How to Pay for College — Interview With Cathy Mueller, Executive Director, Mapping Your Future



TUN sits down with Cathy Mueller, the executive director of Mapping Your Future, for advice on how to pay for college. 

TUN: Cathy, thanks so much for joining us. 

MUELLER: Thank you. 

I know that college sticker prices can be overwhelming. To calm some students’ nerves, do you know if students typically end up paying the full sticker price for college?

Most students do not pay the full sticker price for a college or university. Now, the reason for that is that many colleges and universities offer what they call a tuition discount or institutional financial aid for the students. 

Because of that, students often don’t pay that full sticker price. But, I do caution students to make sure that they examine the total cost of attendance before considering a college or university so there are no surprises later on.

Great. So, it’s common advice that before anything else, students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is better known as the FAFSA. What purpose does the FAFSA serve and why is filling out this application beneficial to students?

So, the FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But, don’t let that word “federal” fool you because it isn’t only used to apply for federal financial aid. There are many states, many colleges and universities, and many private foundations that require the FAFSA for consideration of their financial aid programs. 

Sometimes I hear students tell me they’re not going to fill out the FAFSA because they don’t think they’ll qualify for any federal need-based financial aid and they don’t want student loans. But, by doing that, they’re not going to be considered for the other financial aid programs that they might qualify for. 

For example, my daughter didn’t want a student loan and didn’t qualify for any need-based aid. But, she had to complete the FAFSA in order to receive a study abroad scholarship.

Great. So what are grants and how do students earn them?

Grants are need-based financial aid. So, students don’t necessarily earn grants. They actually qualify for them. The FAFSA is one of the ways that they qualify for those grants. 

There are some other grants, though, that students may not necessarily have to qualify for, but they can meet certain requirements to receive those grants. For example, there are grants that require that students enter into a certain field, perhaps teach at a low-income school or teach in a high-need career field. So, those are also grants that students can qualify for. But, they need to make sure that they’re aware of the requirements and that they’re willing to meet those requirements because if they don’t, that grant could turn into a loan. 

Check TUN’s interview with Alex Johnston, assistant program director of the College Advising Corps at the University of Virginia, for more tips on how to get grants for college.

Great. So, scholarships are a great form of financial aid because, like grants, you don’t have to pay them back. Do you have any tips to help students find and secure scholarships?

Yes. Treat the scholarship search like a job. If you spend 10 hours applying and searching for scholarships and you win only one $1,000 scholarship, that’s like earning $100 an hour. Certainly, applying for scholarships is time well spent. 

In addition, I think that students should set a goal. If you know what the cost of attendance is at the college or university you’re considering, you can use that to set a goal. Also, stay organized, know what the deadlines are and keep a list of those deadlines. Put it on your calendar to make sure that you don’t miss any deadlines.

Check TUN’s interview with Sarah Chomette, an eAdviser with the College Advising Corps, for more tips on how to get scholarships for college. Also, check TUN’s Scholarship Search Engine for more scholarships.

Great. So, typically, when you’re admitted to a college or university, the school will send you a financial aid letter in the mail, which ultimately tells you how much money you can expect to pay out of your pocket for your education. Analyzing these letters can be kind of tricky. Do you have any tips about what students should look for when they are analyzing their financial aid letters and ultimately deciding which institution to attend?

Sure. Financial aid award letters are also called financial aid offers. So, students should understand that they are the same thing. 

Sometimes, they do come in the mail and sometimes students get an email letting them know that they have an offer available to look at in a portal on the college or university’s website. 

What they should do is make sure that they study those carefully and compare them carefully. Sometimes they don’t look the same. 

So, again, understand what the total cost of attendance is. Make sure that you know what are grants and scholarships and if there are any requirements with those grants and scholarships. Make sure you understand that before you agree to them. And then, also, understand what are loans that will have to be repaid.

Great. So, do students have to accept all of the federal student loans that they’re offered? How should students go about deciding how much money in federal loans to accept?

No, students do not have to accept all of the student loans that are offered to them. 

There are annual loan limits on federal student loans. So, students can’t borrow any more than that from the federal government. But, they can always borrow less. 

So, I encourage students to not borrow any more than they need to borrow because they’re going to have to repay it later. 

One of the best ways to determine what you should borrow is: If you know what your chosen career field is, look at the potential salaries, particularly the starting salaries in those career fields, and use that to determine what a reasonable monthly payment would be. Then you can determine how much debt you should take on.

Great. So when would you advise students to take out private student loans?

I would only look at private student loans after you’ve considered all the free resources of financial aid, the type of financial aid like grants and scholarships that you don’t have to repay, and after you’ve taken out the maximum amount of federal student loans that you can borrow.

Great. Thanks, Cathy, for joining us today. 

Thank you. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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