When my older daughter started the college search, we knew nothing about the financial side of things, other than that we had been saving religiously in a 529 since she was a little girl, and that we still didn’t have nearly enough saved.
With that, we decided one strategy she could use when applying to college was to choose some schools which were routinely accepting students whose grades and SAT scores were under hers (known as safeties), in hopes that she would not only be more likely to get accepted, but awarded scholarships as well. In her mix of choices became a number of these schools, plus targets (admitted students’ grades and scores matched hers) and a few reaches (her grades and scores were under those of typically admitted students). We made sure first to visit many of the schools, but especially all of the safeties. There was no point in applying to any college where she wouldn’t be happy, no matter how much money she received. We didn’t want her to feel pressured to attend a school she had applied to that she didn’t like but where she thought her chances of receiving free money was really good. What would be the point? We also agreed that if she happened to get a full scholarship somewhere – which is extremely rare – she would go to that school.
Our strategy seemed to work. She got into all of her safeties and they all offered her scholarship money. In one case, it would have been cheaper for her to attend one of the safeties that had admitted her and offered her money than our own in-state public college (which she did not apply to because she had no interest in attending. It is relatively expensive for an in-state school). Note: She was not a perfect, straight A student with tons of Honors and AP classes and didn’t score especially high on the SATs, but she did well enough.)
Now we’re in the process of bringing another child though senior year of high school, and our college admissions strategy has been, again, to apply to a variety of schools, with a good mix of safeties, targets, and reaches. Last week my daughter received her first yes (to a safety) with a sizeable, guaranteed, four year renewable scholarship of $17,000 a year as long as she keeps at least a 3.0 GPA. Our strategy has already paid off, literally. I don’t know if she will choose this particular school. We still have eight more schools to hear from, which, of course, also means eight more financial aid packages to consider.
I don’t know a whole lot of families for whom the cost of college is not a factor in deciding where to attend. Besides applying to “safety” schools, there are a few other things we’ve found helpful to know throughout the entire process:
- Do your FAFSA and CSS (if applicable) as early as possible. Schools start working on aid packages early and determine awards throughout the spring. It can be helpful to get in there while the pot is bigger rather than at the end when they’ve already offered funds to many other students.
- Make sure any scholarship money offered is guaranteed for all four years, and whether there are any conditions attached, such as keeping a certain GPA. Other money – grants, loans, etc., are usually for one year only and are likely to change. Our package has changed each year that our daughter has been in school, and not for the better!
- Expect a tuition increase of 2-4% a year, and don’t expect your financial aid package to keep up with the rise. We learned that the hard way!
- Encourage your kids to visit all of their safety schools to make sure they will like them, so if they get such good offers to those schools they won’t feel pressured to go only because of the financial aid package.
- Private colleges with endowments are often your BEST chance at securing free money. Yes, I said private colleges. A lot of people assume that in-state universities offer the best option, but they don’t always. Public colleges don’t have the kind of money that private colleges have, so they can’t always offer as much, especially in certain states. We are sending our daughter to private college for about the same amount of money that it would have cost us to send her to our in-state university with tuition, room, and board.
- Don’t pay too much attention to the “sticker price” of a private school. So many people I know tell me that they can’t afford the $60,000 a year price tag at private schools so they don’t even bother having their kids apply. Well, we couldn’t either. But I don’t know a whole lot of people actually paying the $60,000 a year for their kids’ private school education. Most, like us, received nice financial aid packages that included a decent amount of free (scholarship, outright grants) money.
- It doesn’t hurt to ask for more. Once my daughter got all her aid packages and acceptances, we carefully reviewed them. Her second choice school offered a few thousand more than her first choice school. I called the first choice school and explained that my daughter really wanted to attend there but that her second choice school had offered her a better package. After some negotiating and some more paperwork, first choice school matched school number two’s package and she was able to attend there. She will graduate in May, 2016, and has had an incredible experience.
In the end, take a deep breath. It will be okay. The financing part of college is very overwhelming and stressful but it does work out. You don’t have to go into huge debt for college. There are other options – just as we learned.
by Judy Mollen Walters, the author of three novels: The Place to Say Goodbye (2015), The Opposite of Normal (2014), and Child of Mine (2013), Her next novel, Start at the Beginning, will be released in March, 2016. Judy is an essayist who writes about living with teenagers and the writing life. She also provides support and guidance to high school seniors working on their college essays. You can find her work on The Huffington Post, Kveller, Writer Unboxed, Grown and Flown, and Club Mid at Scary Mommy web sites. She lives in New Jersey with her family. She can be reached on her facebook page at or via email at email@example.com.
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