Paying for College

Financial Aid Considerations for Juniors

Paying for college is at or near the top of most families’ college-concerns lists. High school students should be especially concerned about this because of the long-term impact of student loan debt, which has become one of the biggest debt issues in the United States.

Thus, I thought I would proffer some thoughts about financial aid for high school juniors who are (or should be) engaged in the college process. Moms and Dads, obviously, also need to be aware of what’s happening in the paying-for-college world, what resources are available, and how to make the best all-around decisions.

Speaking of student loan debt, let me give you a quick recap of that situation:


How much is a trillion dollars? If you want to be staggered by a visual representation of a trillion dollars, check this out. As far as student loan debt goes, we’re talking here about ONE trillion dollars. If you want your head to really spin off your shoulders, consider the current U.S. national debt of over 18 trillion dollars. The mind boggles. But that’s a rant for another forum.

If you are currently in college, or you are the parent of a college student, chances are that you know something about student loan debt. You probably own some student loan debt. The College Confidential discussion forum has numerous posts from college students and parents who are in an amazing amount of loan debt. Some owe more than $100,000, if you can believe that.

The media have spent a lot of time trying to get us to understand the extent of this issue. Just for fun, I went to Google and asked, “How long to pay off $50,000 in students loans?” One link led me to this amazing answer: “If you pay $150.00 a month on principle it will take you 334 months (28 years) to pay it off…that’s if you pay the principle and the interest every month.. If you don’t pay that much or don’t pay the interest of course, it will take longer … They usually let you extend it 30 years.” Pity those poor souls who owe $100,000.

 

So, the topic of financial aid and how to understand it should be of paramount importance to both prospective applicants and their parents. Accordingly, then, here is some information I hope you will find helpful.

If you are a student, you should show this message to your parents, too, since you will probably need their help answering the questions, and this may also give them an introduction to how the financial aid process works, if they’re not familiar with it yet.

Sometimes students are admitted to a “dream college” but then forced to turn the offer down due to finances. Believe it or not, those of you who come from low-income homes could be in better shape than many of your friends from middle- or higher-income brackets.

Why? Because the snazziest and most expensive colleges tend to be those with the most money to give away, but often these funds are earmarked for students from low-income families. While many colleges do have good merit-aid awards that go to all top candidates regardless of household income, sometimes the best financial aid (at least at the more prestigious colleges) is the need-based aid that goes to less advantaged applicants.

If you live in a large metropolitan area, such as New York City, that may work against you, too. Household incomes that might be considered “middle class” or below in NYC and other large cities would be higher than incomes in other parts of the country. While colleges do take your cost-of-living into consideration to some extent, big-city residents don’t really get the credit they deserve. In other words, you may not receive as much financial aid from some colleges as you think you will need in order to enroll.

However, as you embark on your college process, I suggest that you don’t use finances as a key criterion in selecting your target schools, at least not just yet. I do realize, though, that eventually money may play a starring role in your final choices. So, what you should do now is sit down with a parent (or parents) and ask them to be as frank as possible with you about college costs.

Many parents balk at the idea of talking about money with their children, so don’t force the issue. However, it would be very useful for you to know how much your parents think that they would be able (and willing) to pay each year towards your college costs. So here is the first question you need the answer to:

What is the total amount per year your parents think they can (or will) pay for your college education without taking out any loans and without staying awake all night with worry or eating macaroni and cheese at every meal? _________?

A second question:

What is your estimated EFC* using the

Federal Methodology _______?

Institutional Methodology _________?

*In case you haven’t encountered it yet, EFC stands for “Expected Family Contribution.” It’s a figure that is computed for you by the Federal Government based on your family finances.

In theory, the EFC is the amount that your family should pay each year for your college costs (tuition, room, board, and all other fees). And that figure shouldn’t change, whether you are attending a college that costs $50,000/year or one that costs only $5,000/year.

Also in theory, when your EFC is low, then the colleges should make up the difference.

Example:

College A costs $42,000. If your EFC is $10,000, this college should give you $32,000 in scholarships and loans to make sure you can attend.

If College B costs $25,000, your EFC is still $10,000. It won’t change from school to school. So College B then should give you $15,000 in scholarships or loans. You dig?

Whenever your EFC is higher than the total cost of attendance, you won’t qualify for need-based aid at that school. But if it’s lower than the cost of attendance, then you will qualify for need-based aid, although you don’t always get it.

Why not? In reality, many colleges practice what is known as “Need Gapping.” They say, “Okay, we see you require $32,000, but we’re going to give you only $12,000. You’ll have to make up the difference on your own. We don’t care how you do it. Take out extra loans. Hit up Grams and Grampy; sell the family heirlooms. It’s not our problem.”

Most of the highly competitive colleges promise to “meet full need”. That is, they will give you enough aid to cover the difference between your EFC and their total costs. But, commonly, some of the money they give you is made up of loans, which must eventually be repaid. So, even if a college claims to meet full need, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your financial worries are over.

In order to answer Question #2, you and your family should do the College Board’s online EFC calculator.

Shortly after you start, you will be asked to choose a “formula” — “Federal Methodology” or “Institutional Methodology” or “Both.” Select “Both.” Once it’s time to actually apply to college, you’ll find that all colleges on your list will require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for those seeking aid, and some will also require the CSS Profile form.

Colleges that ask for only the FAFSA will compute your aid award based on Federal Methodology.

Colleges that also require the CSS Profile, too, will use Institutional Methodology (more or less). Their final figures may not be exactly the same as the results you get from the calculator.

For now, it will be helpful to get an approximation of both figures. This may give us a better idea of where you will ultimately get the best financial aid. It will also help steer you towards colleges that you can ultimately afford to attend and to warn you when your top-choice colleges could be too pricey.

Finally, if all that financial aid information isn’t cumbersome enough, here’s something else to consider. It might help you out or add confusion:

All colleges in the U.S. are now required to put a “Net Price Calculator” (NPC) on their Web sites. The NPC is usually similar to the College Board’s EFC calculator. However, most of them are more specific and may consider factors that are especially important to that particular college. Some even estimate if you will be in the running for merit aid.

It can be very time-consuming to fool around with the NPCs for everycollege on your list. But, once you’ve done the College Board’s generic version, you might want to try one or two of them, just to see if the figures you get are different.

For instance, here’s a link to the NPC for Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, which does give merit aid. And here’s one for Tufts University, which does not.

As I said above, you will need parental help to play with the College Board’s EFC Calculator because your Mom or Dad will have to provide figures from income tax returns. But, once you have those numbers, you will probably be able to do the college-specific NPCs on your own, should you choose to try them. Some will ask almost the exact same questions as the College Board asked. Others will also want data such as your SAT scores, GPA, and sometimes even extracurricular interests or prospective major.

Keep in mind that you’re just playing here. You can try plugging in different numbers (higher SATs that you hope to achieve, varying majors) just to see different outcomes. None of this is official. It’s just to help you figure out how to create a college list that will maximize your options.

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I hope the above information will at least get you and your parents started thinking about the sometimes overwhelming issue of financial aid for college. Also — and perhaps most importantly — I hope it will also enable you and your family to see what possible level of student loan debt you may have to deal with.

As I have said many times here, student loan debt can be a crippling factor in a young person’s life, as you head out into the job market. Some levels of debt are such that you may never be able to pay it off. That statement may sound brash and overly dramatic but, unfortunately, it is true.

Don’t be one of those college graduates whose happiness and success may be limited by a heavy anchor of debt. Life is too short for that.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.