How to Pay for College if You Are a Single Mom

By Carol Stack & Ruth Vedvik

Question: I’m a single mother of a teenager. I don’t receive any financial help from my ex and cannot count on him to help with the cost of college for my child. Do you have any advice on how I can pay for my child’s college education?

Answer: Don’t be blindsided by college costs. There are a number of things you can do to help finance your child’s college education.

1. Check out the FAFSA4caster.

This free and anonymous tool will help you to understand the size of the financial contribution required from you for your child’s education. There is no reason to wait until your child is a senior to give this a whirl. Go to fafsa.ed.gov and follow the links to the FAFSA4caster.

2. Never ever, ever pay someone to find a scholarship for your child.

No matter what they tell you (“I know how to obtain a scholarship just for children of single moms, but there is a small application fee”. I’ll need you to provide money for processing fees up front but that’s just a formality”). It’s all smoke and mirrors. They cannot and will not find any scholarships you and your child can’t find. Use fastweb.com and work directly with the financial aid staff at the colleges in which your child has an interest.

3. Another never, ever, ever — don’t even think of skimping on or sacrificing your own retirement funds to help pay for your child’s education.

As moms, we have that strong compulsion to help our children no matter what. But, placing your financial future in jeopardy isn’t going to help your child going forward; it will only give her a burden to carry.

4. Think creatively about where and how your child might get scholarship funding.

First and foremost, help her choose a college with a strong merit aid program for which she is a strong candidate. Then think about other connections, such as a legacy scholarship for children whose parents or grandparents went to a particular college.

Your child may also qualify for scholarships from unions or fraternal organizations. Think broadly including any connections your child’s father might have. Maybe he won’t ante up any cash for college, but maybe you can use his connections to qualify your child for a scholarship.

5. Remember, the staff in the financial aid office at the college your child is considering are your friends, not your enemies.

No matter how onerous and intrusive their requests for additional documentation might be (affidavits of non-support, copies of custody agreements or divorce decrees), these documents can help the financial aid staff build a case for additional aid for your child. So, take a deep breath or two, make the photocopies or write the petition and know it is all for the greater good.

About the Authors:

Carol Stack is the former Director of Admissions at Macalester College and Augsburg College. For the past 15 years, Stack has worked as a principal at Hardwick-Day, an enrollment consulting firm that works with the admissions and financial aid offices of private colleges and universities. Through Hardwick-Day, she has consulted on financial aid policy at dozens of colleges, including Whittier, Grinnell, and Randolph-Macon..

Ruth Vedvik has held the position of Director of Admissions at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ball State University, and Agnes Scott College. For the past 9 years, Vedvik has worked as a principal at Hardwick-Day, an enrollment consulting firm that works with the admissions and financial aid offices of private colleges and universities. Through Hardwick-Day, she has consulted on financial aid policy at dozens of colleges, including St. Mary’s College, Mills, Hofstra University, Illinois College and Xavier University.

Together Stack and Vedvik are the authors of  The Financial Aid Handbook, Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford.

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