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Middle to Upper Middle Class - How Do You Afford College?

tlcmomtlcmom Posts: 76Registered User Junior Member
Ok - I'm not trying to be nosy, I'm just trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong and hoping that there's something I just don't yet understand about affording college.

DS is a good student at a great public HS: top 5% in a class of 550, SATs 2160, Physics SATII 790, Math SATII 760, Eagle Scout, Congressional Award Gold Medalist, plays 5 instruments very well (he's in all the school ensembles, along with district and county bands) and has 900 hours of community service. (I'm only mentioning this because maybe someone will tell me that we applied to the wrong schools!)

I'm divorced from his dad who is not contributing to his education. My current husband is also not contributing. Unfortunately both the fafsa and the css profile ask for spouse info (the CSS asks for biological parent info as well). The schools don't want to hear that a parent isn't willing to support his child, so the bill is all on me and my son. I earn 75k per year and saved 60K so far in a state prepaid tuition plan. I have a 15 year old and am working on having the same (or a little more for him). DS has no money of his own but I don't want him to have loans of more than around 20K total.

Given this, I had DS apply to a mix of schools including ones that are a level below him, in hopes of getting some merit aid. He says he wants mech. enggineering. In the end here's the cost of the schools:

Rowan - got their highest scholarship - cost will be 18K

Elizabethtown - got their best scholarship - lovely school but not strong in engineering - cost will be 24,000

TCNJ - he REALLY wants to go to school there but we're out of state and the cost is 32K. He's still waiting to hear about scholarships, the most they give is 10K so at best, it will cost 22K

University of Delaware - He doesn't really want a big school but he got 9k so the cost will be about 23K (we're out of state)

Lehigh - We hear they're not very generous with merit aid and I'm not anticipating getting financial aid since we haven't received any from any other school. The list price is 50K.

Virginia Tech - They haven't sent anything about $$ - but the price for out of state is around 29K

Now my question:
Lot's of people I know (middle to upper-middle class) are applying to 50K per year schools. Did they all just save up a lot more than I did? Are they tapping retirement or home equity? Are they taking out big loans? I can't figure it out. Lots of people are saying - go to Lehigh - but that's the most expensive option.

Any ideas?
Post edited by tlcmom on
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Replies to: Middle to Upper Middle Class - How Do You Afford College?

  • mamagx3mamagx3 Posts: 180Registered User Junior Member
    I say have him go to the school you can reasonably afford, and being middle income, it's difficult all around. Did he get any loans? I know it's not an option that any parents want for their child but sometimes it's inevitable. From reading many posts on this site, it's a tough year to be applying to college. Endowments at schools are way down and merit scholarship money is scant. Student loans and Parent PLUS loans seem to be the options for many to cover the gap between FA and cost of attendance. I have not heard of anyone on these boards that has mortgaged their house to pay for college tuition. I guess you have to be either be dirt poor extremely wealthy to go to a $50K+ school. Even then it can be a stretch to afford these schools.
  • MD MomMD Mom Posts: 6,728Registered User Senior Member
    I call it financial purgatory. Too much money for anyone to feel sorry for you, but not enough to just write the check. The problem is that 18 years ago no one would have thought that college would cost nearly $60K a year. You probably also didn't plan the divorce or that the dad would not want to help out--or wouldn't be able to help out for whatever reason. And financial aid isn't figured on what we want to pay or we would all say to colleges that we don't want to pay anything; give us as much as you can.

    When people are applying to schools, they should apply to the places they want to attend, including dream schools. However, the list should always include financial safety schools as well as academic safety schools.

    One of the big problems for really good students, which appears to describe your son, is that they have safety schools and reach schools. Academically, they are matches for the the top schools, but those are reachs for everyone without a hook. Many of the top schools do not give merit money only need-based aid.

    Anyway, what you will need to do when all of the offers are in is sit down and crunch some numbers. You might also look at some serious summer job programs that will help him contribute to his education. When DD was considering $55K plus universities, we told her that we would expect her to apply for some of the government internships. We are lucky to live near a couple of military posts that have good programs. NSA has several programs and I think they offer some housing. I seem to recall an engineering internship as well. George Washington University runs several internship programs for the government also. I wish you the best. I hope you get some good news next week about more $$$$.
  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys Posts: 11,385Registered User Senior Member
    Tough question as every situation is different. I will say this, your "need" for aid from colleges is based on household income for FAFSA schools. It doesn't matter if your current husband is contributing directly to your son, what matters is that he is in the household that is supporting (all the) children -- as you know. That will impact you since it is not just "you" that is paying for your son's education it is your "household" -- which you also know. Other families piece it together from savings, from current income and from loans. Anecdotally it sounds to me from all the threads that most people try to find something that is reasonably close to their EFC (after they get over the shock of their EFC!) and other families shop around to find a place where their sons and daughters are in the tippy top of the incoming class so they qualify for tuition discounts in the form of merit/grant aid in the case of some of the elites, grant aid. Finally some people send their kids to great schools in other regions of the country where college costs are lower than in the northeast. People will ALWAYS tell you to send your kid to the "best school" but for some families best doesn't always mean academically best it can also mean best at a price that is affordable and the degree/career your particular student is interested in. If you are in a state pre-paid tuition plan you should absolutely make sure that is transportable out of state and/or if it can be used at private colleges. I know for our state it can only be used at state public schools. Finally, lots of people might have kids that apply to $50,000 colleges and might "report" that their children were accepted at these schools, but I believe a "chunk" of those kids will never go to those schools because when the financial aid is on the table the parents and students choose the more affordable option.
  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys Posts: 11,385Registered User Senior Member
    Oh, my last direct answer to your question. For my H and I our priorities were 1) paying off our mortgage 2) fully funding our retirement (and now re-funding loses from the market and a year of unemployment) and 3) kids college. Other families have their priorities in other order which can impact how much money they are willing to spend on the kids and their education. You need to determine what order of importance exists for your family and not worry about other families. We gave our kids a "budget" an amount we were willing to pay so that there was no misunderstanding about potential colleges where they might get an acceptance but were outside of our budget (plus Stafford loans). Don't be afraid to be clear with your kids about any budget.
  • NewEnglandMotherNewEnglandMother Posts: 426Registered User Member
    tlcmom - I am hoping you get great news from TCNJ. They do have a number of scholarships - particularly one for volunteer service (up to full tuition) that would be perfect for you son. Since he is at the top of their applicant pool he may get a very nice package - I am hoping. Also if the cost were 22k/year you may still be able to swing it. With the money you have saved and him working in the summer ($2k+/summer) and working at school he may end up with @$20-25k in loans. Does the $22k per year include books/travel/misc expenses? In engineering he may easily carry a $25k loan. I wish you good luck! I too am a divorced Mom who had to file the NC-CSS - but since I didn't remarry I have it a little easier. Thank goodness you have saved so much. Let us know what happens (fingers crossed).
  • mom2collegekidsmom2collegekids Posts: 60,632Registered User Senior Member
    Families in your situation are in the worst situation. Your child has 2 males in his life that refuse to contribute. (ick!) The system isn't set up for that. The system is set up with the assumption that the adults in the child's life should contribute. Without that expectation, no one would pay.

    Others in your situation often try to find situations that will give max merit for their child's stats. For you, it's too late, but there are schools that would have given your son better merit for his stats.

    For instance, Auburn would have given your son free tuition and probably another $3k per year. You might want to contact the director of scholarships and find out if they would still award him if he applied. Don't talk to just anyone...go to the top.
  • prefectprefect Posts: 1,224Registered User Senior Member
    I don't think you're doing anything wrong. College is just really expensive. Consider that some people with much higher income than yours have saved absolutely nothing for college. It seems like either your ex or your current husband must have a relatively high income if you don't qualify for aid.

    I think the way people do it is by consistent savings from the time their kids were babies, decisions about living beneath their means, (not saying you didn't do these things), having a bare bones budget when their kids are in school, and for many people loans. Not everyone has 200,000 in a bank account when their kids start college, but some people have a portion of that and manage the rest with current income and loans.

    You said that the cost of Rowan is 18,000 a year. This is pretty close to what you have saved up. Is this school a viable option and is 18K your total cost including room and board.
  • standrewsstandrews Posts: 1,365Registered User Senior Member
    Middle to Upper Middle Class - How Do You Afford College?

    What has enabled us to make ends meet is 1) savings, not a whole lot but significant, and 2) low monthly living expenses. We have always had adequate but not large income. Careful living over many years has allowed us to enter the college years with no debt other than a mortgage. We don't eat out much and our vacations are mostly to visit family. This is how we have been used to living for a number of years. Between savings and income we are able to meet the EFC and forgo the loans offered (so far). We have also been fortunate to receive a small amount of state money and the $2500 American Opportunity grant helped this past year. AP credits will allow my oldest to graduate in less than 4 years. That's a big savings.
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,726Super Moderator Senior Member
    One theory says that whatever you can afford to pay from current income now you can afford to pay forever (until you retire), and, fortunately, your second son doesn't add to that burden re FAFSA/PROFILE. We have indeed significantly tapped home equity, but that could be a problem with a spouse not contributing. $20K to $25K in total student loans does seem standard and reasonable these days.
  • GTalumGTalum Posts: 2,108Registered User Senior Member
    State public for my oldest. My second has gotten into some top LAC's who I feel are generous.

    Why do I feel that those of us who stay married are penalized for FAFSA only schools? Why shouldn't the schools expect both parents to contribute to educational costs?
  • flyaroundflyaround Posts: 391Registered User Member
    Not a fun situation to be in for either you or your S. Here's a few suggestions that may provide funds
    1 - scholarships, especially the ones from local sources. The guidance dept can help you there. They will look at your situation differently than nonlocal scholarship sources.
    2 - negotiate with the various schools. Once all the offers are in, you can call up the admissions dept and try to up the amount of merit or financial aid. They can often find $ from individual donors or endowments that are not public. This does work.
    3 - why isn't DS giging for money at this point? Playing in school bands is nice but it don't pay the rent. Priority should shift from extra curriculars and community service to income producing ventures.
    4 - APs really can cut out a semester if not a year. Especially at colleges that accept them - like the ones you mentioned he has applied to.
    Good Luck
  • rockvillemomrockvillemom Posts: 5,180Registered User Senior Member
    tlcmom - I think the key is the word "afford" - we can't really afford to pay for our son's college - but we are doing it anyway. He had a great FA pkg last year - bringing the $50,000 cost down to $22,000 - but that was still a lot to come up with. I know many people on CC recommend against borrowing each year - and I know that info makes good sense - but we chose to ignore it. This year, we are trying to pay off what we borrowed last year and save up for this next round of payments - and it is impossible. There is no doubt in my mind that our debt will continue to grow each year, and then we will do it again with S2. This is our personal decision. I recognize that most financial planners would not approve of what we are doing. I respect those who have their priorities in a different order. But, this is our top priority and while I realize I may regret it later - away we go!
  • Looony2nzLooony2nz Posts: 211Registered User Junior Member
    I'm not sure how people do it either. My D was lucky enough to get a 3/4 tuition scholarship from a local state school. She will also get some $ from the state "Bright Futures" program and that will take care of just about everything. Hoping for a couple local scholarships (waiting to hear in the next month or two). She is lucky :) I didn't want her to be in debt when she graduated. Save that for grad school if she decides to go ahead and do that.
  • PeaPea Posts: 2,384Registered User Senior Member
    tlcmom -- you didn't do anything wrong. You did what we did, you're figuring out how the system works as your son is going through the application process.

    We are from a middle class neighborhood. Most of my daughter's fellow classmates didn't even consider private schools because of the cost, the families wouldn't have qualified for enough need-based assistance to make it workable. The ones who are going to private schools are going to the ones that offer merit-based scholarships. The couple of students who are going to the really prestigious schools received a huge amount of need-based assistance.

    The kids you see who are applying to the 50K schools might be casting a wide net hoping to catch a break at one of them. In the end I think most middle-class families factor finances into the final decision. I agree with the earlier posters who say you need a budget, you need to see on paper how the money is going to work. That might mean your son taking out more than 20K in loans over the 4 years. While it is too bad that you son's dad won't help your son is lucky that you are so committed to sending him to the best school you can afford.

    I wish I could be of more help.
  • stevensmamastevensmama Posts: 579Registered User Member
    OP, did your S apply to any in-state schools? It sounds like your 60K is in a state 529 savings plan instead of a prepaid tuition plan. Your state may be different, but with VA's prepaid tuition plan, after you pay off the contract it covers tuition and all required fees at any state college in VA, no matter how much the cost goes up each year. All you would have to pay for are room and board, books, and travel. A 529 plan is more like a savings account that you can use for qualified educational expenses, but when the money's gone, it's gone.

    Did your husband or your ex say why they're not willing to contribute? Though in a way, unless you and your husband have separate accounts, he is contributing--wouldn't all bills, including college costs, come out of the family account?
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