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Sending multiple kids to college? Plan strategically to cut costs

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

Wondering how you’ll make ends meet while trying to send your kids to college? While more families are saving for college, most still aren’t able to save nearly enough. For many parents, having multiple children in college at the same time is an expensive reality, but Dr. Kat Cohen of Ivy Wise says families can cut costs by planning strategically.

#1 Some schools offer sibling discounts

Financial aid is determined by how much your household can afford. The more children a family has in college, the lower their Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. For example, if your family’s EFC is $20,000, that would be split in half for two children, and in thirds for three. One useful tool to calculate how much you’d be expected to pay is the Department of Education’s financial aid FAFSA4CASTER.

Cohen says that elite schools can be less generous as families have to fill out the CSS/Financial Aid Profile by the College Board, which is used in most Ivies. The formula doesn’t simply divided the EFC in halves or thirds. Instead, a family with two kids must pay 60% of their EFC for each child, so a total of 120%. For three kids, it would be 45% per child or 135% in total. The College Board also provides an EFC calculator that can help determine costs. 

But some colleges offer family scholarships and sibling discounts for families with multiple children enrolled in school full-time. Some can offer 10% to 50% off the tuition bill, or provide a few thousand in university grants. For example at Johnson & Wales University, if two students are enrolled full time, they are each eligible for $2,000 in scholarships per academic year. And George Washington University used to offer a family grant that halved the tuition for the second child. So while you shouldn’t limit your search to these schools, it’s certainly worth exploring with your first child’s financial aid office.

Related: ‘It gets confusing fast’: FAFSA financial aid for students, explained

#2 Look locally first

The costly application process is often the biggest shocker to parents, says Cohen. She’s found that families who neglect to budget for campus visits can end up shelling out an extra $3,500 they weren’t expecting. Looking locally first is a smart way to get a sense of what to expect, and gives your child a basis to compare notes as you travel further out.

To save on those out-of-town visits, you can call the visitor center at the university and ask about negotiated discounts at local hotels. Some colleges can also offer prospective students and their families guest housing options right on campus. It might not be the most luxurious stay, possibly just one-step up from living in a dorm, but it’ll give you the best sense of what it’s really like to be a student there.

Colleges eager to recruit strong prospective applicants can offer to arrange a special experience that includes an overnight stay with an upperclassman.

Related: Scams to avoid when applying for college scholarships

#3 Show schools you’re interested

Admissions officers want to know how sincere your interest is for their school. They call this “demonstrated interest” and they take note if you call to engage with the school and visit the campus. If you cannot afford to visit, Cohen says there are other ways you can show your interest. One clear way is to apply early decision or early action as a declaration of your first choice. About 450 schools offer you this head-start. With early decision, a student who is accepted early must attend that college. Early action is less binding, but shows your level of commitment because you can only mark one school with early action.

Something to consider as you apply early is the financial ramifications: an added benefit of applying early is that you’re tapping into the pool of financial aid first. But with early decision, you won’t be able to compare offers from other schools as you’re already bound to attend your top choice.

For families who can’t afford to travel to campuses, another way to show interest is by checking out a local college fair where you can meet admissions representatives. To get a feel of the campus, prospective students can also go on virtual tours through sites like YouVisit that host hundreds of interactive tours.

#4 Bring siblings along for tours

To save, take the entire family with you. Base the timing of the trip on your eldest child’s application timeline, but encourage younger siblings to come along and take notes and photos, Cohen recommends. You can always revisit with a younger child if necessary, but even if he/she is only in ninth grade, tours are key to helping students visualize what kind of campus will suit them best.

And your second child will also be noted in the college’s system as someone who has demonstrated interest and taken the tour. After going on the first round of tours with their older siblings, younger siblings are able to narrow down their list of schools dramatically – which also reduces costs.

#5 Visit colleges during family vacations

When you go on vacation, throw some college tours into your itinerary, says Cohen. Even if you’re able to make a quick stop on your way to your final destination, it’ll save you time and money as you can avoid having to make a second trip just for the college tours.

Typically the best time to go on a tour is when school is in session in fall or spring, but colleges offer tours year-round and many families choose to go during winter and spring breaks. But no matter when you go, you’ll be able to find students and professors to chat up.

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