How Can I Pay for College? An Interview with Lynn O’Shaughnessy

Financial Aid Expert
Lynn O’Shaughnessy author of The College Solution

By: Susanna Cerasuolo, M.Ed.
How did you become interested in college admissions and finance?
When my daughter was in high school, I had to figure out what to do with her and where she wanted to go to college.  In California, it is very hard to get into the top UC schools because California is so big, so they rank kids per school, so if you go to an excellent high school, with a lot of high ranking kids, you actually have a harder time getting into California’s top public colleges.  So we researched colleges out of state for her, and I got interested that way. I was a financial reporter, so writing about college finances was a natural move.  Now I blog and write about college, and I talk and give workshops.
Do you enjoy what you do?
I love this subject because nobody understands the financial end of college.  I decided to write about this area because no one studies this or writes about it.  That’s really what the families need to know about is how to pay for college.
What problems do you see with the college admission process?
I think counselors need to make time to learn about this subject because all families need to know how to pay for college.
What can people do to learn about paying for college?
It’s kind of difficult, simply because there aren’t a lot of resources out there, but not because the topic is complicated.  The UCLA extension course is well known for admissions but it doesn’t focus much on the finances.  Not to sound self-serving, but you can read my blog, which has 4 years worth of free content on it.  I also have a book and the 2nd edition was published in May.  My workbook focuses entirely on the nuts and bolts of making college more affordable—it shares tools on how to evaluate schools financially and find out how much each college will cost.
How difficult is it to understand college finances?
It’s not that hard.  If I can figure it out, anybody can figure it out.  Financially it’s easier than ever to evaluate schools ahead of time.  Net price calculators are not all accurate but I think in time that will improve, and some of them are quite accurate.  Every college has to have a net price calculator on the website, as mandated by the government.  You enter info on your finances and it spits out the estimated price for the college, for that kid.  Prices now are transparent and they never were before so there is no excuse not to use these calculators.
If you could give a college applicant one piece of advice what would it be?
Throw a wider net. Most kids go to school within 100 miles of their house, and why?  Oftentimes the best deal and better academic opportunity is in another state.
Why do kids tend to apply to college close to home?  
Who knows.  Parents maybe fear the distance?  Your state school is not always the cheapest place, and often you don’t get out in 4 years anyway, so be sure to add that cost into the equation.
What are the most important things to keep in mind when financing college?

  1. Know what the price is going to be before you apply.
  2. To do this, use each college’s net price calculator.
  3.  If you’re not a junior/senior, use the Estimated Family Contribution calculator on the College Board and you can see what you’d be expected to pay for one year of school.
  4. Plan accordingly: save up the money or change the college list.

What should parents know about the college admissions process?
College admissions are not as exclusive as you think.  75% of kids get into their top choice school.  But all the focus is on those colleges that hog all the publicity and reject all the kids who apply, like the Ivy Leagues.  Most colleges and universities accept a lot or even all of the kids who apply, so parents don’t need to be so nervous. Parents should also look beyond the most famously named colleges.
Can you apply Early Decision if you are concerned about financial aid?
You shouldn’t because you are promising that you will go, so that is being dishonest.  That said, schools can’t hold you to it, if you can’t afford it, but it is dishonest on your part to commit if you can’t.
So Early Decision privileges wealthy kids?
The whole college admissions process is rigged toward affluent kids.  But if you are a poor kid and you apply to an ED (Early Decision) school that meets 100% of all need, then you are not disadvantaged.
Most schools “gap” – which means they do not give every kid every penny they need, often because they can’t afford to do so.  So Early Decision is riskier financially.
CollegeBoard – search for percent of need met, 100%
How can families know which colleges give a lot of merit scholarships?
Most kids get need-based aid, so go on the Common Data Set and look at schools by “percent of need met.” The higher the percent, the more generous the school.
Except for about two dozen, all schools give merit aid to rich kids (except the Ivies, who don’t have to because the kids can afford to come without help). Most colleges offer merit aid to rich kids who have high SAT/ACT scores and/or high GPA’s.  The colleges offer this aid to attract those students to come so that the colleges can have higher rankings.
Does it bother the colleges that people talk about this?
Hardly anyone is talking about this so it’s not a big deal.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a nationally recognized college expert, who is a higher-ed journalist, consultant, and speaker.  She has written and/or been interviewed about college issues for such national outlets as The New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Consumer Reports, USA Today, Money Magazine and Parade Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Associated Press, MSN Money, Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Money Magazine, Smart Money and The Early Show on CBS.
To read Lynn’s blog, or to buy her book or workbook, visit her website:


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