For senior parents concerned about costs

Parents, if you have a senior in the house who’s applying to college and you’re feeling a heightening concern about paying for it, it’s important to channel that concern into the most constructive actions.

Surprisingly, while applying to cheaper schools and searching for scholarships are both common responses, neither tops the list of the most effective steps to take.

Yes, you should be mindful of a college’s sticker price. But the important number is the portion of the sticker price that you’ll need to pay, which is determined by the amount of financial aid you receive. And while outside scholarships from companies, foundations, individuals, etc. can certainly help, they account for a tiny percentage—approximately five percent—of available financial aid.

If college is right around the corner and paying for it is a concern, here are the three most important steps to consider:

1. Apply for need-based financial aid by following the instructions on each school’s website.
This is the college-financing equivalent of a no-brainer, yet many families who need money to help pay for college resist this advice. They make excuses like, “We’ll never qualify for aid” or, “I heard that can hurt his chances” (merely applying for aid will not hurt admissibility). It’s one of the few behaviors in this stressful process that I struggle to understand. There is no shame in asking for help to pay for your student’s education, and the worst a financial aid office can do is say, “No.” The most trusted financial aid experts I’ve met all agree that every college applicant should at the very least submit the FAFSA, which is the starting point for all financial aid. And most importantly, many colleges require that a student submit a FAFSA to be considered for additional merit-based awards. Don’t take yourself out of the running by not applying. Assumptions and excuses work against you. Apply for aid; then let the colleges decide whether or not you qualify.

2. Apply to colleges where your student is most likely to be accepted.
You won’t have a problem paying for a college that doesn’t admit your student. And financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students—a practice called “preferential packaging.” The more likely a student is to be accepted, the more likely your family is to get a financial aid boost. And you might later find yourselves in the enviable position of comparing aid awards from multiple colleges. Talk to your student’s counselor and make sure that the list includes choices where all signs point to a “Yes” from the admissions office.

3. Apply to at least one financial safety school.
A financial safety school is one that you know with relative certainty 1) will admit your student, and 2) you will be able to pay for with minimal financial aid. If you can’t find schools that fit both those categories, or the schools you can find don’t excite your student, you might consider community college. But that is not a decision that needs to be made today, as I detailed in this past post.

There are many other important steps that can help, including seeking outside scholarships and considering the affordability of a college once your financial aid package arrives. But they’ll all be more effective if you start with these three.