Deciding where to go to college, and how to pay for it, are two of the most important decisions students will make in their lifetime.
A great college experience can launch them into an amazing career with a support system of friends that sets them up for success in life, while a subpar one might cause them to regard it as just an expensive way to spend four years.
A smart college financial plan can help a student establish credit, find a high-paying field, and build a solid financial platform, but a lack of foresight can cripple a student’s financial future.
We get it—that’s a lot to think about. Luckily, we’re here to help!
Drawing on years of experience, as well as two top names in college admissions planning and financial aid advising, here’s a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about college admissions and financial aid—but were too afraid to ask.
The College Choice
Before we can really dig into how to prepare for paying for college, much less attending, chances are you’ve got some questions about how to decide on a college. If your child is absolutely determined to go to a community college, or if you happen to be a major donor at an institution where your entire family attended, feel free to skip this section.
Otherwise, meet Rebecca Chabrow, the Director of College Consulting at Linden Hall School. Rebecca has experience on both sides of the admissions table, with stints in college counseling both in the U.S. and abroad at international schools.
Your Child’s High School Resume
According to Rebecca, the single most important aspect of academics, in high school, is that students focus more on quality and less on quantity. After all, “colleges often recalculate GPA (Grade Point Average) according to their own formula,” states Rebecca, and the recalculations reward those who challenge themselves.
But how does a student challenge themself? According to Rebecca, it’s twofold. First, students should make sure to take at least three credits each in English, math, social studies, sciences, and foreign languages throughout their high school career. She also recommends that students who want to be competitive take at least four credits in each of those subjects over four years.
After all, the American educational experience is fundamentally based on the liberal arts. “Even at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), students are required to take courses that fill the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) requirement,” says Rebecca.
Moreover, it’s not just the breadth of the studies, but also the depth. Students should challenge themselves, especially with Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and honors classes.
Not sure if your child is ready for a higher level class? Rebecca offers a simple solution: If they get an A, make next year’s course more difficult. However, a C is a sign they’ve overshot the mark. So consider a class where your child is more likely to perform well.
Finally, if their high school doesn’t offer more advanced classes, take advantage of universities offering MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) to enhance the offerings. Colleges receive reports on the offerings of each high school, so this is a great way to demonstrate passion and an appetite for academic rigor.
Don’t Forget Extracurriculars
For some time, students and parents have often thought that schools wanted well-rounded students. This is not necessarily true. Instead, Rebecca says, “colleges want a well-rounded student body.” Instead of dabbling in a little bit of everything, encourage your child to focus on where their passions are. A student who wants to study business should not feel forced to pursue a membership in a classics club, unless there’s something about the organization that’s meaningful to the student.
With all that in mind, it’s time to start considering schools. If your child has taken a standardized test and opted to receive promotional materials from colleges, then chances are their inbox is full every day. Note that while helpful, this isn’t the best starting point.
Rebecca instead recommends considering the select-ability of schools with respect to your child. She points out that top-tier selective colleges (those with admissions rates of around 20% or lower) will want mostly As for grades. Those that are simply selective (with around a 50% admissions rate) will consider a mix of As and Bs. Also, if your child has a lot of As but took easy courses, know that some colleges may consider them as having taken the easy way out, says Rebecca.
Once you’ve figured out where your child has a shot of gaining admission, it’s time to come up with a list. Your child should have a solid mix of reach, match, and safety schools—ideally all choices that would meet their needs.
In researching schools, assuming that your child’s resume is a good match, two broad factors matter. One is the overall ‘fit,’ which includes aspects like urban/rural, small/large, and other personal preferences. This is best determined by your child, along with college tours where possible.
The other factor is one that might require a bit more help: paying for it all.
Paying for College
Our expert on paying for college, Luanne Lee, a College Financial Planning Specialist and owner of Your College Planning Coach, is quick to point out that college is the second most expensive purchase most people make in their lives. Luanne would know; for the last 17 years, she’s been focused exclusively on helping families understand the financial aid process. Before that, she worked in financial services, so she’s a great person to ask.
There are three general categories of money that help a student pay for college. First, there are scholarships and grants. Then there are loans. And finally, there’s money the family has saved to help the child. As much as we all want to maximize that first category, namely because your child won’t have to pay it back, it’s a mix of the second two that will be crucial for many families.
Additionally, not all savings plans are created equally. Saving for college via a 529 plan offers your family a number of tax advantages, but the money saved can only be used for specific expenses. Buying a computer is okay, but buying a plane ticket to fly to and from campus is not. Being aware of these differences early can help down the road.
Therefore, families should start finding ways to save money early, in hopes of minimizing loans. Luanne is quick to point out that she knows this wasn’t the way things were in the past (she says that just as the cost of milk and gas has increased, so too have college educations!), so starting earlier is better.
In fact, Luanne suggests families start to discuss college costs and what they can afford as early as the eighth grade. Parents should “set expectations with their students on ‘this is what we as your parents can afford, your job as a student is to get good grades, SAT scores, volunteer, write essays for scholarships,’” making it clear that this is a team effort. Doing so will also provide incentives for students to work harder, seeing that they have an important part to play in the process.
The FAFSA and Other Aid
If you’ve heard anything about college financial aid, then chances are you’re familiar with the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, at least in passing.
It is the single most important form you’ll fill out to help your child pay for college.
As Luanne says, “the FAFSA is the most misunderstood document in planning for college.” Students don’t get something just for filing the FAFSA, she adds (other than the ability to take out an unsubsidized direct loan).
However, it is crucial for two other types of financial aid.
College Financial Aid
Almost certainly, your child’s college will require a FAFSA in order to calculate student financial aid. Other forms may or may not be required, depending on the school. There are two types of financial aid administered by universities: merit aid and need-based aid. Need-based aid, which can consist of scholarships, grants, work-study, or loans, is decided by the FAFSA, so it is imperative to file it.
Merit aid does not typically require the FAFSA, and for many families, it’s the most attractive to find. Luanne stresses the importance of examining the merit aid policies of colleges; above all else, “the student should be the driver in asking for additional merit awards.”
Private Financial Aid, Also Known as Private Scholarships
Finally, there’s a considerable amount of third-party aid available in private scholarships, but students shouldn’t assume private scholarships will cover all of their costs. These scholarships can be a mix of both need-based and merit-based aid, so students and their families shouldn’t be surprised when such groups ask for a copy of their FAFSA.
Many large corporations sponsor rather flashy scholarship programs, but thousands of students do well in asking local and regional groups. Faith-based organizations, fraternal groups, and small businesses all tend to give away money for scholarships, and a simple phone call or email can start the process.
What About Appealing?
Even if everything goes right, there’s still always a chance that the college’s final price is out of reach. In this case, Luanne strongly advises students to appeal the decision. Luanne offers a formula that is simple enough, but can help your child through the process:
- First, have them call the financial aid representative and thank them for their initial award.
- Explain the circumstances, as well as why they would really like to attend the college in question.
- Have hard numbers, as financial aid representatives will need to know exactly how much your family needs.
- If applicable, have other financial aid offers ready. Colleges worry about yield protection, and while there is a fine line here, there’s nothing wrong with your child knowing their worth.
- If it is offered, be prepared for them to accept admission on the spot and withdraw offers from other colleges.
- Check out our Guide To Everything You Need To Know About Financial Aid Appeals.
These appeals don’t always work, so your family should be prepared for that outcome. However, colleges love to be wanted, and if you’re already accepted, financial aid officers are reasonable people, after all.
The Importance of Planning Ahead
Through both Rebecca’s and Luanne’s advice, one common thread emerges—begin planning early. While 529 plans can be started before the child is even born, for many families, starting college planning and research at the end of middle school, or the very beginning of high school, can help them make sure that expectations are reasonable and preparations are made to help your child do their absolute best in both applying and paying for college.
The basic principles of starting the college process include:
- Know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which schools use to calculate how much financial aid your child is eligible to receive.
- Know your child’s stats vs. the stats of the schools they are applying to by using the College Insights Tool.
- Research whether or not the schools your child is applying to typically give merit aid or not—and if so, how much.
- Calculate how much your family can reasonably afford to contribute toward your child’s education expenses and look for schools that match your budget.
- Keep track of college application deadlines and when colleges start accepting applications. It’s good to submit some applications early, whether early action, early decision, or just at the beginning of a college’s rolling admissions process. There are also separate deadlines for financial aid forms and sometimes separate applications and deadlines for merit scholarships.
A little behind the eight ball? Check out our list for juniors and seniors!
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