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'We Can't Afford to Help Now': How to Tell Your Child & Find Solutions

In a year with a lot of challenges, many families have faced an abrupt change in their financial footing. Whether it was being laid off, losing work hours due to sickness, or incurring unexpected expenses, many families are trying to figure out how to make ends meet.

If your family is facing financial hardships, you may be worried if you'll be able to meet the commitments you made to help your child pay for college next year—or at all. If so, we have some ideas that can help.

Be clear about your current finances

No parent wants to tell their child that they can't follow through on something they promised. But your student is on the cusp of adulthood and this is an issue that will affect them directly. It's better that they understand the challenges and help work toward solutions. Besides, chances are your son or daughter already knows if the family budget is tighter or knows of friends facing similar issues. They already may be worried about how those college bills will get paid.

If you haven't already sat down with your child to go over exactly how much college will cost your family, now is the time to do it. (We've got some ideas for how to do that.) This will be the first in a few discussions on this topic, so get comfortable with it.

See also: Most Parents Don't Discuss College Costs with Their Children —Why That's a Problem

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Ask the school about your options

Once you and your child are on the same page, the next discussion should be with the school's financial aid office and any academic advisors your child has connected with.

This may not be a conversation you look forward to, but there's no reason to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Trust us: Especially this year, colleges are hearing similar stories from many families. In fact, according to our survey, 69% of parents said the pandemic has affected their ability to pay college expenses. 

The truth is, the financial aid office isn't likely to have wads of money available to cover your entire tuition shortfall. But they might have some, and they can help you identify other resources.

Start by having your child write an appeal letter of his or her financial aid. People do this more often than you probably realize. If you've had a significant shift in your finances since you filed your FAFSA, you're an ideal candidate to have  your aid package reevaluated. (You did file a FAFSA, right? If not, do so immediately. You have until June 30, but the earlier you file, the better your chances of getting significant aid.)

Other ways the school can help may include putting you on a different payment plan. That won't lower your total cost, but it buys you some breathing room while you get your feet back under you. The college may also be able to direct you to other internal or local resources that can help you find lower cost options for day-to-day expenses such as food, books, etc.

See also: FAFSA Eligibility: Who Qualifies for FAFSA Aid?

Re-examine your budget and plans

While you wait to hear from the financial aid office, take a look at what you can do on your own. Every dollar you can cut from your expenses is an extra dollar you have to help pay for college. 

If your tuition gap is small to medium

But this isn't just your battle. There may be changes to your child's plans that can help bring the costs of college down. Maybe living on-campus is cheaper if your child won't need a car; or living off-campus but squeezing in an extra roommate. If your child hasn't yet enrolled, it might be time to reconsider their second-choice school with the better aid package instead of their pricier first choice. If your child wasn't planning to work during school, revisit whether a job with a limited number of hours might be feasible. 

Nothing should be off the table, but of course, you'll want to take your child's preferences into account. After all, they'll be the one living with these choices long term. Your job isn't so much to dictate what they have to do. Instead, guide them in evaluating which options will help them most in the long-term. 

If your tuition gap is large

If you still have a big gap between what you expected to pay and what you have on hand—and if the school can't provide enough additional aid—your child may face some harder choices. Perhaps enrolling only part-time at first, or at a community college would make sense. If you truly can't find the funds on your own and don't want to—or can't—take out a large enough loan, it might be time to discuss taking a gap year to work and save money. 

None of these options is without downsides: Some grants and scholarships are only for full-time students; students who delay entering college sometimes wind up never actually enrolling. So consider the options carefully and make sure you've got all the information you both need before making a final decision. 

See also: 7 Ways to Get Help Paying for College

Look for other financing options

If the changes you can make don't cut costs enough you'll need to look for other ways of getting cash. 

Since scholarships and grants don't have to be paid back and can often be renewed from year to year, your first step should be looking for additional opportunities your child may qualify for. Our state-by-state guide includes everything from state-sponsored grants to under-the-radar private scholarship programs. 

The downside of scholarships is that they aren't guaranteed and the biggest ones are often competitive. You can't count on scholarship money until you have an award letter in hand.

While your child is applying (and waiting and applying again) for scholarships, you can look into other financing options. There's no lack of options, from additional private loans for your child, parent loans, or even tapping home equity.

There's no one "best" option. What works best for you will depend on how much you have saved, the size of your tuition gap, whether you think this is a one-time shortfall or you're facing a longer stretch of tight finances, and many more factors.

When considering additional loans, you need to do your research and make sure your decision will leave both you and your child with healthy financial futures. It may be tempting to just do what you can to spare your child taking out huge loans or giving up a long-held dream. But remember: If you compromise your own financial health, not too far down the road your fully grown child may be stressing about how to take care of your financial challenges. 

See also: 6 Ways to Pay for College Under the New Normal

Turn it into a positive experience

Especially now, many families are facing financial crises. It's natural to feel disappointed or frustrated if you can't provide the support for your kid that you expected to. But that's how life is sometimes and it doesn't mean you did anything wrong. In fact, by handling it with transparency and working with your child to find solutions that work for you both, you can create a great learning experience for that child you're about to send out into the larger world.

For more ideas on cutting expenses or finding college funding, check out our guide, 10 Ways to Solve Last-minute Tuition Gaps

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