The tables have finally turned. Now that students have been notified by colleges as to where they've gotten in, it's their turn to make the decisions. And for the students to whom money matters, financial aid offers add another layer of complexity. Here are a few tips published by consumerreports.org to help figure out those financial aid offers:
- Make sure you understand the total amount you'll receive. Pay attention to the figure "total cost of attendance," but not all schools handle this number the same way. Some figures include tuition, fees, room and board, while others include additional costs such as books, activities and living expenses.
- Think about the type of loan you will need. You can opt for a Direct loan or a Perkins loan, and they can be subsidized or unsubsidized. Make sure to research which ones best suit your needs.
- Find out if work-study programs are available. Work-study programs can be extremely helpful in making ends meet, and they are usually offered on campus.
- Make sure that your offer will continue for four years. Schools often supply a financial figure for the first year of college. Be sure to find out what you are guaranteed throughout your four years.
- Financial aid offers are not written in stone. You can always appeal an offer with the schools' financial aid office. This is especially true when you have a more generous alternate offer.
Even if students don’t pay that much attention to college rankings, the colleges themselves seem to obsess over them. Especially problematic are colleges that crave to the pressure, using any means necessary to increase ratings. According to this article in the Sentinel Tribune, Claremont McKenna’s senior administrator recently resigned after admitting he falsified college entrance exam scores for years to inflate rankings.
Other colleges spend billions on financial aid in order to entice students with high scores to attend their school or offer bonuses to presidents who increase their school’s rating. Baylor University went as far as to pay students who had already been accepted to retake the SAT exam in order to increase average scores.
Unfortunately, when colleges focus only on increasing their ratings, they are not doing what’s best for students. Some of the consequences include, “recruiting as many students as they can to apply, even if they're not likely to be a good fit, just to boost their selectivity numbers. And they've showered financial aid on high-achieving, and often wealthy, kids with high SAT scores.”
Aware of the ever-rising cost of college and to promote cost transparency, the federal government instituted an October 2011 deadline for colleges to post a net-price calculator on their sites. As reported in this article published on twincities.com, the calculators have been eye opening to high school students like Shawnia Johnson leading her to modify her college list and begin to focus on working and saving more. For senior Adithya Balaji, the calculators were a great stress relief: "Going into the final stretch without having any idea what to expect [in terms of financial aid] would be really stressful. The calculators are useful in setting real expectations."
While awareness of the calculators, as well as their visibility on college sites, must be improved, it is a step forward towards making the application process less tense. As Brian Lindeman, financial aid director at Macalester College puts it, “Applying for financial aid can be a very mysterious process. This is a great way to get an early visual estimate of what paying for college might look like."
With perfect timing, the New York Times has presented the flip side of our previous post about the value of pursuing scholarships, analyzing the Education Department's recent release of its database of the most expensive colleges and universities in America.
The rise in cost of education in America is clearly outstripping inflation, household income, or any other benchmark against which tuition increases of America's not-for-profit universities could be measured year over year. So what is to be done about the astronomical costs incoming freshmen are facing?
The answer is found in the data itself, and in the public response from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine (the school with the dubious distinction of being the most expensive four-year not-for-profit school in America). Increase the amount of financial aid available to students of lesser means.
Scholarships are at a higher premium than ever before, so make sure to do your homework this summer and apply to as many as you can find. In many ways, such applications are a numbers game - the more you can find, the less you'll pay up front.
Yesterday we talked about where to seek out advice on which college to attend when your acceptance letters amount to an embarrassment of riches. One of the primary factors for students with multiple options is always cost. But make sure not to just look at the retail price of your college education (hello, sticker shock) - keep in mind the many possible sources of third-party money, not to mention the increase in your potential income over the professional life a more prestigious education may buy you.
There are many sources on the web (College Essay Organizer among them) that will help you find scholarship, fellowship, grant, and work-study opportunities to offset the increasingly intimidating cost of higher education. If you're able to begin work before you arrive at school and spread your applications far and wide, you may be surprised at the breadth of the resources out there. CEO's database of questions includes not only optional, departmental, and program-specific questions, but also scholarship, fellowship, and honors essays that can often result in free (as in really free) money for college. In many cases, those scholarships are renewable for the entire length of your stay at the university.
When you couple those opportunities with the fact that the education you're buying can pay dividends later on, often times the difference in quality of your more selective diploma can pay for itself. Think long term! It's not easy, especially at the end of your senior year, but it can really make a difference.
Most of the talk these days, is still about how to narrow down the list of acceptances, and possible acceptances (wait lists), and come to the best possible decision. For some, financial aid is the biggest consideration, often forcing a student to choose between a higher ranked school with a lesser aid package and a less competitive school offering a full scholarship.
In other cases, the decision may be between a school that the student has her heart on vs. a higher ranked school that the parents are pushing for. In yet another scenario, a student may be so heartbroken over a rejection that he is utterly unable to focus and consider the positives and negatives of his other choices.
Thankfully, there are places to turn when in need of a sympathetic and knowledgeable ear. One such site is The Choice, the NY Times blog dedicated to the college admissions process. Bruce Poch, an experienced admissions officer who has served at Pomona College, Wesleyan University and Connecticut College, is offering answers to admissions questions this week.
Poch's common sense responses are sure to be insightful and direct, and cut to the heart of the issues at hand. Questions and answers are posted here, and they are sure to echo many of your own ongoing internal dialogues, so even if you don’t post a question, you can certainly benefit by checking it out.
Now that the majority of college deadlines have passed, is it time to sit back with a sense of self-satisfaction on all that you have accomplished? Absolutely. But for many students, financial aid deadlines are still looming, as are concerns as to whether or not college dreams will be dashed by insufficient aid. As schools continue their own struggles to meet rising costs while faced with an increasing demand for financial aid by its applicants, it becomes ever more important to understand how schools are basing their aid decisions.
An article in the NY Times Choice Blog by Martha Merrill and Elaine Solinga, dean of admission and director of financial aid at Connecticut College, respectively, offer some insider tips on how to fill out these all-important forms:
- Each school’s policies are different. Connecticut College belongs to a handful of colleges that has a no-loan policy for families with incomes less than $50,000, making it an attractive option for students looking to avoid federal loans.
- Be accurate and on time. While you may be feeling burnt out from getting all those applications in on time, don’t give in to the temptation to take the financial aid form less seriously. The earlier you can file your tax return and put together an accurate reflection of your family’s circumstances, the sooner you can get that needed rest, and breeze through the rest of your senior year.
- Ask questions. Getting help filling out the financial aid form is not like getting help on your college applications. Ask those supporting you to pitch in, and when in doubt, contact the school. Schools know that these forms can be complicated, and they usually have dedicated staff to field your questions and keep your information correct and up-to-date.
You’ve made it this far. Don’t give up now. Soon enough, you’ll be sitting back wondering what you were so stressed out about.
Did you know that CEO includes hundreds of hard-to-find scholarship questions in its database? It makes it that much less stressful when applying for financial aid.