College is expensive, even before students show up for freshman orientation. College-bound students are charged fees for taking tests like the ACT and SAT and fees to send an application. Visiting campuses means paying for gas, plane tickets and hotel rooms. Colleges charge enrollment deposits and orientation fees when students register for class. They charge housing deposits when students apply to move into dorms. These fees are an extra burden if you're already struggling to keep your kids fed and clothed.
But no family should see these fees as an obstacle to higher education. Many colleges offer low-income students extra help. The schools see this as a way to bring a range of talented students to their colleges.
"A lot of schools really want more socioeconomic diversity on their campuses and are happy to offer programs like this," says Chris Mitchell, program specialist at College Possible, a nonprofit organization that prepares low-income students for college.
Every college has different resources. A lot of colleges with high up-front tuition costs actually have plenty of money to help lower-income students.
But students won't get help unless they ask for it. Here are some forms of financial help that might be available for low-income families:
Test fee waivers. It costs at least $35 to take the ACT and a minimum of $50 to take the SAT. Advanced placement tests, which give students a shot at college credit, run $89 each. However, the companies that make these tests let low-income students take them for less, or even at no charge. Your child's high school guidance counselor should know if your family is eligible to have a test fee waived or reduced.
Application fee waivers. Most colleges charge application fees. They are usually in the range of $35 or $50, according to the College Board, and can go as high as $100. But colleges usually let students from low-income families apply for free. "They want to make sure that students who are interested can apply and not have the application fee be a barrier," Mitchell says. Another option is to apply on the Internet. Many colleges charge fees for applications submitted on paper but accept them online for no charge.
Travel grants. Students are often told that visiting campus is the best way to figure out if they want to go to a certain college. Some schools give prospective students money toward the costs of traveling to campus if family finances are tight. These grants are given on a case-by-case basis.
Deferred or reduced deposits. Enrolling in college usually means being charged a deposit of a few hundred dollars. So does registering for on-campus housing. Some colleges will consider reducing or waiving these fees for students experiencing financial hardship. You can also ask if a college will defer the deposits for later so they can be added onto your student's account. This means scholarships or loans could cover the deposits.
Assistance buying textbooks. At some schools, students from low-income families can apply for grants to buy books required for class. Other colleges let students use grants and scholarships they receive from the school to cover the cost of books.
Negotiated financial aid. When students are accepted to a college, they're also told how much the college will give them in grants, scholarships, loans and other financial aid. But these offers aren't set in stone. You can always ask a college's financial aid office if it's possible to get more aid, especially if your family has special circumstances like high medical bills.
"Your first package does not have to be your final answer," says Shonda Goward, founder of First Generation University, a website that helps students become the first in their families to go to college. She notes that students are more likely to get financial aid if they're attending a private school or in-state public school.
Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help. The costs that come along with a college education can seem daunting. But admissions counselors and financial aid officers at the colleges your child is considering can tell you about ways each school can help low-income students and how to find out if your family is eligible.
If a college sees your student's potential, admissions and financial aid staff can often relieve some of the financial burden. This is especially true for students who have special talents, like prowess in art, writing or science.
"They want good applicants," says Goward, who is also an academic advisor at George Washington University. "Schools are looking to diversify their population in more than one way."
A college education is a major expense for any family. Fortunately, colleges recognize that families with fewer financial resources have an especially hard time coming up with the money for additional costs. If you ask, you might get the extra help you need to make college possible for your child.