If the thought of paying for one child’s college education isn’t enough to induce a panic attack, the thought of paying for two or more tuitions simultaneously ought to do the trick. That’s what parents of twins, multiples, and close-in-age siblings face. Even families who have been saving for college expenses since birth might find when the kids reach high school that they have nowhere near enough savings to pay for college. If simultaneous tuition bills are on your horizon, here’s what you need to know about making college affordable through scholarships, grants, and financial aid.
Twin and sibling scholarships and grants
A few colleges offer scholarships to twins. For example, twins can attend Lake Erie College full time in the small town of Painesville, Ohio (about 30 minutes outside Cleveland) for the price of one twin’s tuition. Lake Erie College’s tuition for 2022–23 is $33,588, so the potential savings is substantial. A handful of other colleges offer twin-specific financial assistance, but, like Lake Erie, most are lesser-known schools.
Some schools offer sibling tuition discounts, which can be used for any brothers or sisters attending college simultaneously. For example, Otterbein University’s sibling grant, which provides $1,000 for each sibling concurrently enrolled at the school.
Private organizations also offer college scholarships for twins and siblings. The Twin Days Festival scholarship offers $1,000 to one pair of twins each year, but to have a chance at receiving this relatively small award, your child must be a high school senior who has registered for and attended three of the last five years’ festivals, excluding the current year’s event. If you don’t live near Twinsburg, Ohio, and enjoy attending the world’s largest annual gathering of twins each August, this scholarship won’t be a viable option. These limitations exemplify the larger problem with twin- and sibling-specific college discounts.
“In my opinion, the scholarships for twins and siblings should be only a part of the solution to college affordability,” said scholarship search strategist Ashley Hill, CEO of College Prep Ready. “Ultimately, I advise twins or siblings to focus on colleges that are a best fit for them in addition to offering merit scholarships. If there is a gap in funding, the next best option is to pursue scholarships — but from a comprehensive approach, which includes scholarships based on talents, achievements, and unique situations such as being a twin.”
Sending twins or siblings to the same university
Some twins and siblings might be emotionally close and keen to attend college together; others might appreciate the opportunity to get out of their sibling’s shadow and forge a separate identity. But could financial savings from attending the same school outweigh a child’s desire for independence? (Calculator: College savings)
Blaine Blontz, founder of Financial Aid Coach, a company that helps families maximize their financial aid eligibility, said that a child might be more likely to get accepted to a school a family member is attending and might receive preferential merit-aid consideration. But he doesn’t think these possibilities are significant enough to make your children attend the same college.
“I think the student would be better off applying to a range of schools, potentially including the sibling's school, to see what the range of offers winds up being,” he said. (Related: Choosing the right college)
Besides college tuition discounts, other potential savings include being able to share a vehicle on campus and share rides home during holidays and breaks if both siblings attend the same school and it’s within driving distance, but these savings won’t be significant enough to base a college decision on them.
School-based financial aid
Once you’ve considered twin and sibling discounts and scholarships plus any economies that might come from sending your kids to the same school, coming up with a college plan that’s affordable when you have twins or children who are close in age is not much different than coming up with a college plan that’s affordable for any child whose family is on a budget.
Look for schools that are generous with financial aid in general. According to Money Magazine, there are 75 schools that say they meet students’ full demonstrated financial need. A number of prestigious schools are on this list, including Amherst College, Brown University, Duke University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, and Stanford University. (Related: Hunting for generous colleges)
If your children have stellar academic and extracurricular credentials, they might be able to secure merit-based aid from schools where they’re above-average applicants. Of course, such aid may come from colleges that aren’t the student’s first choice.
FAFSA changes and expected family contribution
One advantage for parents with children attending college simultaneously was that financial aid award formulas considered how many children you have in college. But that is disappearing with changes scheduled to take place in the 2024-2025 academic year to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Related: College tuition and big changes to the FAFSA)
Indeed, some families may find that their out-of-pocket costs will double, or worse.
Why? The new FAFSA will still request information on the number of children a family has in college that year, but the federal aid formula will no longer automatically take into account multiple children when determining what the family can afford to pay, called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). (Learn more: FAFSA changes could double some family college costs: Are you ready?)
Currently, the parent contribution calculated in the federal aid formula is divided by the number of dependent children they have in college simultaneously. So, if the parent contribution was determined to be $40,000 per year, it would be reduced to $20,000 per child if they have two children in college, and $13,333 per child if they have three children in college at the same time, etc. That substantially increases each child’s eligibility for need-based financial aid.
Because the multiple-children discount was so valuable, college planning professionals once suggested that families with children who are two years apart in school consider having their oldest take a gap year, so they could divide their eligibility for aid for three years when their children would be in college together. But that strategy may no longer work.
At their discretion, some colleges may still decide to offer the multiple children discount when awarding their own financial aid dollars.
Experts recommend figuring out your EFC before your kids apply to college because parents are often surprised by the results. You don’t want your kids to get their hearts set on a school where neither you nor the college will be able to make up the difference between tuition/fees and your EFC.
Once you have a fact-based sense of your EFC, not just a guess, you can set reasonable expectations with your children early in the college search process about what you will be able to afford and how affordability affects their options. If student loans are a possibility, educate them thoroughly about the long-term consequences of taking on that debt; it can be difficult to grasp at age 16 or 17 or 18. (Related: When 401(k) and student loans compete)
Figure out if you are willing and eligible to take out a federal Parent PLUS loan or a private parent loan and if so, for how much. Many people consult a financial professional to help consider the implications of such loans to long-range financial goals. (Related: Parent PLUS loans and digging out of debt)
Decide whether your children will need to work during the weekends, evenings and summers while attending high school and/or college and make sure they understand their obligation to contribute to their education expenses. Emphasize that you won’t be able to pay for five years of college and look into plans to facilitate graduating in fewer than four years — earning credits during summer school, for example.
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This article was originally published in August 2016. It has been updated.