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  • Michelle Silbernagel

The College Affordability Conversation

Updated: Sep 10

Avoid Eleventh Hour Remorse

What is Eleventh Hour Remorse? It is the painful regret experienced by students when they are accepted to their dream school -- the school that ticks off all their priority boxes -- only to realize it’s beyond their family’s financial reach. To avoid this trauma, families should have the “affordability conversation” early on, before or during their teen's research and list building stage, and definitely well before the application submit button is hit. Have a frank conversation: What is your family's college budget? Discuss how much parents are able and willing to pay. Some parents are reluctant to delve into finances with their kids, taking the stance of "Your job is to get into college. Our job is to pay for it."


Yet, depending on the institution, annual costs can range from $25k to $75k+, so it's important to provide some upper limits to guide the college search. Round numbers and ranges are fine to get started. When researching colleges and their costs, remember to consider the total cost of attendance which includes the direct costs of tuition as well as indirect costs such as fees, books, room, and board, travel and expenses.


Students, ask your parents if there are limitations, conditions, or expectations you should be aware of when researching colleges. (If your parents are separated or divorced, ask this question of both parents since many colleges will expect a financial contribution from both.)

Questions to ask:

Are there limitations?

  • Is there a maximum tuition amount parents can or will contribute to their teen's college finances?

Are there expectations?

  • Are there certain colleges that parents want their teen to consider?

  • Are parents comfortable with allowing their teen to travel several hundred miles for college? Does that mean a car ride away or a plane ride?

  • Do parents expect their teen to take out student loans, contribute to tuition, get a job at school, pay for books, need to obtain merit aid, etc?

Are there conditions?

  • For example, some parents may specify, “We will pay for the equivalent cost for our in-state school and only if you stay on the West coast.”

Don’t automatically eliminate any college that’s over your family’s budget. While you won’t know the exact amount of your financial aid package until you’re actually admitted, you can estimate it. Keep in mind the financial aid package from a particular college could be influenced by other factors, such as the student's strength as an applicant in relation to the rest of the applicant pool, the student's GPA, test scores (in a non-COVID year) and college-specific institutional priorities. While it's not a good idea to apply to a long list of schools your family couldn’t possibly afford, it’s important to remember that the net price of a college is sometimes not the same as it’s “sticker” price.


For more great family guidance on how to approach college admissions, check out The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together. I can't recommend it enough!

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© Touchstone College Advising 2020

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