May 1 is just around the corner. This is traditionally the final deadline for high school seniors to decide which financial aid package they are going to accept to attend college in the fall. While a great many students and their parents have already made this decision, some are still on the fence about where they will go. How big of a role should money play in this decision?
Each year UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute conducts a survey of the entering freshman class. The results from last year's study were recently released in a report titled, "The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2013." A few highlighted statistics about the Class of 2017 from this report include:
- They have high hopes: While national statistics suggest just 38 percent of this year's freshman class will graduate in the standard four years, 84 percent expect to do so.
- They are submitting more applications: About 60 percent submitted more than three additional applications, with 24 percent submitting more than seven applications. This could play a factor in the difficult decision-making process.
- They aren't going to their top choice school: Although 76 percent were admitted to their first college choice, only 57 percent actually went on to enroll at that school. That was the lowest rate in 39 years.
- They have money on their minds: When choosing a school many said that cost was just as important as academics. 64 percent said academic reputation was a deciding factor, while 46 percent said cost was and 49 percent responded that financial aid was their most important consideration.
What Can/Should a Parent Do?
About 25 percent of the students who were accepted to their first-choice university said that they enrolled somewhere else because they were not offered financial aid. As a parent, is there anything you can do to help your child? Should you do anything?
If your student is still wavering on a final decision, it is probably best for you to sit down with him or her and have a discussion. Try to narrow the choices down to the top three and then figure out what it will really cost to attend each of those schools. If the top-choice college is falling behind due to financial considerations, you can place a call to the financial aid office on your child's behalf. List out your student's reasons for wanting to attend their college, demonstrate your support of that decision, let them know if there is a substantial difference in financial aid packages from the other schools, and ask if there is anything else that can be done to sway the decision in their favor.
If the dollar amount isn't too substantial, you can also help your child conduct a thorough search for scholarships. Many have deadlines well into the spring and summer, and might just be enough to cover the difference so your child can attend the number one choice.
Finally, talk to your child about federal and private student loans. Explain how much debt your family can reasonably afford to take on and what you would expect your student to be responsible for after graduation. Compare the costs of repayment with your child's expected income in his or her chosen field. If there is a reasonable expectation of being able to repay the loan, it might make sense to borrow the difference to enable your child to attend a top academic school.
While money can and should play a role in college choice, it shouldn't be the sole deciding factor. You and your student can work together to make the top choice accessible.