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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, August 14, 2022
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The Road To College: More On The Money

Regular readers of this series will recall that last week we considered issues of need-based financial aid, especially the one form that must be filed, FAFSA (www.fafsa.ed.gov) and another that might also be required, the CSS Profile (www.collegeboard.com), in order for a student to become eligible for the support necessary to attend college.

It is also the case that some colleges and universities have their own financial aid forms; students can check each institution’s website to determine if there is such an additional form required. Because finding the money to attend college is such a make-or-break issue, I want to spend additional time on it this week.

The first thing I want to make clear is that the proverbial “sticker price,” the total cost of tuition, room, board, books, fees and travel is not what most families actually pay for college. Seeing totals in the mid-$50,000 range (last year my eldest daughter was accepted to two such places, Dickinson College and Wellesley College) is enough to send most parents into panic mode when it comes to paying all the usual bills, plus college—giving up completely on the idea of putting some money aside for retirement. Shopping for bargains, often found away from the high-rent Northeast corridor, is a good idea.

But even with those high sticker prices, the reality is that most colleges and universities subsidize most of their students in one form or another. Indeed, it is the minority of students whose parents or guardians pay full price for college. The way I urge families to divide the labor is for the students to do all the work of applying for admission, while the parents or guardians do all the work of applying for need-based aid.

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Last week’s column explains how to do that. I want everyone who is concerned about the money to go all the way through the process before making any decision about affordability. The slogan in the New York Lottery is “You have to play to win.” Well, when it comes to financial aid, “You have to apply to stand a chance.” So please do.

Once the student has been accepted to a college or university, and that institution has received all of the information it needs on the financial aid forms, the student will receive a financial aid package. It will be made up of different pieces: grants of need-based aid, merit scholarships (if available and if the student is qualified), work study, and loans. The objective in this game is to maximize the grant or scholarship portions of the package, accept the work study as a totally valid exercise in reminding students of their own obligations to help pay for their educations, and minimize or eliminate the loans.

When it comes to composing these packages, it is common practice for the better-qualified students to get the very best deals the institution can offer. I urge students to employ the same reasoning that goes into handicapping their chances of admission, and apply it to their chances of getting a sweet deal from the financial aid office. One way to do this sort of calculation is to take the student’s cumulative grade point average, class rank (if available), and standardized testing; then compare the individual student’s metrics with the institution’s published data.

Such numbers are available on websites and in books such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges (for which I am on the uncompensated Editorial Advisory Group) and The Princeton Review’s The Best 371 Colleges (that number will go up again next year as TPR include more worthy institutions.)

If the student is in the top 25 percent of the institution’s profile, the student not only stands a better chance of being admitted; he or she also stands the best chance of getting the best financial package the college can offer. If the student is in the bottom 25 percent of the profile, the student—if even admitted—stands little chance of getting a lot of cash, and may find it mainly in loans.

The other side of that very literal coin is that less-qualified students from families with enough money to pay full freight may in fact be admitted so the college comptroller can pay all the bills, balance the budget, and keep the lights on.

The very best-endowed colleges in the nation—places that include all eight Ivy League schools; private universities such as Duke, Georgetown and Stanford; national liberal arts colleges such as Williams, Amherst, Pomona and Swarthmore; and a not many others—are able to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need and are able to support the claim that they are “need blind,” making admissions decision without any knowledge of, or reference to, the student’s ability to pay.

That said, the bottom line is that most colleges in the country do not have that kind of money; consequently, they are in fact “need aware.” They will check the student’s courses, grades, scores, essays, activities, and recommendations—and then they will check the parents’ bank account before making an admissions decision. They cannot afford to play the game any other way.

What finding the money thus adds up to for most applicants is filing all the applications for admission and aid, waiting to compare offers, bargaining wherever possible, and not signing on anywhere with an enrollment deposit until May 1 of senior year.

Yes, that’s right: the bad news is that there’s a lot to do; the good news is that there’s time to do it. So, I’d recommend that you top reading and get back to work on it!

Chris Teare is the College Counselor at Antilles School on St. Thomas. Tune in to his radio show, "Making the College Choice," Wednesdays at 4 p.m. on AM 1000, WVWI-AM.

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Regular readers of this series will recall that last week we considered issues of need-based financial aid, especially the one form that must be filed, FAFSA (www.fafsa.ed.gov) and another that might also be required, the CSS Profile (www.collegeboard.com), in order for a student to become eligible for the support necessary to attend college.

It is also the case that some colleges and universities have their own financial aid forms; students can check each institution’s website to determine if there is such an additional form required. Because finding the money to attend college is such a make-or-break issue, I want to spend additional time on it this week.

The first thing I want to make clear is that the proverbial “sticker price,” the total cost of tuition, room, board, books, fees and travel is not what most families actually pay for college. Seeing totals in the mid-$50,000 range (last year my eldest daughter was accepted to two such places, Dickinson College and Wellesley College) is enough to send most parents into panic mode when it comes to paying all the usual bills, plus college—giving up completely on the idea of putting some money aside for retirement. Shopping for bargains, often found away from the high-rent Northeast corridor, is a good idea.

But even with those high sticker prices, the reality is that most colleges and universities subsidize most of their students in one form or another. Indeed, it is the minority of students whose parents or guardians pay full price for college. The way I urge families to divide the labor is for the students to do all the work of applying for admission, while the parents or guardians do all the work of applying for need-based aid.

Last week’s column explains how to do that. I want everyone who is concerned about the money to go all the way through the process before making any decision about affordability. The slogan in the New York Lottery is “You have to play to win.” Well, when it comes to financial aid, “You have to apply to stand a chance.” So please do.

Once the student has been accepted to a college or university, and that institution has received all of the information it needs on the financial aid forms, the student will receive a financial aid package. It will be made up of different pieces: grants of need-based aid, merit scholarships (if available and if the student is qualified), work study, and loans. The objective in this game is to maximize the grant or scholarship portions of the package, accept the work study as a totally valid exercise in reminding students of their own obligations to help pay for their educations, and minimize or eliminate the loans.

When it comes to composing these packages, it is common practice for the better-qualified students to get the very best deals the institution can offer. I urge students to employ the same reasoning that goes into handicapping their chances of admission, and apply it to their chances of getting a sweet deal from the financial aid office. One way to do this sort of calculation is to take the student’s cumulative grade point average, class rank (if available), and standardized testing; then compare the individual student’s metrics with the institution’s published data.

Such numbers are available on websites and in books such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges (for which I am on the uncompensated Editorial Advisory Group) and The Princeton Review’s The Best 371 Colleges (that number will go up again next year as TPR include more worthy institutions.)

If the student is in the top 25 percent of the institution’s profile, the student not only stands a better chance of being admitted; he or she also stands the best chance of getting the best financial package the college can offer. If the student is in the bottom 25 percent of the profile, the student—if even admitted—stands little chance of getting a lot of cash, and may find it mainly in loans.

The other side of that very literal coin is that less-qualified students from families with enough money to pay full freight may in fact be admitted so the college comptroller can pay all the bills, balance the budget, and keep the lights on.

The very best-endowed colleges in the nation—places that include all eight Ivy League schools; private universities such as Duke, Georgetown and Stanford; national liberal arts colleges such as Williams, Amherst, Pomona and Swarthmore; and a not many others—are able to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need and are able to support the claim that they are “need blind,” making admissions decision without any knowledge of, or reference to, the student’s ability to pay.

That said, the bottom line is that most colleges in the country do not have that kind of money; consequently, they are in fact “need aware.” They will check the student’s courses, grades, scores, essays, activities, and recommendations—and then they will check the parents’ bank account before making an admissions decision. They cannot afford to play the game any other way.

What finding the money thus adds up to for most applicants is filing all the applications for admission and aid, waiting to compare offers, bargaining wherever possible, and not signing on anywhere with an enrollment deposit until May 1 of senior year.

Yes, that’s right: the bad news is that there’s a lot to do; the good news is that there’s time to do it. So, I’d recommend that you top reading and get back to work on it!

Chris Teare is the College Counselor at Antilles School on St. Thomas. Tune in to his radio show, "Making the College Choice," Wednesdays at 4 p.m. on AM 1000, WVWI-AM.