College have made their decisions, and once the initial euphoria or despair passes, high school seniors need to evaluate their options. They have until May 1 to make their final decisions, and with student debt reaching one trillion dollars, cost has become the primary factor for many families.
Financial aid packages are often disappointing. Even if your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is $30,000 and the cost of attending a college is $65,000, that doesn’t mean you will receive $35,000 in grants to cover the difference. Aid packages generally are a mix of grants, loans and work-study employment, except for a few wealthy institutions that are able to provide packages that do not include loans. Private colleges that ask for the CSS Profile form in addition to the FAFSA will use institutional methodology in awarding non-federal aid. This can result in a higher family contribution.
Then there is the fact that most colleges do not have the resources to meet full financial need. There can be a substantial gap between the student’s demonstrated need and the aid package. And they don’t necessarily allocate those resources equally. Many colleges use preferential packaging, offering the best aid packages to the students they don’t want to lose to another school.
It is possible to appeal a financial aid package. If a parent has lost a job or there is some other change in a family’s financial situation, financial aid officers can use professional judgment to increase an award.
Some parents try to negotiate an increase in a merit scholarship, and that is less likely to be successful, especially at more selective colleges that don’t need to worry as much about filling the freshman class. It doesn’t hurt to ask as there are cases where an award is increased, especially at schools that may be struggling to meet enrollment targets.
Whatever you are asking for, it’s important to be honest, respectful, and courteous. While admissions and financial aid officers do want the students they admit to enroll at the college, like most people, they don’t respond well to threats or manipulation. If a parent calls and says that other colleges are offering more money and this school needs to come up with a better package or his son will go elsewhere, he may be told that he should do just that.
Even if you can afford to pay full fare at an expensive college, you may be wondering if it is worth the cost. As competition for admission to the most selective schools has become more intense, many high-achieving students have been turned away. Those students have gone to other colleges and raised the quality of schools that might previously not have attracted such strong students. This means there are more excellent colleges out there, and unlike the most selective schools, many of them offer merit scholarships.
Some families are concerned that attending a less prestigious college will mean fewer job opportunities. This is a real concern and admitted students and their parents should use the next few weeks to do more research. If you will be visiting the school, go to the career services office and ask for list of companies recruiting on campus this spring. Ask where recent graduates are working or attending graduate school. You might also want to talk to graduating seniors and ask how satisfied they are with the career services, and whether the school helped them get internships as well as job offers. How happy are they with the education they received at the college? Did financial aid keep pace with the increase in costs over the four years or are they graduating with significant debt? If they had it to do over, would they choose this college again?
Younger students who will be going through this process in the next few years can learn from older siblings and friends. Seeing someone receive a merit scholarship worth $15,000 or $20,000 a year can be very motivating. Freshmen and sophomores have time to improve their academic record and juniors can still make sure their college list includes schools that offer merit-based aid and where they are in the top quarter of the applicant pool.
Preferential packaging means having a strong academic record is also important in securing the best need-based financial aid package. All of this means if you work hard and earn excellent grades and test scores, there could be a real payoff. If you spent 40 hours preparing for the SAT, and that effort resulted in a $10,000 a year scholarship, which would add up to $40,000 over four years, you would have earned $1,000 an hour. Even the best babysitting gig doesn’t pay that kind of money.