Rules of Thumb on College Affordability

Application season is upon us, so before your senior gets too enamored of Very Expensive U, you need to get real about what you can afford. Here are some rules of thumb:

Parents can afford to spend no more than 10% of their income on paying for college out of pocket. No, you cannot afford the 47% that the FAFSA expects. Picture a family with household income of $120,000– a level at which you’re not likely to qualify for need-based aid at most schools. 10% of that family’s income is $1,000 per month. Most families would need to scrimp quite a bit to come up with an extra $1,000 per month, at any income level.

Students can afford to borrow a total amount up to their expected first-year salary, and ideally should borrow no more than the federal direct loan program offers them (between $5,500 and $7,500 per year currently). Divide expected first-year salary by 4 and you have each year’s maximum amount to borrow.

That means a family with $120,000 of income and a student studying to become an elementary school teacher (average starting salary of about $36,000) should spend no more than $12,000 (10% of parents’ income) + $9,000 (1/4 of first-year salary) = $21,000 per year on college during the college years.

An annual budget of $21,000 per year doesn’t afford a lot of school choice, and a family with more than one student in college would have to divide that affordable-for-parents amount. That’s why it’s important to start looking now at net price calculators (every school has one), merit aid options, and your family budget to determine what schools are likely to be financially feasible for your student. Of course, if you have any savings to add to that, you’ll have more latitude in school choice. Add any more cost, though, and someone is going to have a pretty significant debt burden.

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