Should I apply to colleges I can’t afford?

You’re putting together your college application list and there is just one calling your name. It seems like the perfect place. It has great professors, the right type of social scene, and the libraries are stunning—but there is a catch: You can’t afford it. Should you still apply?

The answer comes down to a mix of things, determined by a three-way game of hot potato with the cost of college. It depends on how much financial burden the college, the government, and yourself are willing to take on.

Let’s say, you asked for financial aid and you were accepted. Congrats! Alongside your acceptance letter, the college will give you a write-up of how much financial aid they are willing to take on and what they are pushing off to the government instead. Keep in mind, this is going to vary between scholarships, grants, and loans.

But you haven’t even applied yet! How can you predict how this is going to play out? Here are some factors that affect where that hot potato is going to land. 

First off, take a look at the college’s financial aid offering. Most colleges can give you an estimate of financial aid depending on your family income. Some even have online calculators for what you can expect. But remember, colleges can be very stingy with the purse strings.

It’s also a good sign if the college has a high endowment, specifically “endowment per capita.” This means that the college has more money to spend per student.

Whatever the college will not cover is tossed over to the government. If you aren’t familiar with it already, get to know the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a.k.a FAFSA. This is the application for aid from the government. 

Some of these are grants; others ask that you work as a student; but a lot of government aid comes in the form of federal student loans. This means you’ll be taking on student debt and that’s the tough conversation you’ll need to have with your family.

Another thing to consider are outside scholarships. This isn’t an easy path either, with applications, essays, and letters of recommendation. But there are hundreds of scholarships and grants for college students. The awards can be in the thousands, but the majority of these are small awards. Some are $500 or less! So it’s going to take a lot of hustle to get as many as you can to cover year after year of college. In the end, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. 

TLDR; Don’t apply unless you know that there is a path for financial support from both the college and yourself. If you’re taking on loans, make a dedicated plan to pay them off after college. If you’re hoping to get more scholarships to alleviate the pressure, be realistic about how many awards you can actually pull. The last thing you want to do is be stuck with the hot potato and be unprepared when it burns you.

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