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How and When To Talk To Kids About College Costs

Talking to your kids about college costs is an ongoing dialogue that should be started early in the process with the lines of communication open throughout.  According to financial expert, Ron Lieber, the author of The Opposite of Spoiled, “ you can’t just unload all the information at once—kids need time to digest and ask questions.” Here is Lieber’s advice on revealing the right details at the right time, in four separate conversations over as many years.

The Lay-Your-Cards-On-The –Table Conversation

The summer before 9th grade, talk about what college, both state and private, is going to cost. And then disclose your finances as they relate to college. Explain what you’ve saved and what you are willing or able to spend for college costs. Tell the truth. This is also a good time to explain the impact grades have on merit-based financial aid. You want them to know right off the bat that good grades can lead to more merit aid and more college options. Be honest about economic constraints. If the student is already thinking about expensive colleges, they’ll understand that they can work to try to help make that happen.

The Here’s-How-the- System-Works Conversation

After the 9th grade year, explain that some colleges give aid based on need and some offer aid based on merit to help with college costs. Be wary of declaring all pricey schools off-limits, because it’s possible that a student with really good grades could get a big merit-aid package. Also you might get more need based aid than you expect. Private colleges and universities have more available aid money than most state funded institutions.

The Borrowing Conversation

The summer before the 11th grade, you’ll have a better sense of where you are financially. Share any updates. Now is the time to talk about student loans. It goes something like this: “We want you to know that one way families pay college costs is by borrowing. We borrow some and the school may ask you to borrow as well. We don’t know how much it will be, and we’ll work together to figure that out. Some of the debt will be yours, and you’ll be responsible for tracking it and paying it back on time.” If you‘ve given them some exposure to your mortgage and other debts, they know that a reasonable amount of debt doesn’t have to be an enormous burden.

The Let’s-Do-This Conversation

The summer before 12th grade is the time to make actual decisions about where to apply. Divide the schools into those you can afford, the 50-50’s, and the long shots. Update if any of your numbers, such as income or savings, have changed. Fill out the financial aid forms from the school if they have them. Fill out FAFSA in October. Some people think they won’t qualify, so they don’t bother. Fill them out. Your student may have a special talent or interest that a school may want and will pay extra money for. Also, some merit money is awarded only if the financial aid forms are filed.

(adapted from article by Nicole Sforza)

College Placement Consulting offers comprehensive college planning services.  In helping to identify each student’s next best step in the college process, our goal at CPC is to eliminate stress, de-mystify the process, and internally motivate each student by using state of the art resources and top notch specialists.  If you are interested in learning more, you can schedule a consultation here or contact us at 410-822-4500 or

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