There’s great and not-so-great money for college

Photo by UNC Asheville

If you’re the parent of a high school senior and you’re thinking about how to pay for college without going broke, it’s a whole new, expensive world.

From my perspective, there are just two kinds of money: “great money,” or free money – which is gifts, grants and scholarships – and then “not-so-great money” – loans that need to be paid back.

Free money

Free money is a grant or scholarship that does not need to be paid back. There are two types of free money: need-based aid and merit-based aid.

The amount of need-based aid a family will receive is determined by the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile.

Merit-aid in the form of tuition reduction, grants and scholarships is used by most private colleges and many public universities to entice the strongest students to apply and attend. Students can receive scholarships for their athletic, artistic or debate talents, as well as for “demonstrated scholarship” – which is great grades and strong standardized test scores.

Many public universities have also created prestigious honors colleges, and those opportunities often come with a variety of perks, including early class registration, smaller classes, honors dormitories and attractive scholarships.

The Ivy League colleges (Brown UniversityColumbia UniversityCornell UniversityDartmouth CollegeHarvard UniversityPrinceton UniversityUniversity of Pennsylvania and Yale University,) as well as a few of the most selective colleges in the country including (Stanford and Georgetown) do not offer any form of merit aid but typically have very generous need-based aid.

If a student has what it takes to be accepted to any of these colleges or universities, and according to the FAFSA the family isn’t capable of paying full-freight – typically $65,00 to $75,000 per year – finances are not likely to be a barrier.

According to Harvard’s website, “parents making less than $65,000 are expected to contribute “$0,” and 90 percent of American families would pay the same or less to send their children to Harvard as they would a state school.” Wow, I bet that would shock most families.

The big discrepancy comes when many families fall into what I call the “gray zone” – those who earn too much to qualify for need-based aid but not enough to pay a college’s sticker price. 


I’m terrified when I meet with parents who are so afraid of disappointing their children that they “will do whatever we need to do to make it happen.” Frequently, this means taking out loans in both the student’s name and the parents’ names, cashing in policies early, paying penalties and even forfeiting their own retirement money.

While I don’t think high school students should be forced to select their future career, I believe it’s irresponsible to advocate attending a high-priced private institution at $65,000/year if the family must borrow substantially. This is especially true if the student is undecided. I don’t believe that a student’s college education should be allowed to disrupt a family’s normal spending patterns, and I think it’s unwise for parents to abandon their own needs.

Remember, there is no one perfect college; most students can be happy at a variety of schools. Parents need to be responsible and consider their children’s future employment opportunities and future debt responsibilities.

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