College finance 101

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Article Marriage and Family

Think you want (or want your son or daughter) to attend a Catholic college but can’t imagine how you’ll afford it? You don’t have to be independently wealthy. Recent graduates, their families, and professionals have some suggestions.

Don’t balk at extra paperwork. “When people say they can only afford a state school, I tell them they have to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) before they can really know,” says Katie Sullivan, a 2005 University of San Diego graduate. Schools base their need-based aid awards—both grants and loans—on this financial profile that determines a student’s expected family contribution.

Apply for outside scholarships and grants, and start early. Sullivan spent a lot of time in her high school’s post-grad center, going through a file cabinet full of scholarship information. The extra paperwork was not fun: “I did a lot of complaining,” she remembers.

Still, when her mom figured out how many hours Sullivan had toiled on the applications compared to how many scholarship dollars she received, even she had to admit the effort was well worth it. She paid attention to lesser-known scholarships and ended up having her freshman year at USD fully funded.

Get to know the financial aid office. Notre Dame was Dusty VonHandorf’s first choice, but it was a real stretch financially. “We had excellent rapport with the financial aid office at Notre Dame,” says his mom, Jan. “They showed us what was available and how we could make it work.”

VonHandorf remembers one particularly helpful financial aid officer assuring her, “We will not let your son get to his senior year and not be able to finish because of finances.” That assurance—and the aid they did provide—convinced her that Dusty’s dream school was a real possibility.

Sullivan does have one caution about financial aid offices, however: Plenty of students work in them, so if you don’t get the answer you need, be persistent and talk with one of the professionals.

Be creative. John Houser sidestepped the cost of books by checking out texts from the Xavier library. Sometimes he settled for previous editions, but he saved hundreds of dollars a year. And in 2004 when Houser wanted to travel from Cincinnati to Atlanta to see Xavier’s basketball team play in the Sweet 16 tournament, he funded the trip by entering and winning “Mr. Muskie,” Xavier’s male pageant.

Pay attention to hidden costs. “Four-year graduation rates at Catholic schools are noticeably higher than at public schools,” says Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. What looks like a deal at State U might not be such a deal if it typically takes five or more years to finish a degree.

If you can’t pay for your dream school, don’t despair. Maybe the extra thousands it would cost to go to Georgetown or Boston College just aren’t available. It’s still possible to have a great college experience at a second- (or third-) choice school. “Even at an institution that’s not quite your cup of tea, you’re likely to find like-minded people if you look around and make connections,” says Yanikoski.—Heather Grennan Gary