College Costs, Financial Aid, and Scholarships

College Costs, Financial Aid, and Scholarships

The cost of attending college is a big part of the discussion for most people. Sometimes the discussion (whether your own internal monologue or with family) happens at the beginning of the college search, and (often) it happens at the end of the process, when deciding where to enroll. While I am not a financial aid counselor, I do have some thoughts on how to approach the question of paying for college.

The first step is to understand the vocabulary. Here are two terms that are important:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA) – This term refers to the big scary number that you will find on each college’s website. It is the sum of tuition, housing, food, books, supplies, transportation, and other fees. Schools that receive federal Title IV funds are required to post the cost of attendance on their websites.
  • Net Price – This is the number that results when you subtract aid and scholarships from the Cost of Attendance. 


What really matters is the net price—the amount you will actually pay to attend a school, which frequently is NOT the full cost of attendance. This is an important point because at the beginning of your college search, most schools will seem out of reach based on the COA alone. If you choose not to apply to a school because its COA is too high, you eliminate the possibility of learning what the net price would be for you. 

As I travel and interact with students, it is common for a student’s first question to be, “Does your school have scholarships?” While I appreciate where that question is coming from, it is not the most helpful question. A school cannot just give you money if you have not applied. Knowing that a school “has scholarships” doesn’t tell you how to get one of those scholarships.

A much better question to ask is, “What is the process to apply for scholarships/institutional funds at your school?” A school may have several scholarships that require separate applications. Or a school may have scholarships that are awarded without an application, based on specific criteria such as your GPA.

You also should complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) so that you have access to federal funds. These funds, which may be grants or loans, also help to reduce the cost of attendance at each school. 

And about those loans….Loans in and of themselves are not bad. Your challenge is to understand what amount of loans you are comfortable with. Does it make sense to take out a $5,000 loan? A $25,000 loan? Federal loans generally have better protections in place than private loans, but there could be reasons why your family would choose to take out a private loan. 


Don’t forget about outside scholarships, either. What are those? They are scholarships sponsored by organizations outside of a specific school, which go with you wherever you enroll. Some examples are music club scholarships, Rotary Club scholarships, scholarships offered through a parent’s employer, etc. Generally, such scholarships are for undergraduates, and you would apply for them the summer before your senior year. It takes initiative on your part, but the trade-off is that the funds go with you wherever you enroll. (And for the record, the highest total amount of outside scholarships that I know of was a total of $20,500 earned by one student, comprising separate awards that were mostly under $2,000. This student had a very busy summer!)

Post-secondary education is not beyond your reach. The advice here is to not let the cost of attendance deter you. Apply to schools based on the education that they can give you to reach your career goals. Once you have been admitted, you can look at the net price of each school and decide—based on cost and other factors—where to enroll. While it takes time and effort to research the cost and aid processes of different schools, you will be glad that you did.

Kathleen Tesar

Kathleen Tesar, BM, MM, EdD, is the Associate Dean for Enrollment Management at The Juilliard School. A former professional violinist, she was previously the Associate Dean at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, and Director of Admissions at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester. She presents frequently on topics related to performing arts admission, and is co-author of College Prep for Musicians (Bosler, Greene, Tesar).