I haven’t been sleeping well lately.  Instead of counting sheep, I can’t stop counting the dollars that will soon be jumping out of my family’s account to fund my child’s college dream. I can promise that such thoughts do not make for restful nights, but I can take some solace in knowing that my son is taking the right steps to drive that cost down as far as possible.  

They say misery loves company, but I would prefer to make students and parents a little less miserable by showing them how to search out lifelines that can help them emerge from the college years in better financial condition.  

The harsh truth is that college, like everything else in life, is getting more expensive every year.  Ignoring this reality is not the best way to deal with it.  The earlier you have the “talk” with your son or daughter the better.  Just to be clear, I am referring to the money talk.  Shielding your child from your money concerns could very well pave the way for him or her to pursue a path that is beyond your means.  

Establishing financial parameters for your child when it comes to college is extremely important as a college must be a good financial “fit” for the entire family to be a good “fit” for him or her. If you have not had this talk yet, I encourage you to check out Tim’s blog “It’s Time to Have The “Talk”…The Importance of Financial Aid”

Unfortunately, even the more affordable in-state options are far from affordable for many families today, so it is imperative that students search out every option to reduce that cost.  While the list below is not exhaustive, it is a good place to start:

1. Start your student scholarship search locally.  

Your high school website and the other high school websites are the best places to begin your scholarship search.  Many of the scholarships highlighted on those websites are restricted to students who attend school in your district or county.  The smaller the pool you fish in the better chance you have to catch a fish. I’m not a math guy, but even I know that your odds of winning a scholarship are significantly better when you are competing against 25 students in your school district, as opposed to 1000s of students from across your state, or even more on a national stage. 

Be sure to add the potential scholarships to your list along with the link for the scholarship, the deadline, and the amount to be awarded.  Keeping an organized list will prevent you from missing deadlines and help keep you on track. 

Another benefit of focusing on scholarships compiled by area guidance counselors is that you can significantly cut down on the junk mail you will receive from scholarship search engines that push out scholarships to you that are not good matches for you.  Many of the national search engines are only interested in getting all your contact information to sell off that information to other marketing machines.  With this in mind, it is a very good practice to create a separate email account to use exclusively for scholarships.  Doing this will prevent your primary email account from being inundated with countless emails that make it difficult many times in keeping up with the important emails you receive.

2. Focus on smaller scholarships.  

Invariably, students and parents are attracted to the larger scholarships first, but so is everyone else.  While it may be enticing to apply for the Coca-Cola Scholarship or the Gates Scholarship, those scholarships have a significantly lower success rate than getting into a college like Harvard or Yale. $500 may not seem like a lot of money, but if you break things down by the amount of time you spend applying for the scholarship, you will see that the hourly return on your time should you win the scholarship is still impressive.  All those little scholarships can add up to one big one quickly if you target the right scholarships that present you with the best odds of success.

3. Use Your Connections. 

Often students neglect the low-hanging fruit to their detriment.  Be sure to check with your parents’ employers, churches, and other organizations you or your family are affiliated with to take advantage of any college scholarships they offer.  In some cases, those scholarships are as close to sure things as you are going to find.  

In addition to targeting scholarships like the ones indicated above, dig a little deeper into scholarships that might be open to you based on parents or grandparents’ military service or other family attributes, such as first-generation status, ethnicity, or significant life events like the loss of a parent or debilitating medical conditions.  There are even scholarships out there for left-handed students and tall students

 4. Service may be Your Saving Grace.  

I readily admit that this tip will not apply to every child, but it is an approach that should be considered by many more students who dismiss it.  ROTC scholarships can be used at many private and public colleges, and it is not necessary to have participated in NJROTC in high school to qualify for these scholarships. 

Unlike most private scholarships, these awards cover all four years and cover all higher education expenses.  Students who receive these scholarships even get a monthly stipend to cover the extra expenses they incur in college.  Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC scholarships are some of the only scholarships that cover room and board in addition to tuition expenses.  

While there is a service component that accompanies these scholarships, that is as much of a downside in the current economy, where good jobs are hard to come by.  Even if you do not intend to make the military a career, the experience you gain during your required years of service will put you in a much better position to land your dream job once you finish your service requirement. 

5. Make Colleges Show You the Money.  

The merit awards you receive from the colleges that accept you are not always the final word.  An apt analogy for the financial aid award letter you receive from the colleges on your list would be the sticker price on a new car.  Just as most salespeople expect you to haggle some over the price, colleges do not give you their best offer at first.  They expect you to ask for more money, and, in many cases, they will come up with more merit money for you if you just ask for it.  

The best way to achieve a positive result in this process involves playing a cheaper school you have been admitted to against the one you actually want to attend.  The worst thing that they can do is deny your request, so don’t be afraid to ask colleges to “show you the money.”  This approach will not work with every college, as some of the models (to revisit the car analogy) are in such demand that they don’t need to come off the price; but as is the case with many aspects of life, “nothing ventured nothing gained.”

Avoid Sleepless Nights and Be Proactive. 

The price of college is not going down anytime soon, so if you want to avoid many sleepless nights wondering how you are going to navigate higher education without incurring a debilitating amount of student loan debt, it is important to take proactive steps to bring the cost of college down as far as possible.  

At the end that may mean choosing the second or third option on your list because they show you more love, financially speaking. This may seem like a harsh reality, but remember where you go is not what will determine your ultimate success- It is what you do when you get there!