A Mom Stressing About College


I recently received an email from a single mom who is stressed out about how she is going to afford college. I wanted to share her email and solicit suggestions from you. I have my own ideas, but I’ll hold onto them for the next post.

I always love to read the suggestions from my readers so if you have any thoughts, please share your ideas in the comment box below. Thanks. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

I am a 57 year old single parent with an annual salary of $51,000, $35,0000 in savings, $37,0000 in a 529 plan and $2,500 in annual 401k contributions.


San Diego State

After researching where we might land with our Expected Family Contribution and financial aid, it appears that my past savings diligence will work against chances for decent EFC and grant aid dollars for my daughter’s education.

Staying in California for College

We live in the Bay Area and my daughter wants to attend college in CA only. So far she has held a 4.0 GPA throughout high school and has been active on the track and dance teams for 3 years.

Although not entirely decided, she’s voiced interest in teaching at the elementary or secondary level so we are currently concentrating on a few of the Cal State universities (Sonoma, San Diego, Northridge, Long Beach), University of California, iRiverside and University of La Verne where they offer teacher credentialing programs.

I’m looking at cost of attendance between $22,000-52,000. Further, pursuing a degree and a teaching credential could stretch college to 5-6 years putting total COA somewhere between $110,000-260,000+. I’m gasping.

A $7,500 Expected Family Contribution

I’m looking at an EFC around $7,500+ and already envision financial award letters that will primarily consist of loans and out-of-pocket payouts. I don’t want myself or my daughter to go into debt that will take a decade or two to overcome. We can pursue scholarships, but it seems most aid and awards are attained a year at a time leaving an expense guessing game for the years that follow.

I’m struggling with how we could possibly admit to 4 or 6 year college enrollment with just a 1-year aid package in front of us. With California education budgets as they are, doesn’t it just make dollar-wise sense to start at community college first? It’s like a hole is dug before we’ve broken any ground.

Your thoughts are appreciated.


Tina L

Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. I am also stressed parent freaking out about or EFC. My daughter is a film student at Dodge Film School at Chapman and I would love to jump in this narrative and get some advice on how to afford college for her. She will be a 2nd semester junior in the fall of 2018 and is studying documentary film making. She has great grades and is a christian with a 3.8 gpa. We live in Colorado and getting a degree from Dodge is a dream come true for her. I just got back her FASFA results and there is no way i can afford to send her. Please chime in with thoughts and ideas. thank you

  2. I completely agree with previous posters that this student is actually sitting pretty right now. With her grades, she should be focusing first on schools that meet full financial need, not on schools that have the lowest sticker price, and second on schools that give merit aid. Forget about the Cal State schools, she can do better for less money. I also agree that she should be strongly encouraged to leave CA for college, as she will be much more likely to graduate debt-free if she does so. If she is intent on staying in CA, she should consider Stanford for sure.

    Students who want to teach should major in a subject area, and not in education.

  3. I might suggest she look at University of Redlands, Mills or Whittier as well as Chapman. When the daughter visits these campuses, she should talk to the admissions and fincancial aid office to see if she can get a good estimate of how much aid might come in the form of loans. With and EFC of $7,500, she may get a great offer from a small private liberal arts college.

    Also, with her perfect grades, she could look at the Claremont Colleges – particularly Scripps. While they are more selective, they offer good need-based aid if her daughter is admitted.

  4. Unless the 529 plan has assets that are too great, surely this student would qualify for the Blue and Gold grant which covers four years of systemwide fees for families earning less than $80,000? Tina should probably check the net price calculators for the colleges she is looking at for her daughter. EFC can be misleading as families often pay much more than this amount to send their children to college.

  5. @Barbara — I was thinking if the 529 is what is causing the high EFC, then spending it down would reduce the EFC and increase the aid (or, worst case, increase the loans and gaps) in later years.

    Everybody is assuming that this student a) will only be offered loans b) will be “gapped” — How on earth can you know that before you get the financial aid letters?

    Despite the mom’s best efforts at saving, this is a student who will require financial aid to go anywhere. The only thing to do is apply to multiple schools with a history of meeting a large proportion of financial need for their students and hope for the best.

  6. I think that you should consider pricing each school now. Also check into what is the least cost credential program. If It were my money, I would check with an accountant to see what if not all can go into a retirement account, You need to consider that your student will be out of college at or near your retirement age, if it will be 65. You didn’t mention how much you have put away for yourself. If you don’t, you will end up like flying in a plane, and not reading the emergency card. By putting on the oxygen mask on your child first, you won’t be around to take care of her. Get your money where it can legally be for your sake. Then look to see what your EFC is. They take into consideration the savings for retirement levels for older parents. Either way, she will be better off with a lower cost university. As much as many hate to say this, sometimes the first 2 years at a local community college which is a great feeder school to a major university, turns out better for teachers.

  7. I agree with Wendy that this student may qualify for good merit scholarships at private schools, which could end up making the cost of attendance lower than at a state school. I think they should check out Chapman University, in particular, since the student would like to stay in state. Chapman has an education program, generous merit aid, and they stack their aid so that merit aid does not reduce the amount of need-based aid. Occidental might also be worth a look, but they have education only as a minor.

  8. I think this 4.0 student with a family of two income of $51,000 would qualify for a Cal Grant as long as some of the savings are spent before the end of the year. The asset limit for Cal Grants was $64,300 for 2013-2014 and the family may be over the asset limit at this time. The Cal Grant is an excellent program that would cover the tuition cost for 4 years at a CSU or UC. I would advise this family to get some additional financial counseling soon to find out if they can qualify for this entitlement grant.

    1. Karen,

      To qualify for a Cal Grant, a family of two must have an adjusted gross income no higher than $74,700. The asset cap for taxable and college assets (NOT retirement assets) is $64,300. As Karen mentioned, the Cal Grant would cover tuition at a U. of California or Cal State campus or close to $10,000 for a private college in California.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. @ Janet. I’m going to say you SHOULD be right, but I bet that if a lot of the aid package is in the form of loans and on top of that the student is gapped, you’d want to be conservative about assuming what’s possible.

    I’m curious about your question of spending down the 529, too. I guess you mean spending down versus subsidized loans? I’d imagine if it’s a loan that will accumulate interest while the student is still in school, it’s better to spend down the 529 than have to take out that kind of loan, maybe? Or maybe there’s a “that depends” in there. 🙂

  10. I agree that the mom has a pretty good amount socked away in the 529 plan. That along with the low EFC (assuming that is accurate) puts her in a good position for affording college a lot better than many two-income families with much higher EFCs. Her daughter has some really good stats going, even though we don’t know what her SAT/ACT is. She should be eligible for some good merit scholarships, especially at private colleges. If she can find a school that will only require her to pay that EFC, and will cover everything else with merit scholarships and/or need-based grants, she will be in a really good position.

    I don’t think she understands that this picture looks very good for affording college compared to many other families and I don’t think she understands how much is out there in merit scholarships and need based grants if you look at the right schools – FREE money for college!

  11. An EFC of 7,500 is 30,000 over four years — that seems quite feasible for a family with a 39,000 529 college savings account. In theory, there’s even some 529 money left over for that 5th year to get the teaching credential.

    I don’t think there’s a way of knowing before those financial letters come out what might be in them – grants, loans, or work-study. Looking at the school financial aid stats will give some clue, but a lot of this is out of your control, so cast your net and see.

    Lynn, does it make sense, if this student does get an award package full of loans, to spend down the 529 plan before borrowing, or should the 529 funds be spread over all the years the student is in school?

  12. This mom is sitting pretty. I am 50 years old, married with an annual combined adjusted income of $92,000, $0 in savings, $18,000 in a 529 plan and $0 in annual 401k contributions. As well as $16,000 in credit card debt. Our home equity is around $250K. Our EFC is around $16K.
    My daughter has a 3.6 GPA, no AP or honors but will have four community college classes taken during HS under belt. She has below average SAT and ACT scores. She has a lot of community service hours, an internship, a part time job, and recently gave up the sport she had been playing for 10 years.
    She LOVES school and wishes to go out of town for college to study nutrition, (we live in NorCA) She is also looking at out of state privates if they offer a good FA package. Her safety schools are Chico, and other CSUs, and possibly a reach school in NY. She is adament about NOT going to community college for two years, she wants the full four year experience, and I don’t blame her. Our community colleges are just as impacted as the CSUs.

  13. Don’t let the low grad rate of UNR scare you off. Many students are going back to school and working full time jobs, thus taking longer to finish. I know of 4 students who graduated high school in 2010 who will graduate on time and several who are finishing early by taking a class or two during the summer. We have a total of 4 tenants in our rentals near UNR and 3 are from California. It is cheaper for them to attend here and rent from us year round than to attend school in California. Something to consider.

    1. Thanks Heather for that info from UNR. Grad rates can be very misleading becaause they don’t take into consideration students who end up transferring or who take take off to work. It’s always best to ask a school about what it takes to get out in four years. Attending an honors college can certainly help because often the students receive priority registration.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  14. Check out the University of Nevada, Reno. With the WUE (Western Undergraduate Exchange), her total bill would be under $20,000 and may be eligible for scholarships, in addition, to defray the costs. Also, Honors College, for which it sounds like she would be eligible.

    1. Wonderful idea Karen.

      The WUE schools allow students living in participating Western states to pay no more than 150% of what residents pay at eligible public universities. This girl would also be eligible for additional scholarships and the honors college. She should explore how likely it would be to graduate in four years from UNR because it has a low grad rate, but so does all of the state California schools that she is considering.

      Here is the link for more info on WUE schools: http://www.wiche.edu/wue

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy