Sending twins or siblings to college: Financial options

Amy Fontinelle

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Aug 20, 2020

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 2020–21 is $31,736, 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?

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.

Meeting your expected family contribution

Some of the best news for parents with children who will attend college simultaneously is that financial aid award formulas consider how many children you have in college.

“Each family is assigned an amount called an EFC, or expected family contribution, which is essentially what the calculations determine that the family can afford to pay each year,” said Colleen Ganjian, an independent educational consultant with DC College Counseling in Vienna, Virginia. “No matter how many students are in college, this number does not change — it is simply divided by the number of students.”

Ganjian explained that if a family has an EFC of $50,000 and one student in college, they will be responsible for paying $50,000. If they have the same EFC and two students in college, they will be expected to contribute $25,000 per student. The total annual EFC is the same, but each child will be more likely to qualify for financial aid.

“This particular family would be far better off having both of those students overlap each year, as the four year sum would total $200,000 for their two children. If, instead, the children were four years apart in school and did not overlap in college at all, the family would have to pay that same $50,000 amount each year for eight years back to back — totaling $400,000 for the exact same education,” Ganjian said. For this reason, families with children just a year or two apart might have the oldest child take a gap year so both children can attend college at the same time.

“With the cost of college as high as it is today, the amount of savings can be staggering,” she said. (Calculator: College savings)

The EFC applies to schools that use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Try this calculator to estimate your expected family contribution. For elite private schools that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE application instead, having two or more kids in college at the same time reduces your expected family contribution by about 33 percent instead of 50 percent, according to The College Solution.

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 and fees and your EFC.

By contrast, it would be a mistake if a family didn’t apply for financial aid because of the incorrect assumption that they would not qualify because their EFC was very high, not realizing that it would be divided among multiple children, Ganjian said.

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. 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.


The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.