Don’t assume you can’t afford college

By Lee Shulman Bierer, College Admissions Strategies – Founder


Don’t assume the answer is no…you might be pleasantly surprised by a financial aid package.

One of the biggest mistakes many families make is assuming they won’t receive any aid from colleges and universities. Parents frequently put a stranglehold on their child’s college list and tell them that they can only attend an in-state institution because that’s all they believe they can afford. The myth of one price for all is simply not accurate.

The reality is that paying for college is more similar to paying for an airline ticket, i.e., you could be sitting next to someone who paid twice what you paid or, unfortunately, that person across the aisle or in the dorm room next door may have paid remarkably less than you.

Financial aid is more available and abundant than a lot of families realize. This is especially true at the most selective and most expensive colleges. These colleges and universities have exceptionally large endowments. As college tuition has soared beyond the grasp of many families, these institutions have been pressured to raise the income threshold that allows families to receive aid.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, my go-to guru for all things related to financial aid as well as a best-selling author and nationally recognized higher education expert who shares advice on her blog, illustrated this phenomenon with this example:

The parents in my hypothetical family have a gross income of $300,000, with $100,000 in taxable assets. (Aid calculations don’t take into account retirement assets, so a family could have millions in retirement accounts without jeopardizing aid.) My couple has one Princeton-bound student and another headed to another university. When I ran the numbers, Princeton would provide the student with a grant of nearly $26,000 for freshman year.

It does seem remarkable that a family earning $300,000 annually would qualify for $26,000 in need-based aid. It also seems counter-intuitive that a pricier college might end up being cheaper than the sticker price on a less expensive school, but that is why financial advisors recommend that everyone complete the financial aid forms.

The two basic forms are the FAFSA – Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS Profile  – The College Scholarship Service Profile. The FAFSA is a need analysis document required by virtually all higher education institutions for students seeking any aid, including the unsubsidized Stafford loan. The product of the FAFSA is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is how much money the Federal Government thinks you can afford. You may not necessarily agree with their calculations, but that doesn’t matter. The EFC will determine the amount of need-based aid you will receive. The CSS Profile is the customized financial aid application form required at certain colleges to determine eligibility for institutional aid.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;