advice on how to make it happen. 

“There’s no one easy answer,” says Christine Roberts, head of student lending at Citizens Bank, noting that it’s vital for students — especially rising high school seniors — and their parents or guardians to sit down and have an honest conversation about finances. “We call it the ‘other talk’ that you have to have with your kids.” 

Ideally, the conversation should take place before starting the application process, and should clearly lay out how much (if any) the parents can afford to pay, how much (if any) debt they’re willing to take on, what they expect their child to contribute (e.g., do they need to take on regular summer jobs? Are they responsible for their own spending money?). Once you have this conversation, it can help rule out schools that fall well outside the family’s realistic price range, and having that information early on will not only save you money on campus visits and application fees, but also help you avoid falling in love with a school that’s not a financial reality. 

Roberts recommends students look into the Stafford Loan, a low-interest option in a student’s name that provides a maximum of $5,500. She also recommends looking into scholarship databases. “I cannot tell you how much money, free money, is left on the table because people don’t investigate and look for scholarships,” she says, noting that students can fill out a profile with scholarship databases to be shown all scholarships they’re eligible for, whether related to family heritage, parents’ jobs, students’ skills and activities and more. 

How do you determine which schools could be right for a student? 

First thing’s first: It’s important to narrow down all the options out there to create your own short list. Think about what you’re passionate about, then do some research and talk to your high school’s college counselor about which schools are best-known for majors and programs that align with your interests. From there, tuition cost will be a significant consideration. To narrow things down, consider factors like location (how close to home it is, if you can see yourself living there for a few years, etc.), school size, the school’s community culture (you can get a sense of this through word-of-mouth and the school’s mission statement), how committed the school is to diversity and other opportunities the school provides (additional campuses, study abroad opportunities, etc.). 

How does the calculation work regarding how much a student can afford to pay? 

A number of factors go into determining whether you’re eligible for aid, according to your enrollment status (full- or part-time), year in school, EFC (expected family contribution) and COA (cost of attendance) at the school you’ve enrolled in. From there, your school’s financial aid office will work to calculate how much need-based and non-need based aid you’re eligible for — for instance, subtracting your expected family contribution from your cost of attendance. 

As a student, you’ll want to have “built a college resume that makes you marketable to them on multiple fronts,” featuring special talents, involvement in the community and other “buckets” you can fill, says Roberts — after all, she says, “you never know what a school is looking for in that particular year.” 

How do you recommend researching the cost of schools a student may be interested in? 

Tools like College Raptor (free) and (which has both free and paid versions) allow students to input family financial numbers and academic information, as well as college preferences like campus type, distance from home, planned major and more. Then they offer up a list of schools as potential matches, plus takeaways based on the family’s finances and student’s academic information — e.g., “here’s how much a family like yours typically receives in a year,” says Roberts, as well as the estimated net price of the school for your individual situation. 

These types of platforms also offer estimates for how much someone in your planned major may make after graduation, which is a useful tool in deciding how much debt to take on. (Keep in mind, though, that those projected salary numbers are before taxes.) 

What’s the difference between the sticker price and the price students actually pay — and how do you figure that out? 

Besides the tools above, you could also try the College Board’s net price calculator, which uses questions tailored to your individual financial situation, student aid you may be awarded, and more in order to estimate your personal price tag for the college of your choice. Most schools also have net price calculators on their websites. Whichever tool you choose to make your estimates, it’s important to take into account all the potential price tags associated with the college experience — for instance, on-campus housing, dorm room decor, meal plan cost per semester, flights home for holidays and even parking per semester. Some of these might require DIY calculations, so make your best guest on estimates. 

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