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What Colleges Can I Afford?


It would probably be fair to say that as much as students worry about getting into college, parents worry about paying for it. And with good reason, one year of college tuition can cost as little as $5,742 for in-state tuition at a public school to as much as $64,000 at Columbia University. These amounts do not include extra fees, books, transportation, and housing. The good news is that for many people, financial assistance is available to cover some of the cost.

To help parents and students understand the costs involved, each college is required to post their estimated cost of attendance or COA. All the student needs to do is search for the name of the college and “cost of attendance.” This search should yield a chart which lays out how much tuition/fees, books/supplies, food/housing, transportation, and personal/miscellaneous will be for each year. The chart is only an estimate because the amount each student spends will vary depending on the choices they make.


Additionally, it’s important to know that some colleges require students to live on campus for a certain number of years. Also, many universities automatically enroll students in university health insurance programs which can cost an additional $3,000 or more per year. If the student is covered by other insurance which meets the minimum requirements set by the school, they can waive the school insurance. The deadline for waiving insurance may be as early as the summer before freshman year and the waiver must be submitted every year.

Every college is also required to provide a net price calculator on their website. This calculator is supposed to provide the student with a more personalized estimate of what one year of college will cost them. It takes into account each student’s financial situation and how much the student may receive in scholarships and grants. Scholarships and grants are financial aid that a student does not have to pay back. Each net price calculator is different, but families should expect to input basic personal information, a student’s dependency status, and each parent’s adjusted gross income and assets. The easiest way to get to the net calculator is through a search of the college name and “net price calculator.”

In using the calculators, it’s important to know that some colleges include the cost of housing as part of the cost of attendance, while others don’t. Additionally, while the calculator should only subtract grants and scholarships to arrive at a net price, some also subtract student loans, although student loans do have to be repaid and should be included as part of the cost. The sites can be hard to understand and the numbers should only be used as a rough estimate. While a student should never be deterred from applying to a college because of the cost, they should make sure to apply to some less expensive colleges that they can afford, just in case the hoped-for grants and scholarships do not materialize.


In order for a student to be considered for Federal and State grants, the student and parent need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year. FAFSA opens on October 1 and the California deadline for completing it is March 2. However, it is best to submit your FAFSA as early as possible because some funds are limited and once they are distributed, they’re gone. For California grants, students complete FAFSA and file a certified GPA with the California Student Aid Commission. Students who are not citizens fill out the California Dream Act Application found at caldreamact.org. Additional forms and information are available at the California Student Aid Commission (csac.ca.gov).

Many private universities require students and parents to also complete the CSS Profile, which can be very involved, especially if the parent is self-employed. Some universities have separate deadlines such as December 1 for private scholarship money, so it is important to check their websites carefully.


Filling out FAFSA is somewhat like filing taxes, but at least there is the hope of receiving money instead of paying it. The first thing to do is create a FSA ID. The ID can take several days to process, so do it now, even if you are not ready to complete FAFSA. It is not easy to retrieve your FSA ID, so make sure to write down your ID, password, and all the information you used to create it. You will also need your social security number; driver’s license; 2018 tax return; information about untaxed income such as child support, interest income, and veterans non-education benefits; records of your assets such as your checking and savings account balances, stocks, bonds, and investment amounts, and real estate (but hopefully not the home you live in). Students can list up to ten schools on FAFSA, and more if needed. Some families will be able to upload their 2018 tax return information through the IRS Direct Retrieval System, but others will need to reference their actual return.

As with everything in the college application, it is very important to print out a copy of the FAFSA confirmation page once it has been submitted. To receive a free early estimate of their eligibility for federal student aid and their Expected Family Contribution (EFC), students in any grade can use FAFSA4caster (https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa/estimate). However, it is important to keep in mind the FAFSA4caster provides an estimate only and not a guarantee.


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