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Do You Have to Start an Underground Casino to Pay for College?

I recently watched The House with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) Johansen are so excited when their daughter gets into Bucknell University, until the small town they live in gives away her scholarship for a town pool. When the two are faced with paying tuition on their own, they start an underground casino and the chaos ensues.

While both of my children have savings accounts and 529 college savings plans, this movie gave me serious anxiety about paying for college, and my oldest is only six years-old. (It also had an unnecessary fight club scene.)

It got me thinking, do families have to resort to illegal measures to pay for college these days? While I usually offer public relations or media relations advice on the blog, today I’m sharing some tips I’ve learned working with financial aid officers over the last 10 years, as well as with our resident financial aid expert Ali Lincoln.

1. Sticker price vs. actual price. Many prospective families see the sticker price of an institution and automatically say they can’t afford it. But in many cases the actual cost is much lower once you receive a financial aid package. The net price calculator is a great resource to help determine these numbers.

2. Loans vs. grants. Be sure to look at the fine print. Many aid packages are made up of loans, grants, scholarships and work-study/job programs. Loans you have to pay back; grants and scholarships you don’t.

3. Finding scholarships/grants. Your local Rotary Club, your office, local businesses—there are lots of places for your child to find money to pay for college. Fastweb can also help you identify some of these opportunities.

4. Talk about money. Don’t wait until your child has graduated with loans to discuss money; talk with your child early in life so they understand the value of money. In 2014, Ali wrote a piece about financial literacy and programs that more families should be taking advantage of, and the advice still holds true today.

It’s better than praying for three cherries to line up across the slot machine. Because as I learned from the film, the house always wins. Be prepared, educate yourself and seek advice so you don’t have to press your luck when your child graduates from high school.