What you need to know about PAYING FOR COLLEGE
Paying for college is a good news-bad news thing. The bad news is that college is expensive and no two schools are alike in awarding financial aid. The good news is that there are affordable choices out there and that there are tools you can use to find them.
Here is some basic information to get you started with some links to sites where you can learn more.
1. What kinds of aid are available?
2. What do I have to do to get it?
3. How do schools determine how much I get?
4. Do I have to wait until I am admitted to find out how much financial aid I can get?
5. How can I get scholarships?
6. How do I find which schools are the best bargain?
7. It's too complicated! I'm overwhelmed!
1. WHAT KINDS OF AID ARE AVAILABLE
There are two kinds of financial aid: merit aid and needs-based aid. Merit aid is awarded regardless of financial need, based on your academic ability or some other skill or quality you have that a school or college desires. Needs-based aid is determined based on your family's income, assets and expenses. Needs-based aid is divided into grants & scholarships (aid that you don’t have to pay for) and self-help (made up of work-study and loans that you need to repay).
2. WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET IT?
To get merit aid, you have to apply to a school that awards it (a few dozen schools give all their money to students with need). Most schools will make their decision about merit aid based on your application alone. A few may seek additional information or a special application for those seeking a special scholarship or award.
In order to qualify for needs-based aid, you have to complete the FAFSA, and if you are applying to some private schools, you may also need to complete the CSS Profile. The main tool for determining needs-based aid is the FAFSA , which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA can be submitted after January 1st of your senior year.
Here’s the FAFSA website: www.fafsa.ed.gov
Many private schools require the CSS Profile for additional information they use to calculate their needs-based awards. Here’s some information about the CSS including a list of schools that accept it. The CSS can be submitted in October of your senior year.
3. HOW DO SCHOOLS DETERMINE HOW MUCH I GET?
When your family completes the FAFSA, a formula will be applied to calculate your “Expected Family Contribution” or EFC. That’s the amount your family will be expected to contribute to your education. Your “need” is the cost to attend the school minus your EFC. Each school determines on its own the percent of need it will meet. If a school meets 100% of need, then it will provide a package of aid that will, when combined with the EFC, cover the full cost of school. The package will be a combination of scholarships/grants and work study/loans. Not every school will meet all your need. (In fact, most don’t!) If the school does not meet 100% of need, that means that when you add up EFC and the aid package, there will be an amount left over your family will have to pay (over and above the EFC). Families can make up the difference by finding more loans, but that may make debt pile up too fast.
Schools that award merit aid usually make their decisions as part of the admissions process. Each school uses its own formula. A school may base their awards of merit aid on on SAT or ACT scores, GPA, special talents like playing a musical instrument or athletics, leadership or even state of residence. Sometime even your major or your gender will play a role.
4. DO I HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL I AM ADMITTED TO FIND OUT HOW MUCH FINANCIAL AID I CAN GET?
No! And you shouldn't wait. There are a lot of tools you can use to find out what your family's EFC is likely to be under the FAFSA and the CSS Profile (which is sometimes called the institutional methodology). There is also a great tool on the Big Future site you can use to see whether a school you are considering is generous with merit aid and needs-based aid. Finally, every college is required to have a net price calculator on its web page. The NPC should give you an estimate of the merit aid and need-based aid it will provide so you have a good idea of the total cost your family for pay for a year or college.
5. HOW CAN I GET SCHOLARSHIPS?
There are a whole bunch of other sources for scholarship aid: private foundations, churches, businesses, clubs…. You can find a number of websites that can help you identify sources for aid based on your skills and interests.
Big Future has a scholarship search engine that can link you to scholarships from more than 2200 programs.
Here’s another good resources for scholarships that you can download: www.studentscholarshipsearch.com/ebook/
You should also do some research in your community to see about local scholarships. There may be scholarships at your high school! Just be careful of scams. Some people promise scholarships, but they are really just after your money.
Big Future.collegeboard.org will give you a good idea of what you should watch out for.
6. HOW DO I FIND SCHOOLS WHICH ARE THE BEST BARGAIN?
One important way to make college affordable is by finding a school that does not cost a lot to attend. Your least expensive option is probably a public school in your state of residence that is close to home. That way you can pay affordable in-state tuition, and keep living expenses low by living at or near home. Another good option is finding a school that participates in a reciprocity program such as the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). The program allows students in participating western states (Idaho is one of them) to attend school in neighboring states schools for 150% tuition. WUE offers some great opportunities, but many of the more popular schools in some participating states are excluded. Make sure you explore WUE options carefully, and confirm availability at the schools you are considering.
There also bargains available from private schools. Some are very low cost. Other private colleges and universities may appear expensive, but they offer such great packages of needs-based and/or merit aid that families pay a modest amount. Here’s a great article from US News that will help you find affordable colleges.
The ideal school meets 100 % of need with scholarships and grants (maybe some work study) so you can graduate debt free!
It’s important to recognize, though, that cost isn’t the only thing to consider when looking for value. You have to also look at the quality of the education you receive. Will you be able to graduate in four years? Will you be able find a job once you graduate? There are a lot of intangibles, but a couple of statistics you can use to compare quality are percentage of students who receive a degree within a reasonable time and the percentage who default on their student loans. You can find that information here: collegecost.ed.gov
7. IT’S TOO COMPLICATED! I’M OVERWHELMED!!!
Don’t be. There are people at your high school and at the colleges you are interested in who will help you. The Federal Financial Aid site provides a lot of help. You can hire private consultants. And there are some books and other resources that can give you an overview and help you make sense of everything.
Student Scholarship Search is a free resource that covers a lot of topics
And here is a list of books recommended by parents and independent consultants: www.admissionsconsultants.com
©Peggy Jenkins, Palouse Pathways. Find us on Facebook - Palouse Pathways