The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College gives detailed advice on every facet of the search for scholarships and financial aid. The following excerpt offers an introduction to the process.
The first rule of financial aid is simple: The colleges are the place to find it. About 95 percent of the available dollars are administered through them, including virtually all of the federal money and most state grants. We’ll suggest other places to look later on, but this chapter focuses solely on money that comes by virtue of applying for financial aid at a college.
As we have noted, college-administered financial aid comes in two basic varieties: awards based on academic merit or special talents, and awards based on need. Your first major decision in the financial-aid search is whether or not to apply for need-based aid. In most cases, the answer should be yes. Even if your family income is over $100,000, there is still a chance that you may qualify for something, and some non-need awards require an aid application. We recommend that you sit down with your parents at the outset of the college search and ask a simple question: How much can the family afford to pay each year for college? A ballpark figure will do. Next, compare that number with the total of tuition, room and board, and fees (plus at least $2,500 for travel, books, and living expenses) at the college(s) you are interested in attending. If the total of those is larger than what your parents feel they can afford, you should definitely apply for financial aid.
This clear, accessible guide takes students and their parents step-by-step through the admissions process. The talk with your parents should inject a dose of reality into your college search. If the figure they can pay is below the cost of your schools, you need to investigate some cheaper options. But don’t eliminate the expensive ones just yet. Apply for aid and see what you can get. The time to judge whether a college is too expensive comes at the end of the process, after the financial-aid awards have been made. Only then will you know the actual out-of-pocket costs of each school.
To illustrate this point, we offer the following example. Let’s assume that a close personal friend of yours named Todd Tight-Wad is applying to two schools: an expensive private college charging $30,000 per year and a state university with a more modest sticker price of $10,000. Which one do you think will end up costing Todd’s family more? The one that costs $30,000, right? Maybe-but maybe not.
When Todd applies for financial aid, the system reviews his family’s assets and calculates something called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)-the amount Todd’s family can afford for college. Let’s say his family’s EFC is $7,000. If the colleges are willing and able, they’ll give Todd financial aid to cover what they consider to be his “demonstrated need”-the difference between the EFC calculated by the aid formula and their sticker price. At the expensive private college, he would qualify for $23,000 in aid, while at the public university he would get only $3,000. Even though the sticker prices of the two are vastly different, they both end up costing him $7,000. Even if his EFC were much higher-$15,000 or so-he would still qualify for $15,000 from the private college to help soften the blow. In a few cases, the expensive college might actually turn out to be cheaper. Public universities are typically much less generous with need-based aid than private ones, and if the private one meets Todd’s full demonstrated need while the public one meets none of it, the pricey $30,000 private school turns out to be $3,000 cheaper when all is said and done.
For an early indication of how the system might work for your family, we recommend that you complete one of the financial aid estimators that are available via the World Wide Web. (Some financial aid offices also make them available on paper or via their web sites.) These programs replicate the aid formulas used to calculate need. Simply plug in your family’s financial data, and voilà-out comes the EFC. For thoroughness and reliability, we recommend the College Board’s aid estimator on its Web site at www.collegeboard.com.
If you and your parents are careful with your data, the estimator should give a rough idea of how much aid you can expect. The results will help dictate your financial aid strategy. If your EFC is over $25,000, your best hope of significant aid probably lies in merit scholarships. If your EFC is less than $10,000, you’ll want to look at schools with a firm commitment to need-based aid.
We emphasize that an aid estimator will give only a ballpark figure, and their predictive ability is less for those who have complicated finances. With college purse strings pulled tighter every year, the financial-aid system is less reliable than ever before. Families can no longer sit back and trust that they’ll get all the money they need. One essential strategy is to apply to one or more schools where you are sure your family can pay the sticker price. Second, you and your parents should do a thorough job of financial aid comparison shopping before you apply. The new world of financial aid has more twists and turns than a Stephen King thriller. The time has come to move beyond Financial Aid 101.
Source: The Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College.