April is such a key month for college bound families, in no small part because final family decisions on a college are on deadline. By now, your student has acceptance letters in hand. But maybe this spring brought your student a towering stack of acceptance letters to consider. In such a case, how do you discuss collegiate opportunity with your student? And how do you, along with your college student, weight the reality of college finances in choosing a school?

Of course, choosing a school is a difficult process. How can you compare, say, your student’s dream, but incredibly expensive, school with a nearly-as-good, but significantly cheaper, option? These discussions can be fraught, emotional and challenging.

To help parents and students to navigate and negotiate this tricky time, we’ve compiled our favorite discussion points and questions on this topic. Feel free to use the following resource to stimulate thought, to spark further fact-finding, to keep your family grounded and, hopefully, to help your college bound family to arrive at the best decision for your student and your wallet.

Basic Questions

  • Will the decision on which school to choose be the student’s alone, the parents’ alone, or both the parents and students?
  • Is cost the primary factor? If not, what factors are key?
  • Which school has the best academic situation for your student?
  • Will the student live on-campus, off-campus or at home?
  • How much does the student expect to earn post-graduation? [If you’re not sure how to calculate this, try using the BLS Occupational Outlook handbook]
  • How many years will it take to graduate? Which of the schools that your student was accepted by have a better record of 4-year graduation? [compare schools on this metric by using this site: CollegeInSight]
  • Which school has a better return on investment for your student’s projected major? [Use payscale.com’s College ROI report to compare]

Cost Controls

  • Will I work part-time during school? If not, what’s my earning potential during summers?
  • How can we limit costs while enrolled?
  • How much “fun money” will the student have at her/his disposal?
  • Can the student apply for additional scholarships?

FAFSA and Financial Aid

The FAFSA is an incredibly important step in obtaining financial aid, if not the most important step. In addition to allowing you to obtain federal financial aid, it also can help you obtain grants and scholarships. After filling yours out, make sure to have these discussions to have with Financial Aid Officers and other financial representatives of the school:

  • Does the college meet full financial need?
  • What types of financial aid is offered by the school? [Remember, grants and scholarships don’t need to be paid back, but loans certainly do—with interest]
  • How much debt does the school’s average graduate incur? [The current national average debt for 4-year graduates is approaching $30,000. You can compare by school by using this tool from CollegeInSight]
  • What do I need to do to finalize my award?
  • What academic requirements do I need to maintain in order to receive financial aid (need-based or merit-based)?
  • What are the terms of any loans offered?
  • Where can your student find a work-study job? Can s/he work on campus even if s/he’s not work-study eligible?
  • How and when will I receive my financial aid payments?
  • Is it possible to pay tuition in monthly payments throughout the academic year?


  • Together, how can we limit our borrowing?
  • Can we pay down interest while in school?
  • Take a look at the projected loans. Is it realistic, upon graduation, to be able to afford the estimated monthly future payment? [It is important not to become over-indebted. General rule is that monthly loan repayment after college should not exceed ten percent or less of monthly earnings.]
  • What types of loans will we choose? What are the advantages of each?