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Minding the Gap

How real students and families pay for college when student financial aid falls short.

Sometimes federal aid, grants and scholarships can only take you so far. Merit aid, the most frequently used source to pay for college according to a survey of 1,057 undergraduate students from College Ave Student Loans conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights


, can often come up short of the total cost. Students and families who need to fill this financial gap can turn to options such as borrowing private student loans or dipping into parent savings and income. And during the coronavirus pandemic, which almost half of the survey respondents say has affected their parent’s ability to pay for college, students and their families might rely on these methods even more.

Read on to find out how students, recent graduates and their families have made ends meet to pay for the full price of college.


Private student loan, work-study

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

Jordyn Miller and her parents had an agreement: they would pay for her first semester of college, but after that, she was on her own. When she realized that federal loans and a Presidential Merit Scholarship weren’t enough to fully cover her education at Hofstra University, she decided to borrow a private student loan. Watching her older sister take out one five years earlier to attend the same university helped Miller understand how borrowing a private student loan could give her the boost she needed to afford it. “My mom didn’t go to college and my dad went to a local school, so I only really had my sister to go off of in terms of financial advice for loans,” she says. 

Just as they did for her older sister, Miller’s parents cosigned her private student loan. Private lenders like College Ave Student Loans allow students to apply for private student loans with a cosigner – often a parent – whose established and good credit can help net the best interest rate possible. Miller also used the income earned from her federal work-study position at the Provost’s office for spending money. Since graduating with her bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2018, Miller has become a publicist and refinanced her private student loan twice. She’s on track to pay it off completely by her 28th birthday. 


Parent income and savings, work-study

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

As a high school senior, Erin Cates’ primary concern was finding the college with the right interior design program for her. Cost was secondary because she knew her parents would help pay in any way they could. “Their message to me was, if you really want to go somewhere there’s ways we can make it work,” she says. “[They said] there’s always scholarships or you can get a part-time job.”

Cates took her parents’ advice to heart, applying for multiple merit scholarships offered by Baylor University and its accredited interior design program as well as taking out federal loans that she’s responsible for paying off once she graduates in 2021. Her work-study position at the Baylor Office of Operations and Facilities Management, which she recently lost due to the pandemic and Baylor’s campus closing, provided another source of financial cushioning that Cates used to help pay for groceries, utilities and other living expenses. Her parents, meanwhile, cover the rest of her tuition and the rent for her off-campus apartment. 

College Saving Tip 1:

Don’t Pay Full Price for Textbooks
Books and course materials are a recurring college cost that students can save on. 
Jordyn Miller's Advice
“Do not buy your books until you speak to your professors. I had quite a few professors who wrote the book themselves, so sometimes they would say we don’t need to buy it and they would email us the chapters we needed to read. Some other professors flat-out told us that they teach more to their own powerpoints and lesson plans than they do to a book.”
Erin Cates’ Advice
“For interior design and art majors … we have to pay for our own supplies. Sometimes we have to make models out of some cord or wood and we’re responsible for getting our own supplies for that, which can get expensive. Ask upperclassmen … if they have any old supplies they want to get rid of or sell to you.”
Financial Aid Can Help
Students can also use financial aid to help pay for books and materials. A parent loan from College Ave Student Loans, for instance, has a direct deposit feature that allows parents to use up to $2,500 toward extra college expenses, including textbooks.


Parent income and savings, private student loan, part-time campus job and graduate assistantship

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

For the first three years of Denny Fuller’s five-year Master of Arts in Teaching program at James Madison University, his parents covered what financial aid couldn’t by dipping into their savings and taking out federal parent PLUS loans. But when an unexpected and expensive medical issue arose for Fuller’s dad in his fourth year, he found himself “scrambling” to make up the difference. Fuller decided to borrow a private student loan to fill the gap. He continued to use the income from his part-time on-campus job as a building manager for the Student Success Center to pay for groceries and utilities and, in his final year, got a graduate assistantship that covered the cost of nine credit hours. 

Fuller, who graduated in the spring of 2020 with his master’s degree and teaching license, is prepared to “budget properly” and repay his private student loan “fairly quickly.” His advice to prospective college students and their families is to communicate clearly about expectations and who will be paying for what costs beforehand. “If I wasn’t on the same page as my parents and I didn’t know the extent to which they would go to help me, then I feel like I could’ve dug myself into such a deep hole,” he says. Students and parents investigating private student loan options should use the College Ave student loan calculator to find the best aid and repayment plan for them.

College Saving Tip 2:

Don’t Regret Missing Out on Scholarships
In a College Ave Student Loans survey conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights,SM  76% of the 1,057 undergraduate respondents said they wish they had researched more scholarships when applying for financial aid.
Denny Fuller's Advice
“In high school … it felt to me like I couldn’t get [a scholarship] even if I tried. But then once I got a pretty big one, that’s when I started having some remorse and realized that essentially, I didn’t work hard enough to mitigate the costs. I just threw in my towel real quick.”
Jordyn Miller’s Advice
“I didn’t research [any other scholarships], and I really wish that I did when I was in high school. The merit scholarship was the only one that I got and I just got awarded that by applying.” 
Private Lenders May Help
Private lenders may also offer scholarship options, like College Ave Student Loans’ $1,000 scholarship sweepstakes, awarded to a different student every month. 


Her own income and savings, work-study and summer jobs for her kids

Largest Gap
(Northeastern University)
Smallest Gap
(State University of New York at Buffalo)

Total cost of college:

Amount of aid received:

Funding gap:

Total cost of college:

Amount of aid received:

Funding gap:

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

As a mother of three children and two stepchildren who are all currently enrolled in college, Leslie Tayne, a debt-relief attorney and the founder of Tayne Law Group, is no stranger to having tough money conversations with her kids. One of her stepsons spent two years at Loyola University, but even after taking out a private student loan, it wasn’t affordable for him or his family – especially since he plans on going to graduate school for medicine in the future. He ended up transferring to the in-state State University of New York at Binghamton. “I’m a parent of five kids in college, so there’s a limitation to what can and cannot be done,” Tayne says. She and her husband pay for the tuition and room and board expenses that federal aid doesn’t cover, but the kids also have work-study positions and part-time jobs – including as a resident assistant, teaching assistant, campus tour guide and tutor – that they use to cover living and extracurricular costs.

“I’m a big advocate of financial literacy, so my children are well-versed in budgeting,”
– Leslie Tayne

Tayne says. “It’s important to have those conversations with kids. These are the costs, this is what it’s going to take to pay for it, this is my willingness to help out and this is what you need to cover.”


Parent income and savings, part-time campus jobs

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

As a Pennsylvania resident, Lauren Engelman’s in-state tuition at Pennsylvania State University was an important factor in her enrollment. “My parents were always very open with me about the payment of college,” she says. “If I did choose an in-state school … then they would cover the cost of tuition.” In addition to the cost, Pennsylvania State University has an integrated Masters of Accounting program that allows Engelman to pursue her passion for public accounting. Her parents also covered room and board when she lived on campus her freshman year; they now pay for her off-campus rent. 

As for Engelman, she’s responsible for personal expenses such as monthly parking fees, clothing and entertainment, which she funds by working as a teaching assistant and a tutor for student athletes. With the status and safety of on-campus jobs up in the air due to the pandemic, Engelman plans to rely on savings from her summer internship to pay for her final semester. 

College Saving Tip 3:

Budget, Budget, Budget
One of the most important cost-saving strategies is learning how to manage your money.
Denny Fuller's Advice
“I changed my buying habits a lot [in college]. I had to stop treating myself all the time and I couldn’t do everything that I wanted to necessarily do or get myself the things that I wanted.”
Lauren Engelman’s Advice
“I’m a creature of habit … so I generally knew approximately what I would spend each week. And I would always tutor the same number of hours each week so I knew how much I was going to bring in in income and then I was able to base my spending off of that.”


Parent income and savings, private student loan, work-study

All costs above are approximate and calculated per year.

All Philip Lok wanted in high school was to leave New York behind when he went to college. Now in his senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, with plans to enroll in graduate school for physical therapy, his priorities have changed. These days, financial considerations get top billing. “For grad school, I’m probably only going to be looking at something … in New York,” Lok says. “Just to not have to pay out-of-state tuition.” 

In Lok’s freshman year he took out a private student loan cosigned by his father to pay for out-of-state tuition and room and board. There was some stress involved in the decision, but Lok says his parents didn’t hesitate: “In their eyes, higher education is worth it and it’s an investment.” In addition to the private student loan, Lok found a work-study at the front desk of a campus library. “A lot of universities offer pretty low-maintenance jobs,” he says. “Although it sucks that you won’t be able to hang out with friends as much … just knowing that you’re getting a steady flow of income is worth it.” 

College Saving Tip 4:

Take Advantage of State Schools
Recent graduates and their families have some advice for prospective college students: don’t overlook colleges that are closer to home.
Jordyn Miller's Advice
“If I could re-do it or give advice to somebody, I would say go to a school that fits your financial abilities. There were options I feel like I didn’t explore because I had tunnel vision for what kind of school I wanted. I didn’t look at public universities …  I think I limited myself in the schools I applied to. There are definitely schools in Connecticut that could have given me a similar experience … where I could’ve gotten in-state tuition.”
Lauren Engelman’s Advice
“If you aren’t sure about where you want to go or what you want to major in, really focus on those state schools. I think they offer a lot better programs than what people realize.”
Phillip Lok's Advice
“I think what I’ve learned from going away for school is that although it’s great and [there’s] freedom, there’s still the fiscal aspect that has to be accounted for.”
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