Ask any high school senior (or parent of one) and they’re likely to echo the same sentiment.
The unexpected (and unwanted) snowstorms that often occur during April aren’t the only surprises that pop up. With those storms come a blizzard of students and families blindsided by the cost of college.
It’s a bitter irony that just when everyone is healing from the rejection letters, the financial/merit aid information arrives…and it’s heartbreak of a different kind
Financial Aid Packages
I see many families just cross their fingers and hope for the best when it comes to aid assistance in paying for college.
April’s meanest trick is the acceptance letter to a dream school, without enough financial or merit aid.
Was it a dream school?
No, it was a fantasy school.
While the phrase, “you never know” is commonly heard throughout the college application process, it’s much better to educate yourself so you can anticipate the cost of college.
A financial crapshoot is devastating to students and parents alike.
Have the Financial Talk With Your Child
Can the unpleasant financial surprise be avoided?
Perhaps not entirely, but there are many strategies a family can employ to take the painful guesswork out of the cost of college.
It’s critical to have a financial conversation with your child early in the process to level expectations and avoid this kind of disappointment.
You may have leeway in what you can pay, but be as specific as possible.
You’re considering an expense second only to your mortgage.
You don’t go house shopping without knowing your budget, do you?
The first step in avoiding April’s wrath is clear communication.
Talking points to have with your student about the cost of college
- How much exactly has been saved for their education
- The expected student contribution (from loans, a job in college, student savings).
- Family member contributions
- Pain threshold for loans, who’s paying them, and when
While it is important to come to an understanding about what type of school is a “good fit” when shaping a list of colleges, students should typically include reach schools, safety schools, and those in between.
Within each category, it is important to have financial safety schools: those colleges that are likely to be affordable.
Estimating the Cost of College
The good news is, there is plenty of information readily available about how to estimate the cost of college:
- The College Board’s EFC Calculator will provide some basic information to the Federal Student Aid Office of the Department of Education and you’ll get a sense of eligibility for federal student (need-based) aid. It will provide an Expected Family Contribution (EFC); it’s not the price you’ll pay, it’s what you’re expected to contribute.
- Net Price Calculators. Colleges are required to have Net Price Calculators on their websites to assist families in determining what the net price of attendance may be. While not always entirely accurate, they can be very good ballpark estimators. I did seven of them for my daughter and all except one was very accurate. The more specific the questions, the more accurate the answers.
- Common Data Set. These comprehensive reports are available on college websites and here, and can also give a good picture of how their institutional aid is distributed.
The Joy of Merit Aid
An EFC Calculator will provide the EFC, which is the estimate of what you will be expected to pay for college.
If your EFC is low, you are more likely to receive significant federal need-based aid.
If your EFC is high, merit-based aid is your goal. Merit aid, broadly speaking, is offered by mainly private colleges to students who are deemed desirable.
Those students sit at the most competitive tier of admitted students at a given school. (Note: Ivy league schools do NOT offer merit-based aid.)
Merit aid is offered as an enticement.
It’s seductive…who doesn’t want to be wanted?
To many students, merit aid is the deciding factor. It can cut the cost significantly, in many cases matching the cost of a public state university.
Only a very small percentage of students pay the sticker price of a college.
Many families never look at these colleges because of the sticker price shock, but they can be affordable for competitive students.
Net price calculators are good predictors of whether your student is likely to receive merit aid. It will ask for GPA, test scores, etc. and compare to their students with the same profile.
Colleges usually have front-and-center on their websites how much merit aid they award, in what average amount, and to what percentage of their students.
Which colleges have these deep pockets? Right here on Road2College you can see the “Top 30 Colleges Offering the Largest Merit-Based Scholarships”
In addition, our College Insights tool will help you find schools that will be more generous with their money.
Another strategy is to see which colleges meet 100% of demonstrated need.
Yes, they are very competitive schools, but they won’t “gap” you what you need to attend if you are admitted.
Are Private Scholarships the Best Approach?
No, they are not.
April’s second cruelest act is to send students and families scrambling for scholarships to try to close the gap in need.
Don’t get me wrong, every bit helps.
And if you student is so inclined, and would like to invest the time and effort, there are many great strategies to employ when searching for scholarships.
While there are quite a lot of scholarships, the large national ones are extremely competitive and not likely to be extended for four years.
Where does that leave a student for the remaining three years?
I have had students win national scholarships, but typically I’ll see students get a couple thousand dollars through several local options.
This requires a lot of effort.
What happens next?
Some of the colleges factor in outside scholarships and reduce the needs-based aid award accordingly.
Called “aid displacement,” it adds to the pain of this process.
Some state legislatures, including New Jersey and Washington, have introduced legislation to address scholarship displacement, but as of now, the state of Maryland is the only one that has taken the lead to remove this practice.
Avoid the Heartache for Your Student
Every April, my heart breaks. Some lucky seniors will close their need gap, but many others won’t be so fortunate.
If you are the parent of a younger child, l urge you to pay as much attention to the financial fit of a school as any other component.
Dangling that sweet carrot just out of reach is never a pain we’d willingly inflict on our children, and yet it happens all the time.
“Cross your fingers and hope for the best” is not a successful strategy.
Knowledge is power. Educate yourself, know where to look for reliable information, and have open and honest financial discussions with your student.
April’s weather is unpredictable; the aid letters you receive in April don’t have to be.
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