When exploring financial aid for college, it can help to gain perspective from other parents who have gone through the process.

When exploring financial aid for college, it can help to gain perspective from other parents who have gone through the process.

Explore financial aid options

Dave, a guidance counselor whose sons both attended private colleges on merit scholarships advises, "Start doing your homework about colleges and their academic and merit-aid programs early, and as you narrow down the choices, make a personal contact and/or visit with the admission office. Having a support person on the college campus is a real plus when it comes to staying abreast of individual scholarship requirements and deadlines."

Talk openly about cost and student aid

Financial aid information can be overwhelming to students but it's important that they understand what their responsibilities will be.

Sue, a mom and financial aid officer regrets, "I wish I had done a little more about making Kate more responsible for understanding her bill, her student financial aid, and her obligations. She pretty much understood her obligations regarding working in the summers to earn her own book and spending money, but she didn't have a clue about her bill, how it was paid, and what her loans were. I gave her the information, but I should have been a little more forceful in making sure she understood."

Meredith, a financial aid director and a mother of a college senior explains, "Families should have honest discussions with their children about family finances and how educational costs figure into the larger picture. This is probably a very new type of discussion to have with a child, but an important one. Often children who don't understand feel resentful or guilty. This conversation should cover long-term consequences of this important decision such as whether a particular institution may be worth it. It is imperative to have a frank discussion about whether loans taken will be paid by the parent or child. Teenagers are most interested only in the next few years. However, loan burden, if any, may determine type or place of employment for many years after college graduation.

"It is extremely hard for parents to tell children that the student aid offer from their first-choice institution is not enough in the parents' view. Expectations of what families see as their 'demonstrated need' and what institutions identify as need often are not the same. Take the time to educate yourself as best as possible on how the aid process works at those institutions to which your child applies, and on the average aid award offered families. If possible, give your child some flexibility in terms of whether he or she would accept the additional loan burden necessary to go to a higher cost, first-choice institution. If you as a parent have previously discussed what amount they are willing to contribute, it allows your children to make an important decision that will impact them directly."