The stories shared here were first published in our Paying for College 101 Facebook community. They’ve been edited for clarity and flow.
The college admissions process is overwhelming for many parents. And while there are lots of helpful resources offering information and advice, it’s difficult to know where to start. Our Paying for College 101 Facebook group members are a generous source of reliable, practical knowledge. They regularly pay it forward by sharing what they’ve learned.
Here are some of their best tips:
How to Choose a College
One of the most common themes we’ve heard from families is how the group has helped them choose the best college for their student.
Mike: “There are lots of colleges out there, so start trying to find the right combination of cost and student academics.”
Erin: “I’ve especially appreciated all the college recommendations that people give to each other. I have a high school junior, and I’ve been taking some notes from this group as we begin to make our own list. I’ve heard about a lot of colleges here that I wasn’t familiar with before.”
Rosana: “I learned that there’s a lid (school) for every pot (child).”
Colleges by Cost
Most people assume that going to an in-state public university is the least expensive option. But that’s not always true.
Amanda: “I learned that if you’re in certain states, it’s cheaper to go out of state!”
Why? The amount of financial aid that colleges offer varies wildly. A strong financial aid package from an out-of-state private university can actually be more affordable in some cases than an in-state public college.
From member Daina: “Both of my children are attending out-of-state colleges for less than what we would have paid at our state’s public universities.”
Cheryl: “This community is the place to learn how to get your child into a college you can afford! It helped my daughter secure a full scholarship.”
Learning about New Schools
Everyone is familiar with Ivy League universities and other well-known schools. But there are so many other colleges out there that offer a great education.
Sara: “I learned there are thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S., and many folks are only interested in 50 to 200 of them. This is fantastic news for those of us who don’t care about prestige as long as everything else fits.”
Many smaller, less-famous schools have exceptional degree programs, great financial aid options, and supportive academic communities. We’ve had many community members end up sending their children to a school they found out about in the group.
Heather: “I learned that the rating of a particular program is more important than the overall school rating if your student is absolutely sure of their major.”
Lisa: “Thanks to this group, we found a college that has a program that seems tailor-made for my children’s interests and offers significant merit for National Merit Semi-Finalists and National Merit Finalists.”
Colleges That Offer Merit Scholarships
Cost isn’t the only factor when choosing a college, but it’s a big one. Many of our members have talked about how to find the colleges that offer the most merit aid.
Tracey: “I learned that a private school with merit aid is often similar or cheaper than a public school, especially for high-stats students.”
For example, the University of Alabama and several other schools offer generous automatic merit scholarships to out-of-state students. These opportunities aren’t widely known, but many parents have found out about them from others in the community.
Jessica: “We probably never would have known about Alabama’s automatic merit. It’s now our safety school and will either be free tuition or a free ride depending on the National Merit Finalist results.”
Beth: “A few schools that offer automatic merit aid are Alabama, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and West Virginia.”
Tools to Compare Colleges
Another common theme among members is finding and using college comparison tools. There are several tools that make it much easier to narrow down potential schools.
Common Data Set
The Common Data Set (CDS) is a collaborative initiative to provide accurate, high-quality information about colleges in a standardized format. The CDS makes it easy to compare participating schools directly based on demographics, admission stats, degree programs, academic policies, financial aid, and student life details.
Latia: “I learned that each school’s Common Data Set is a trove of important info.”
Jenny: “Google the college name and Common Data Set.”
Jessica: “See what percentage of students are actually getting merit aid and the average amount.”
Members also recommend the College Insights tool. It’s another way to get the information you and your child need to compare schools and decide which ones to pursue. This tool includes details about scholarships, financial aid, admissions, and other criteria.
Cost of College
The Paying for College 101 FB group frequently discusses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and its consequences. There are tips for filling out the form and advice on what to do with the information in your child’s Student Aid Report (SAR), specifically the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
The most common advice from community members is to focus more on the Net Price Calculator (NPC) result for each college rather than on the EFC calculated by the government.
Kimberly, “NPC is the most important.”
The NPC tells you how much a school really costs. Virtually all colleges and universities have a Net Price Calculator because they’re required to if they want to participate in the federal financial aid system.
You can use a school’s NPC to get a realistic idea of how much it would cost for your child to attend. The calculator adds up all the relevant expenses (e.g. tuition, fees, textbooks, housing) and subtracts the amount of aid (e.g. scholarships, grants, financial aid) your student is likely to receive. The result is the true cost of attendance.
Members agree that the NPC gives a much more accurate picture of how much college will cost than the EFC.
Nathalie: “Both numbers are important, but for me, the EFC is not an amount I am willing to pay. NPC is more important.”
And don’t just focus on the amount of aid offered. The question is, can you afford the school?
Lisa: “Always look at the bottom line, out-of-pocket cost. Don’t fall for the incredible scholarship offers that still leave the school out of your price range.
The Ins and Outs of the Admissions Process
These different admissions policies can be confusing. Early Decision is especially complicated with its restrictions on applying to other schools.
Many parents are wary of encouraging their students to apply ED, especially if there are serious financial concerns. Several community members have offered advice on how to withdraw an ED application if the school offers inadequate financial aid.
Julie: “My daughter was applying ED and I learned we can appeal if financial aid does not come close to the NPC number.”
Kimberly: “Most colleges have the rule that allows ED withdrawal due to an unacceptable financial package. I wouldn’t apply ED to a school that didn’t.”
Julia: “Remember to document the school’s NPC if your child is going to apply ED. That way you can use it to check the actual financial aid package offered.”
How to Maximize Financial Aid
One of the topics community members discuss most is financial aid. Most students and their families rely on financial aid to make college a realistic possibility.
Many members agree that the best piece of advice they have received from the community is to appeal financial aid. Some of our members have even successfully appealed their child’s merit aid and received more assistance.
Suzy: “This page helped provide clarity on how to figure out what a good aid package was and showed ways to file appeals.”
Sara: “I learned to appeal the financial aid offer, even if it’s already good.”
Jenny: “We appealed to the Financial Aid Office after reading about it on this group. They came back with a better offer that saved us over $10,000 a year.”
Members also recommend prioritizing schools based on the student’s chance of merit aid.
Lisa: “If you want good financial support, look at schools where your child falls in the top 25 percent of applicants.”
At most schools, students at or above the 75th percentile are more likely to receive merit aid. You can use the College Insights tool to search for schools where your child’s GPA and test scores put them in the 75th percentile.
There are countless resources out there, but it’s easier to know where to start when you have personal recommendations from other parents.
Several members have recommended the webinars featured on the Road2College YouTube channel. The Debt-Free Degree podcast is another popular community recommendation.
Pay It Forward: Join Our Community Today
Applying to college is stressful for students, but it can be just as intense for parents. Between figuring out financial aid, filling out all the paperwork, and adjusting to the idea of your child leaving the nest, it’s a lot.
Fortunately, countless parents have walked this path and successfully gotten their children into college. Over 120,000 individuals are part of our Paying for College 101 Facebook community.
Wherever you are in the process, you can count on practical tips and encouragement from our members. If you’ve already taken your children through the college application process, we’d love to hear your advice. Join the group today!
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