How to Make College Affordable… at the Last Minute

Marguerita Cheng |

The story is a familiar one. You planned to open a 529 savings account for your child the moment they were born. But the first year of parenthood passed in a blur of late nights and early mornings. On top of that, you were loaded with hospital bills to pay. Time flew by, and in the blink of an eye, a decade or so had slipped away. Now, your child is starting college soon and you haven’t yet begun saving for their education.

If this is your situation, don’t panic. Everyone gets a little bit behind in saving for their child’s education. Luckily, a few strategies can help make college more affordable at the last minute.

As a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) and mother of three, I understand the financial challenges and opportunities of preparing for your child’s college education. My number one tip for parents facing the financial demands of college expenses is to apply for both the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the CSS Profile.

This is by far the easiest place to start, yet, in my experience, many families simply don’t fill out these forms. Most assume their student will not qualify for aid and don’t even apply — leaving tons of money on the table in the process. The FAFSA and CSS Profile offer a combination of merit and need-based aid, with the CSS Profile awarding thousands of students over $10 billion in non-federal aid. If money is tight in your household or your child has excelled in school, you have a chance to secure a financial benefit.

For instance, take my son’s journey. He graduated from a high school in Maryland and pursued undergraduate studies in bioengineering at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. Maryland boasts more federal labs than any other state, three R-1 universities, and a talented and diverse scientific workforce. Recognizing the significant contribution of life sciences and biotechnology to Maryland’s state economy, I then encouraged him to apply for a career/occupations-based grant and scholarship awarded to students majoring in bioengineering. ​He received a $5,000 grant from the Maryland Higher Education Commission during his junior year.

Whenever speaking to families, I also emphasize the importance of applying for scholarships through third-party organizations (i.e. not government programs). Check out local or national professional associations and societies to see what programs are out there. You can also explore scholarships based on what your student wants to study in college. Again, look for programs that are both need-based and merit-based.

Here are a few good places to start:

  1. Your state’s Chamber of Commerce.
  2. Fastweb, one of the largest scholarship databases.
  3. Chegg Scholarships, a platform for scholarship searches.
  4., as the name implies, is another great hub for finding funding.
  5. Big Future, College Board’s scholarship search program.

If your financial aid options fall short, it might be time to reconsider your child’s list of potential schools. Top-tier schools like Harvard, which costs $79,450 for the 2023-2024 academic year, aren’t always realistic, given the average median income of $74,580. That said, this situation has a great upside: numerous excellent institutions offer a quality education at a more affordable cost. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average private nonprofit four-year institution costs $35,852 for one academic year. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of in-state tuition at a 4-year school is just $9,375. Although $9,375 is not insignificant, it’s a more attainable target for savings — especially if you’re running a bit behind.

Another option is to enroll your student in a more cost-effective school, such as a community college or affordable in-state university, for their first year or two. Then, aim to transfer them to their dream school during their junior or senior year. This path offers several benefits:

  1. It allows your child to earn a degree from their dream school while significantly reducing out-of-pocket costs.
  2. It incentivizes your child to maintain good grades, making them an attractive transfer student.
  3. It allows your child to explore different schools, areas, and curriculums.

If you’re scrambling to find ways to pay for your kid’s education, consider reversing the traditional path. Instead of pursuing a degree to land a good job, have your child get a job that will secure them a good degree. Companies like AmazonBoeingChipotleStarbucksT-MobileWalmart, and countless others are known for assisting employees with higher education costs. This strategy will require collaboration from your child, but if money is especially tight, a job that offers educational benefits can go a long way to covering the costs of their degree.

As a CFP® professional and parent, I often see families struggle with college financing due to a lack of information or planning. Starting the conversation now, exploring all avenues of financial aid, and understanding the value of each dollar spent on education can make a significant difference. Remember, the goal is not just to fund your child’s education, but to do so in a way that’s financially sustainable for you and your family.

Marguarita (Rita) Chang is CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, a Founding Member of The Authentic Asian and Kiplinger Advisor Collective, the Voice of the podcast Margaritas with Marguarita, and a serious marathoner.