Paying for college puts the anxiety butterflies into the stomachs of many parents. Rightfully so! Paying for college is like buying a house and having to pay it off in 10 years or less. So let’s talk about ways to help make this a little less painful.

First of all, it is important to understand how the college will calculate the minimum amount it will expect you to pay. This is called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). You can calculate this by going to the College Board Big Future EFC Calculator website. You can also go to the college’s website and search for the Net Price Calculator. Some of these calculators are good, and some are not so good. But all of the colleges are required to have them. This will give you an estimate of the cost of the college.

The cost of the college should play a role in the college selection process. If you are not going to get need-based aid and your student wants to attend Stanford, then be prepared to pay somewhere in the $70,000-per-year range. Don’t want to do that? Then if you will not get need-based aid, don’t apply to Stanford since it does not give merit aid. Another tip: California schools are notoriously more expensive than many out-of-state schools. Check the out-of-state possibilities (sorry, Mom).

In the college search, try to find schools where the student is in the academic top 25 percent of applicants. Colleges tend to give more scholarships based on GPA and test scores. But be careful. Sometimes need-based aid is taken away if the student earns private scholarships. Check with the financial aid office about its policy on private scholarships and how they are treated in the financial aid office.

Finally, apply for private scholarships. Start at the high school you attend. They usually sponsor many local scholarships that students can apply for. Begin in the fall of the senior year, if not sooner. Students should begin by collecting information about the scholarship, including requirements, criteria and deadlines. Websites such as,, and are good places to start the search. Students can apply for scholarships while attending college as well. Develop a system for keeping track of information and deadlines. Scholarship applications should become a job. Apply for smaller scholarships that require essays. There will be less competition. Chances are that students will not “win” most of the scholarships they apply for. The secret is to keep applying. Set up a schedule. Be tenacious. Don’t give up when you are declined.

Paying for college is not easy. Be knowledgeable in all the steps to get the most affordable net cost to your family.