Just because you and your spouse (or ex-spouse) make more than $100,000 together, doesn’t mean you want or can pay cash for a decent college education for your child. And you probably aren’t too keen on taking out a loan, either.

So can you get financial aid for your child, including grants and scholarships, if you’re a high-income parent? “Absolutely, and you can get a lot,” says Damian Rothermel, a CFP from Oregon specializing in college financial aid.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Always File the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

“I often hear from families who apply for financial aid the first year when their eldest child goes to college. They don’t get anything other than low-cost loans, and the second year they say, ‘Why bother?’ ” says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president publisher of edvisors.com, and author of the book Filing the FAFSA. “But the financial aid formulas are very complicated, and there are very subtle things that can change from one year to the next that can have an impact on their aid eligibility.”

That includes the number of children in college — the more children in college, the more your eligibility for need-based aid increases. If your family income dropped just a little bit, it might put you below an income threshold that increases your aid eligibility. Maybe the calculations that include the percentage of your assets that are sheltered, like how much money is in your retirement account, have changed. Or maybe, your child is applying to a more expensive college, which increases your demonstrated financial need.

Read More: How Does the 529 College Savings Plan Work? >>

The point is, the calculations to determine your financial aid are complex. You have a much better chance to win financial aid than you do the lottery, so you should absolutely give it a shot. You have nothing to lose.

2. Work with a Financial Aid Expert.

If you’re an upper-middle class or high-net-worth family, it’s important that you set up your finances to maximize your financial aid by moving assets around. Financial planners call that sheltering your money.

“Such a big part of [financial aid] is based on the assets,” Rothermel says. “There are certain types of accounts that are not favorably looked at for calculations, because the school knows it’s there and they expect you to use the money for school. Whereas, if it’s a retirement account, that’s not the case.”

This is where having a financial advisor, one who specializes in financial aid, comes in. “It’s very customized and very specific advice, because everybody is different,” Rothermel says.

Read More: Should You Prioritize College Savings Over Retirement? >>

Surprisingly, “an education account may not be the best place to do it,” he continues. “It’s not like retirement planning, where you focus on growth, growth, growth.” The goal is to shelter enough money so that you maximize your financial aid without locking it up where you can’t get to it to actually write the tuition check.

To find a financial advisor who can maximize your financial aid, ask them if they’ve ever filled out a FAFSA form. “That’s the first indicator that they have any clue,” Rothermel says.

The good news is, “most specialists like myself, we do complimentary consultations,” he tells us.

3. Get Organized 1 to 2 Years Before Applying.

“The main thing with college planning that I can’t stress enough is the planning. If somebody is coming to me and their kid is a sophomore, I can do a ton to really help them,” Rothermel commented.

One big reason is that the simplest way to backup your claims on the FAFSA is through your latest tax return. So that means if you are filling out the FAFSA in January of 2015, your finances should have been in order by the end of 2013. It’s not a disaster if you make large changes in 2014, but it will make the application process more complicated.

And once your child is in school, there’s not much you can do to improve the numbers and your eligibility for financial aid. So get started early.

4. Make Colleges Compete for Your Child.

“Remember that these are businesses; colleges are looking for the best students that will not only excel, but also help build its reputation and potentially even be a donor back to the school,” Rothermel says. To that end, they’ll give money to attractive students, even if they don’t necessarily need the money.

To get a better “offer” for your child, that is, a better financial aid package, have your child apply to several schools and have the FAFSA sent to several, even if their heart is set on your alma mater. “The college sees this and knows they are in competition for the student,” Rothermel says.

Read More: The Ugly Secrets of Student Loan Debt >>

Oh, and make sure to file the FAFSA on the first day possible, typically on Jan. 2 or 3. It may seem arbitrary, but being at the front of the line when colleges decide to dole out money makes a difference. “If you’re not in the front of the line, you have to be a better prospective student to get the same amount of money,” Rothermel notes.

So paying for college doesn’t have to be so stressful. With some smart planning and a little luck, your child will get into the college of his or her dreams, and you’ll be able to finance it without taking out a second mortgage.

Read More on Education

Alden Wicker

Alden Wicker

Alden Wicker is a freelance journalist specializing in personal finance and sustainable lifestyle topics. She lives in New York, and is an expert at finding new and interesting ways of generating extra income. Her biggest budget weakness is eco-friendly fashion. Follow Alden on Twitter and Google+


Richard · January 15, 2015 at 10:19 am

Interesting article. Our daughter is a senior in HS and has applied to 4 state schools in NC. My wife and I work and while we have always “heard” that working parents make it almost impossible for aid, our daughter did fill out the FAFSA form. She listed all four schools. That brings me to a question regarding an interesting part of your article:

To get a better “offer” for your child, that is, a better financial aid package, have your child apply to several schools and have the FAFSA sent to several, even if their heart is set on your alma mater. “The college sees this and knows they are in competition for the student,”

Is that accurate? Each school will know the other three she listed on the FAFSA?


Richard S.

Hugh Jass · April 18, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Absolute garbage,
Myths are true you can make too much for aid.

Alice K · July 27, 2015 at 3:09 pm

The myths seem to be true in my son’s case. We make more than FAFSA think we should to get aid. Sallie Mae denied our loan application, he didn’t receive any scholarships…what are parents supposed to do to help their kids? We see our son really trying to go to college, but the financial help is not there.

Jean m · January 5, 2016 at 5:08 pm

We got nothing for our son. I see people with 529 plans getting financial aid?? Not sure what you have to do but I disagree with everything on this sight. You need to be dirt poor or know how to cheat the system.

Jim Gannucci · January 11, 2016 at 3:12 pm

Jean M,I agree with everything your saying. Just don’t understand it at all. These colleges are just making a killing on students and I don’t care what anyone says you have to be low income to get anything. And remember the money is coming from the Feds so you’ll end up paying it back when they graduate.

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Snoglydox · April 22, 2016 at 6:24 am

At least you tried for your child; my parents didn’t do diddlysquat. I’m was working three part time jobs while going to college, and my mom was whining at me to finish a deck at their new house they bought on the other side of the state; my only option was to leave. I was a pet; I had food and shelter.

I wasn’t able to complete college because of finances; I was born to do engineering and excelled so much that I was able to help others get their degrees.

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Anthony Aguillon · June 13, 2016 at 7:37 pm

What nonsense. I applied for two years believing these were “simply” myths and it turns out these myths are true. I did not receive any financial aid. My parents struggle making payments and my father has to work overtime for us to cope. The FAFSA doesn’t care if it’s overtime. It’s all dependent on the money you make and apparently we make too much because of overtime. The system is broken.

Catherine · June 21, 2016 at 2:39 pm

This will be my case – last year I made overtime, this year I am not. They want you to file early before this year is even done – don’t think it is fair they want you to base it on income you don’t actually get anymore.

Dez · August 20, 2016 at 11:01 pm

John, I don’t think that you really thought your comment through, as you were probably just upset that your parents didn’t treat you better. I understand that $100,000 or more a year is a large sum of money, but you don’t know anyone elses story. My parents make combined about $90,000 a year (dad makes $80,000 mom makes $10,000) neither of them went to college either so they have to bust their asses for that. What you also don’t know is that they have a lot of issues, money gets wasted on their alcohol addictions and other temporary things. People think I’m poor when they see my house, it looks like a damn meth lab. I’m 17, a senior and my job pays minimum wage. My parents make me pay for most of my things myself. They also expect perfect grades so multiple jobs isn’t an option. Due to their earnings I probably won’t recieve any aid and that won’t help me get into the 5 year masters program I know I have the potential to be in. So it’s not fair for you to judge, especially since this day and age it’s nearly impossible to get a good job and live comfortably without a college degree. I shouldn’t have to suffer because my parents can’t handle their money.

Esha · August 25, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Well well well I guess we should all thank you for the revelation that you have just given us. I don’t know why I didn’t think of becoming an independent of my parents before… Oh wait I HAVE. Truth is you cannot be an independent of your parents for the FAFSA until you’re 24, or have a kid, or have a spouse, or you are a ward of the state. So yes we do use are parents but that’s only because we are literally FORCED to. And it seems that you’ve had a very unfortunate life and I’m sorry about that (truly I am), but do not call us (middle class families) babies for wanting to get aid for school. Some of us have parents that work their asses off to move us into nice neighborhoods and have nice clothes, there is barely any money left over to pay the bills let alone $10000 for college. I believe it is not a privilege to go to college, it is a right. 30 years from now the US will need this generation to run the country and I don’t about you but I’d much rather it be in the hands of college graduates then high school diplomas. So yeah I suppose we have it better than most but we also have it far worse when it comes to these kinds of things, too rich for financial aid but too poor for college.

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