As the school year comes to an end, high school seniors are saying goodbye to teachers and friends as they prepare for their journey to college. Over the last four years, these students have paid their dues by making the grades, participating in extracurricular and volunteer activities and cramming for the ACTs and SATs. Their parents have based almost all major life decisions on getting them into a good college, from deciding to reside in a top-notch school district to saving every extra penny in a 529 college savings plan. Finally, all of the hard work and sacrifice has paid off and the students have been accepted into college, perhaps the school of their dreams. Now they face just one more challenge: the financial aid award. What happens if they discover their dream is financially out of reach?
Financial aid can be one of the most confusing parts of the admissions process. The programs and awards offered by colleges and universities are extremely difficult to understand and can even be misleading. One of the biggest concerns I have is the effect this flawed system may be having on today's youth. How many exceptionally bright students are shying away from our top universities because they are perceived as elite?
Sure, figuring out how to pay for college can be scary, but it doesn't have to be. Understanding how the process works and taking advantage of available resources can help parents and students maximize the potential for a rewarding college education.
Financial Aid - What You Don't Know Might Hurt You
Financial aid award letters have become so complex that even highly educated parents are left wondering what their actual out of pockets costs will be. We're all familiar with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (the FAFSA), which is used to calculate your expected family contribution (EFC) toward college expenses. But what most people don't realize is that hundreds of colleges use their own methods when determining the amount you can afford to pay. These formulas sometimes result in a number that is greater than what was stated on the FAFSA, leaving parents and students baffled. Imagine a middle class family's reaction when they find out their child's school expects them to give up nearly half of their annual earnings to cover costs? And that's just for one child!
To be able to plan effectively, parents and students need to focus on figuring out the net cost of each school they are considering. This may be easier said than done, but it's certainly not impossible. A good start would be to set aside 15-20 minutes to complete the College Board's Net Price Calculator. This personalized tool is a great way to estimate your actual cost vs. the sticker price of particular schools. As you examine your award letters, don't be afraid to contact the school's financial aid office if you have any questions or believe there is any missing pertinent information. Remember that scholarships amounts stated are not always set in stone. I've known families who have received an increase in their award just by asking for it! If you have offers from multiple schools, you can see if your desired school will match or beat them. Once you calculate what your actual costs and awards will be, consider the amount of debt you'll have to incur to attend each school. Too many students mistake loans for grants and wind up struggling with repayment after graduation.
Almost every school is unique in the way awards are given, which is why it is crucial to explore all options. According to a recent NY Times article, the average family with a household income at or below $48,000 paid less than $5,000 out of pocket to attend Harvard, Duke, the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other schools demanded up to three times that amount. How can anyone expect a teenager to understand all of this? It's no wonder that many low-income families simply assume that top tier schools are out of their reach.
Is Anything Being Done to Solve These Issues?
In an attempt to simplify the financial aid process, the U.S. Department of Education has developed a uniform shopping sheet that colleges may send to prospective students. In addition, they have also started posting online reports that uncover which schools are not following federal rules governing financial aid. While this is a step in the right direction, the shopping sheet is not mandatory so many schools have yet to adopt it, and the online reports are far from user-friendly.
The financial aid conundrum is certainly a societal problem. While it will require more creative solutions on the part of schools, government and the private sector, some of the responsibility must be borne by the parents and students. Start doing your homework now. The FAFSA website is an excellent resource, and even provides an informational video on how the process works. Sallie Mae offers an Award Letter Analyzer Tool that helps students make apples-to-apples comparisons of award letters from different schools. To use the tool, you'll need to register for a free account - just for doing so you'll be entered to win $1,000. How's that for an award?
In my experience those who are determined to attend college will play a significant role in making it happen. Students who work toward reducing their own tuition by means of merit or athletic scholarships or simply building savings from a part-time job will often end up being more successful than those who rely on parents or government-sponsored programs. According to a 2013 national study by the University of California, Merced, students who paid for their own college graduated with a higher GPA than those who had help from mom and dad.
Of course, it's probably unrealistic to expect a high school student to be able to cover an entire tuition bill with a paycheck from a part-time or summer job, but it's not a bad idea to take some of those earnings and stash them away into a 529 account. Every dollar saved will reduce the amount of loans that will need to be taken out, lessen the need for aid and help the student feel invested in their own education.