For several years I’ve been writing about how middle class families can get discounts off the cost of college.  And over the years I have had the privilege of helping many families obtain such discounts, either through merit scholarships or need-based grants, while helping students find the right fit school that meets their academic and social aspirations.

Let’s face it, we all like to get a good discount, right?…whether it’s for higher education, a new car, or even the BOGO offers at the local supermarket.  And yet,  the decision to buy something is rarely about the size of the discount per se.  Yes, a good disount helps us get something we need (or want) at a price we can afford – but it shouldn’t drive the decision to buy (unless you’re an extreme couponer with pallettes of tomato soup in your spare room).

We buy something based on some type of internal analysis that calculates our need/desire for a product and our ability to afford it.  We may go to look at and for a sale, but a disciplined buyer doesn’t (or shouldn’t) buy something they don’t want or need — or doesn’t fit — just because it’s cheap, not when they can afford a shirt that fits!

What we do most of the time is identify what we need and want, and what we can afford — and buy the product that most closely fits what we need and want and can afford.

Makes sense.  And yet so many families don’t do this when it comes to ‘buying’ College.   Which makes no sense, because aside from being a huge financial investment anywhere you go, it’s a purchase that affects not just four years, but potentially the next forty years of your child’s life.

And so, sadly many parents buy something that doesn’t really fit because they reflexively rule out many good-fitting and yes, affordable options:

“Whoa, $60K per year for a private university? Junior, you can’t go there.  You’re going to the local state college, where it’s cheaper and our FL Prepaid will cover tuition.”

They don’t even shop.

And for some families, this approach does work out just fine.  For many, it’s limiting and winds up neither fitting nor being affordable.  Either way, it’s entirely wrong — on many levels.  Here’s why:

1. The sticker price is not what most folks pay.  Roughly 2/3 of all students receive a considerable discount to attend college – discounts being either merit or need-based aid.  And if you know where to look, these discounts can be significant, 5-figure awards.  That’s free money I’m talking about.

2. FL Prepaid will not cover all of your college expenses.  Tuition is only one component — granted a rather large one — but there are other, significant expenses that parents must understand when preparing a budget for higher education.

3. With financial aid and generous endowment scholarships serving as the great equalizer, it is not uncommon for a private college to cost less, out of pocket, than even the local in-state university, even with FL Prepaid and Bright Futures.  Or, if the private college doesn’t actually cost less, at the very least its greater financial aid package might level the playing field quite a bit, evening out the cost differential.

4. The state university might not be the right environment for your student.  Your kid may need a smaller classroom environment, or the state school might not have the right program, or the right career support.

Here’s a better approach.

If you want to ensure a good fit that you can afford, start with identifying what you can afford.  How much can you spend on college today (or will you be able to spend in four years)?  Then, identify what your student’s needs are (this is not 13th grade, they should have a focus when they approach college).  Then figure out which schools will offer the right discounts to meet that family’s budget and your student’s needs.

The time to have this difficult conversation is when your child enters high school, or in 10th grade at the latest.  That way, expectations are not inflated and hearts are not crushed when young Bobby finds that, despite his great efforts in high school, Mom and Dad cannot afford to send him to the college of his dreams.

So, beyond FL Prepaid, or the 529 savings plan, parents should take a look at their budget and determine how much they can afford to spend from cash flow on higher education.  Then, if there are ways to improve cash flow, or obtain additional discounts, the burden on the parents will be mitigated.

Too many parents live in denial, hoping that scholarships will be available to their smart kids who work hard.  Instead, parents need to tackle these issues head on, and be realistic on what you can afford and what your child needs.

So much has been written about finding scholarships or other strategies to reduce cost.  And yes, I’m guilty of contributing to this message – I think too many families are not aware of the financial aid process, or they go it alone and make crucial mistakes that impede their effort to gain access to money they would otherwise deserve. I see such cases first hand.

Unfortunately, too many families are looking for a magic bullet, a scheme to save money.  Getting into a competitive college is often hard work.  Paying for it can be even harder, but not out of reach for families who take the time to create a plan and execute that plan proactively.

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