The Insider's Guide to Paying for College

Applying for college is stressful for students and parents alike—and one of the most complicated parts is figuring out how to pay for it. We talked to an expert to get the real deal on what families need to know about financial aid.

For high school seniors and their families, fall often means college application season—and especially the anxiety of figuring out how to pay for it. We wanted to understand more about how students and families can navigate the ins and outs of financial aid, so we turned to Shani Wilkerson, the Associate Director of Financial Aid at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston. As a former financial aid counselor and mom to a high schooler, Shani knows all there is to know about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other ways to pay for college.

Give us the basics. What is the FAFSA, anyway?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your one-stop shop for students to apply for financial aid from the federal government, including grants and loans. It captures a lot of information about their family circumstances—income, but also how many people are in the house, how many are in college, that kind of thing. And it gives families a number, called the “Estimated Family Contribution (EFC),” that is roughly what families can expect to be asked to pay after financial aid is awarded. It’s a little misleading, though, because schools will award their own scholarships in different ways, so the EFC is not going to be the exact number families owe at every school.

Let’s say a student is new to this whole process. Where do they start?

The first thing is to learn as much as you can ahead of time. There's a lot of terminology. There are a lot of deadlines, a lot of requirements for each different school. When you have a senior who's looking at five or six different schools, some are state, some are private, with all different deadlines and requirements, it can get very complicated. So once a student has even a slight idea of what college they might be interested in, go to that school's website and start asking questions. What documents do I need? What’s the timeline? Who are the points of contact? I like to keep all the documents available in hard copy, so if you need the tax return, you have it handy. So I recommend getting one of those accordion folders and organizing it by school. And students should identify a go-to person in their own life who can help them through the process. Maybe that’s a guidance counselor, or someone in the family, like an older sibling or an aunt or uncle. The more support students have around them, the better.

In an ideal world, when should families start the conversation about financial aid?

We’re having this conversation in my house right now, because my daughter is 16. I would say ballpark, when your child is in 10th grade and is taking the PSAT, that's the time to start that conversation. In the beginning, the conversation is about what types of schools they’re interested in, understanding the financial implications, and thinking about how as a family you’re going to pay for it (for example, how much the parents can likely contribute versus what the student might be expected to contribute, and what other sources of funding you plan to look into).

Sometimes financial aid is seen as this big scary monster that students and parents just want to avoid at all costs until the last minute. But it’s never too early to start asking questions and thinking about the process. My goal is to break the stigma and get people talking about it.

Where should students look for alternative sources of financial aid beyond the FAFSA?

I always tell students and parents to start from the inside and work your way out. What about the parent’s employer? Do they offer any kind of tuition benefit or tuition remission? Any scholarships? It might be another family member’s workplace, too. Maybe there's an aunt who works for an organization that awards scholarships to relatives of employees. What about places where the student has worked part-time? A lot of high school seniors are working for big corporations like McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Target. Those places often do a lot of scholarships. Even if it's just $250, that's $250 that can go toward their tuition deposit or their books.

Families should consider any religious institutions they’re affiliated with, too. Some religious organizations will say, "Who are the students we know who are graduating this year?" And maybe there's a collection that's taken up to give each kid a small amount. In addition to that, consider major companies where your family does business, like Stop and Shop, Walmart, Home Depot. Go to those corporate websites and see if they offer any kind of scholarships.

There are also websites like, where a student plug in their areas of interest and demographic information, and it will spit out lists of different scholarships that they can apply for. It can be overwhelming if you're getting a list of a hundred options. But that’s where the advanced planning comes in. If you’re gathering that information early—sophomore year, junior year—then you have plenty of time to crank out the applications.

What are the big roadblocks you see students running into?

A big one is being financially prepared to be a college student—beyond financial aid. For example, many students don't understand that there's a tuition deposit to hold your spot in the college class. And all the other expenses that come out of pocket. Some students think, "I got financial aid. Doesn't that cover my books?" Unfortunately, it usually doesn't. So it's a week before classes begin and they're looking at several hundred dollars in books that they need, but they don't have that money set aside. Travel to and from college is a big one, too. This comes up a lot when I do workshops with high school students. I’ll say, "Who's looking to go to college out of Boston?" You see the hands go up—students want to go to Atlanta, Chicago, D.C., all these places. So I’ll ask, "Okay, have you figured out how much that's going to cost in travel?" And the room is silent because no one has thought of that. Students need to be informed about their choices, what it takes to get in, afford the bill, and also to be a college student for those four years.

The process is complicated enough for students who have support from their families. Do you see circumstances where families are not able to help at all?

Sometimes we’ll see a student who lives with their parents, but in the parents’ minds, they’re 18, so they’re an adult. There are families that believe college is the student's responsibility. In this case, parents need to understand that you don’t necessarily have to pay for school, but you do need to provide your financial information so your student can get aid. If the child is living at home, until they’re 24, the parents’ incomes are considered on the FAFSA.

It’s a bit different when a student may be estranged from their parents, and has been living with a family member or friend, but was never placed in a legal guardianship. In these cases, schools can often proceed with the application as though there's no parent information to submit. Often we’ll ask the guidance counselor at school to verify the student’s circumstances. But in general, if the student is living at home and they’re under 24, we need to get the parents’ information in order to award financial aid. Again, that doesn’t mean the parents need to foot the bill if that isn’t in their plans.

What’s it like going through the college application process on the other side now, as a parent?

It's like living two lives at the same time. I see the same anxiety on my daughter’s face that I see in parents and students I work with, and I’m trying to bring home the same messages.

But it’s very eye-opening. We are dealing with some of those things that I see other families deal with. The reality is we have not been saving for college since she was born, because we just couldn’t. That is just impossible. In talking with her about schools that she's interested in, I’m explaining that some that are not as expensive also don't have as much money to give in financial aid. Whereas if you are looking at those $70,000 schools, they're the ones can give $50,000 or $60,000 in grants and scholarships, between need-based aid and merit money. So you have to weigh those factors up. I’m very grateful that I have some inside knowledge, but yeah—it'll still be stressful.

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