Paying for College? Here Are Five Steps to Remember

These days, tuition is daunting. So we talked to experts who will help you avoid going into serious debt.



Tuition, along with room and board, at the University of California tops $30,000 a year.

Minh Tang

The national debt, rents in San Francisco, the distance to Pluto, college tuition—some numbers are so ridiculously high as to be incomprehensible without an advanced degree in math. But real, they are. Especially college tuition: Four years at a private college could cost upward of $250,000. Public schools aren’t always a bargain, either. Tuition, along with room and board, at the University of California tops $30,000 a year.

These are daunting figures for most East Bay families. But experts say that any kid, no matter how broke, can afford college by following a few easy steps:

1. Adjust your expectations.

While it’s true that some students get full-ride scholarships to Harvard, it probably won't happen to you. Instead of fantasizing about an Ivy League future you can’t afford, consider schools at which you have a good chance of being accepted and that are relatively affordable.

“People say, ‘Oh, but this is my ideal school!’ To me, it’s not your ideal school if you’re going to leave with $120,000 in debt,” said Frances Fee, a financial aid consultant who lives in Oakland. “For some families, that could mean looking at community college or California State University schools, which are both great options.”

The 23 campuses that make up the Cal State system are each about $20,000 to $25,000 a year, including room and board, books, supplies, and personal expenses. With financial aid, Cal Grants, and subsidized student loans, the fees are affordable for most families, especially if the student works part time or lives at home. Tuition at the Peralta community colleges (Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland, Berkeley City College, and the College of Alameda) is $46 per unit per semester, plus various fees, and all offer classes that are transferable to UC, CSU, or, for that matter, Harvard.

2. Have a realistic idea about financial aid.

In the pricey Bay Area, it’s easy to feel impoverished unless you’re a gazillionaire. But financial aid is based on national norms, not the overpriced bubble in which we reside. Fee said she has worked with families who plead poverty on $375,000 a year, and she has had to break the news that they are, in fact, rich.

“People aren’t always aware of their own financial situation in the context of all the students applying for financial aid,” she said. “They don’t take into account that, for example, there are families in East and West Oakland who also have bright kids going off to college, and some of those families have zero assets and are living on $40,000 a year.”

Recently, Fee helped three families, each led by single parents with household incomes of about $100,000 a year and modest assets. One family expected full-ride aid because they felt they were barely subsisting, another family expected no aid because they felt too wealthy to qualify, and the third family was hoping for some aid but expected to contribute a good amount. The third family was correct, she said.

Also, families should know that retirement accounts are never factored into net worth in the financial aid calculations. Home equity and business value may or may not be considered, depending on the college the student is applying to.

3. Plan ahead, and don’t bankrupt yourself.

Sam Wood-Bednarz, an adviser at North Berkeley Investment Partners, said it’s important that parents have a clear understanding of the tuition realities long before their kids start applying to schools.

“Brace yourself psychologically. Understand that it’s going to be expensive, and the costs are a moving target—they could go up every year,” he said. “Be up front with your kid to make sure everyone’s on the same page. It might not be an easy conversation, but it’s important that everyone understand what the boundaries are.”

He suggested that parents who can afford it should open a 529 tax-free college savings account when their kids are young. The accounts are fairly flexible—the money can be used for graduate school, tuition for a younger sibling, or even postponed if a student wants to take a gap year.

He also advocated for subsidized (government-backed) student loans, which typically have a lower interest rate than private loans. Several programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps will help students pay off their loans after graduation, and in a pinch, parents can help pay off the loans, as well.

Fee is also a proponent of government-backed subsidized student loans—$19,000 total over four years. Students with a stake in the game, either through loans or work-study, tend to get higher grades than those whose parents pick up the full tuition costs.

“Paying for college is considered by the schools to be a three-way street,” she explained. “The parents pay something, the schools contribute some aid, and the student takes out some loans and works part time.”

What is not recommended is draining your retirement account or taking a home-equity loan to pay college tuition. “You can always take out loans to pay for college, but you can’t take out loans to pay for your retirement,” Wood-Bednarz said. “No one’s going to loan you money when you don't have a job.”

The danger of taking a home-equity loan is that if you lose your job or are beset by some other disaster, you risk losing your home. Better for the student to take on some debt, or transfer to a cheaper school, than for mom and dad to be homeless.

4. Be creative and remember each case is unique.

At Mills College, the financial aid office sorts through hundreds of applications a year. Too many families think the FAFSA—Free Application for Federal Student Aid—is the last word when it comes to financial aid. “The FAFSA offers us a glimpse into a family’s resources, but it’s just one piece of the overall picture,” said Robynne Royster, director of undergraduate admissions. “We look at many factors when giving aid, and families should apply regardless of whether they think they qualify.”

Mills disperses more than $18 million a year in financial aid, and 93 percent of its students receive some form of assistance. Students also receive millions in outside scholarships, which are easily researched at StudentAid.ed.gov. Some might be minor—say, $300 for left-handed ping-pong champs—but it’s better than nothing.

Another way to save money is to look for combined bachelor’s and master’s programs. At Mills, students can earn a master’s in only one extra year after completing a bachelor’s, saving thousands of dollars.

Families should educate themselves about the options, but also beware of the multitude of scams targeting college-bound students. For starters, families should remember the FAFSA is free. Do not be tricked by FAFSA-lookalike services that demand money, said Jeff Hardie, Mills’ vice-president for financial services.

Also, be wary of schools that hint at a windfall of financial aid before you apply, but the money mysteriously vanishes once you’re accepted. Some schools, desperate to increase their application numbers, will mislead families into believing the costs are less than they actually are.

And remember, too, that it can be easier to get into some private colleges if a family does not need financial aid. Fee suggested that if a student has his or her heart set on a certain school and that student is on the bubble—both academically and financially—the family might want to consider skipping the financial aid application in order to increase the chances of being accepted. 

At Mills, when a student is determined to attend but tuition seems out of reach, Hardie urges her and her parents to simply call the financial aid office and work something out. “We’re committing to helping every student who wants to be here,” he said.

5. Get your taxes done early, and talk often to your kids.

Sabrina Chaumette and her husband, Robert, of Oakland have two sons in college and a third in private middle school. They are grizzled veterans of financial aid forms. Sabrina Chaumette’s advice: Don’t dawdle.

“The sooner you get your taxes done, the easier it is,” said Chaumette, a therapist. “It saves a lot of headaches down the road.”

The FAFSA deadline is usually in February or March, depending on the school, which is several weeks before the tax deadline of April 15. One can easily find oneself buried in complicated paperwork and blown deadlines without some method of organization. If your taxes are completed on time, you can simply upload them directly from the IRS to the FAFSA form.

Chaumette also suggests frequent check-ins with your kids. Once they’re 18 and not living at home, it’s harder to be in regular communication about their financial status: If they’re working, how much they’re earning, if they’ve forgotten any deadlines, and if there are any urgent emails from the financial aid office they’ve overlooked.

Paying for college can require huge sacrifices from parents and students, plus untold hours filling out forms, but it can be done, and the value of an education is incalculable.

“If we can do it, anyone can,” she said.

This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Aug. 31, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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