How to Get a Free Ride for your Kid

Picture of a piggy bank on top of books.

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When my daughter was accepted into an Ivy League university, it was an exciting moment. As a single mom, I couldn’t be more proud of her. The excitement proved short-lived, although we did receive the financial aid package that the school had put together. They decided that we (meaning me, since her dad wasn’t paying for anything) could contribute $40,000 a year in annual tuition and $74,000 room and board. On the college website, it says the average cost after assistance is $9,000. We learned that’s not always the case – especially if you’re a single parent.

I was going to sell a kidney to help my daughter attend. After all, it was the Ivy League! Looking at her assistance package, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t afford to send it without getting $160,000 in Parent Plus loans to do so. But as my daughter likes to tell me, it’s not about me. Instead, she chose to attend a state university that offered a full flight – and graduated two years later with a bachelor’s degree at age 19. Here’s how.

Talk about dollars and cents with your kids.

Growing up, I used to tell my daughter, before she even understood what “financial aid” meant, that she was going to the college that offered the best financial aid package. I remembered hearing from other friends who had given their kids full scholarships to certain colleges, but turned them down because they didn’t want to attend that school—parents ended up taking out loans to pay tuition elsewhere.

I already knew that the father of my child would not provide any financial support for her education. Furthermore, we lived in California, where child support ends at age 18 – unlike in other states, such as New Jersey, where a parent is required by law to pay child support until age 23 if the child is a full-time student. I was on my own when it came to paying the college bill.

Fortunately, not only did my daughter hear financial aid speak from me; She heard. She volunteered to work in the university counseling department in her high school and learned a lot from them as well.

If you’re a single parent and are facing the eventual (however remote) costs of college alone, be honest with your son(s) about what you can afford — and their options. Talk to them about the cost differences between public and private universities. And start early Don’t wait until it’s time to apply to schools before you get paid.

Understand the differences in financial aid between public and private universities.

When applying for financial aid, schools expect both parents to fill out financial aid forms. Public colleges and universities require a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and some private universities will require both parents to fill out an additional financial aid application, CSS (College Scholarship Service Profile). Schools use the information from these forms to award non-federal aid and institutional funds to students.

Unless the non-custodial parent has been in contact with your child or there are other extenuating circumstances (which will need to be documented), you will need to ask the non-custodial parent to fill out the paperwork. If they don’t, some private schools will deny you any consideration for assistance based on need. This means that other than merit money or external grants, the school may expect you to pay the full tuition fee.

On the other hand, public schools and some private schools will compile a package using the information based on the custodial parent model. When my daughter’s father refused to provide the required tax information, she was unable to obtain any financial aid packages for the private universities that accepted her. We went back and forth with Ivy until May 1, when she had to commit to school. They will not budge on their numbers. You can check out schools that do not require CSS for the non-custodial parent here.

When my daughter’s father refused to provide the required tax information, she was unable to obtain any financial aid packages for the private universities that accepted her.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some private schools may not accept credits from a community college when students are accepted as new students. My daughter discovered, for example, that an Ivy League school would not only accept transfer credits, but also take her AP credits from high school. However, based on these credits, the school will only allow her to enroll in a high-level semester – but that will not count toward the credits required to earn her degree. huh?

Take classes at a community college.

The ability to transfer community college credits is a big problem. I made thousands of dollars in tuition for my daughter, and she was also allowed to complete her bachelor’s degree in two years. Plus, where we live, middle and high school students can enroll in a community college for free. Some schools even have dual enrollment programs where students can take college classes at their high school, either after school or during school hours.

They can also enroll in classes themselves; My daughter took classes in the summer at college and during the school year at her school. Of course, summer classes can be intense because it’s worth working a semester in six or eight weeks. It is a commitment that your child must be prepared to make.

Remember, though: Students will need to obtain signatures from their guidance counselor and parents before enrolling.

Study hard and pass those AP exams.

Another way to earn college credit? Make sure your child is enrolled in AP classes. Not every school offers them – or if they do, they will sometimes have certain requirements for enrollment. Make sure to stay up to date on when and how your child can register; Some schools will offer access points in the ninth grade, and sometimes in the tenth grade.

When they complete these courses, the student will need to pass the AP exam and score at least three grades to earn college credit. You will need to check with the college to find out the requirements for AP exams and how many credits it will issue. Note that there is a cost associated with AP exams: In 2020-2021, the cost of each exam was $94. This can add up if your child has multiple tests.

Have your child speak to the school’s college counselor to see if he qualifies for any fee waivers, which are based on your income level. If your child qualifies for the free lunch program, they can qualify for fee waivers. Fee waivers can cover the AP, SAT, and ACT exams, as well as some college applications—all of which add up. College orders can range from $44 to $105 each; Meanwhile, the SAT costs $55, and the ACT starts at $60.

Don’t get me started on the cost of preparing for the test, but it’s worth it; After all, high SAT scores may award your child a scholarship. We found a low-cost solution provided by a church that offers a variety of educational classes and camps. Your child can also qualify for the National Merit Scholarship if he or she achieves high PSAT scores in grade 11.

Apply for any and all scholarships.

Speaking of scholarships, if a student maintains their grades throughout high school, they may be given money or a chance to be accepted into an honors college. Many institutions will allocate funds to those who are not in need and will instead award funds based on other factors (such as academic achievement and leadership) or for specific student groups (such as scholarships for Black, Latinx, or Indigenous students). Also start looking for scholarships that provide full or close to full flights. There are the Gates Scholarship Program, Quest Bridge College Match Scholarships, and the Posse Foundation, to name a few.

At the end of the day, if you’re trying to get your child a free ride to go to college, you have to play the long game. Start in elementary school, and gain the work habits your child will need in high school to achieve a competitive GPA. Then, your child’s placement in certain high school classes may depend on their middle school records—so, if you’d like them to take AP classes, they may be required to have a certain GPA already. Be your child’s biggest advocate to make sure he gets the help and opportunities he needs.

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