An image of a piggy bank on top of books.

When my daughter was accepted to an Ivy League university, it was an exciting moment. As a single mom, I couldn't have been prouder of her. The excitement proved to be short-lived, though, once we received the financial aid package the school had put together. They had decided we (meaning me, since her father wasn't paying for anything) could contribute $40,000 per year toward the annual tuition and room and board costs of $74,000. On the college website, it says the average cost after aid is $9k. This, we learned, is not always the case—especially if you are a single parent.

I would have sold a kidney to help my daughter attend. After all, it was Ivy League! Looking at her aid package, I felt like a failure that I couldn't afford to send her without taking out $160,000 in Parent Plus loans to do so. But as my daughter likes to tell me, it's not about me. Instead, she chose to attend a state university that offered a full ride—and she graduated in two years with her bachelor's degree at 19 years old. Here's how.

Talk dollars and cents with your kids.

Growing up, I used to tell my daughter, before she even understood what "financial aid" meant, that she was going to the college that offered the best financial aid package. I remembered hearing from other friends whose kids had received full-ride scholarships to certain colleges but turned them down because they didn't want to attend that school—the parents wound up taking out loans to pay for their tuition elsewhere.

I already knew that my child's father would offer no financial support toward her education. On top of that, we lived in California, where child support ends at age 18—unlike other states, such as New Jersey, where the law requires a parent to pay child support up to age 23 if the child is a full-time student. I was on my own when it came to footing the college bill.

Fortunately, my daughter didn't just hear the financial aid talk from me; she listened. She volunteered to work in the college counseling department at her high school and learned plenty from them as well.

If you're a single parent facing the eventual (however far off) costs of college alone, be honest with your kid(s) about what you can afford—and their options. Talk to them about the cost differences between public universities vs. private ones. And start early; don't wait until it's time for them to apply to schools before you have the money talk.

Understand differences in financial aid between public and private universities.

When applying for financial aid, schools expect both parents to fill out the financial aid forms. Public colleges and universities require the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and some private universities will require both parents to fill out an additional financial aid application, a CSS (College Scholarship Service profile). Schools use the information from these forms to award non-federal aid and institutional money to students.

Unless the non-custodial parent has had no contact with your child or there are other extenuating circumstances (which will need to be notarized), you will need to have the non-custodial parent fill out the paperwork. If they don't, some private schools will disqualify you from any consideration for need-based aid. That means other than merit money or external scholarships, the school may expect you to pay the full tuition.

State schools, on the other hand, and some private schools, will put together a package just using the information based on the custodial parent's form. When my daughter's father refused to supply his required tax information, she was unable to get any financial aid packages for the private universities that accepted her. We went back and forth with the Ivy until May 1, when she had to commit to a school. They wouldn't budge on their numbers. You can check out the schools that do not require the CSS for the non-custodial parent here.

Another thing to consider is that some private schools may not accept credits from community college when students are accepted as freshmen. My daughter, for example, found out that not only would the Ivy League school not accept her transfer credits, it wouldn't take her AP credits from high school either. And yet, based on those credits, the school would only allow her to enroll in a higher-level class—but it would not count towards the credits needed for her degree. Huh?

Take classes at a community college.

Being able to transfer community college credits is a big deal. It shaved off thousands of dollars in tuition for my daughter, and it also allowed her to finish her bachelor's degree in two years. Plus, where we live, students in middle and high school can enroll in a community college for free. Some schools even have dual enrollment programs where students can take college classes at their high school, either after school or during school hours.

They can also enroll in classes on their own; my daughter took classes over the summer at the college and during the school year at her school. Of course, summer classes can be intense because it's a semester's worth of work distilled into six or eight weeks. It's a commitment that your child needs to be ready to do.

Remember, though: Students will need to get signatures from their guidance counselor and parents before they enroll.

Study hard and pass those AP exams.

Another way to earn college credit? Make sure your child signs up for AP classes. Granted, not every school offers them—or if they do, sometimes they will have certain requirements to sign up. Make sure you stay on top of when and how your child can enroll; some schools will offer APs in 9th, sometimes in 10th grade.

Whenever they complete these courses, your student will need to take the AP exam and score at least a three to earn college credit. You will need to check with the college to see the requirements around AP tests and how many credits they will issue. And note that there is a cost associated with AP exams: In 2020-2021, the cost for each test was $94. That can add up if your child is taking multiple exams.

Have your child talk to their college counselor at school to see if they qualify for any fee waivers, which are based on your income level. If your child qualified for the free lunch program, they could qualify for fee waivers. Fee waivers can cover AP exams, SAT, and ACT exams, as well as some college applications—and all those fees add up. College applications can range from $44 to $105 each; meanwhile the SAT costs $55, and the ACT starts at $60.

Don't get me started on how much it will cost for test prep, but it is worth it; after all, high SAT scores may get your child a scholarship. We found a low-cost solution provided through a church that offered a variety of educational classes and camps. Your child could also qualify for a National Merit Scholarship if they score high on the PSAT in eleventh grade.

Apply for any and all scholarships.

Speaking of scholarships, if your student maintains their grades throughout high school, they may be offered merit money or a chance to be accepted in an honors college. Many institutions will set aside money for non-need and instead will award money based on other factors (such as academic achievement and leadership) or for particular student groups (such as scholarships for Black, Latinx, or Indigenous students). Also, start looking at scholarships that provide full rides or close to it. There's the Gates Scholarship Program, Quest Bridge College Match Scholarships, and the Posse Foundation, to name a few.

At the end of the day, if you're trying to get a free ride for your kid to go to college, you have to play the long game. Start in elementary school, cultivating the work habits your child will need in high school to achieve a competitive GPA. Then, your child's placement in certain high school classes may be based on their middle school records—so, if you want them to take AP classes, they may be required to have a certain GPA already. Be your child's biggest advocate to make sure they are getting the help and opportunities they need.


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