Paying for College

Will 26 ACT Keep Me Out of College?

Question: I’m so frustrated and overwhelmed with college applications, and my brother is scaring me by saying that I won’t be able to go to any colleges with a 26 ACT score, since he thinks I won’t receive any scholarship money. I feel like I can get accepted to lots of places, but the money part is holding me back. I have no idea what to do about financial aid or where to start, I am miserably overwhelmed. Please please help me!

You probably figured out long ago that sometimes you have to ignore your brother … and this is definitely one of those times. 😉 For starters, a 26 is a very respectable ACT score. It may not make admission folks at the most hyper-competitive colleges turn cartwheels on top of their desks, but it’s going to be at—or even above—the median at many fine colleges. Moreover, since you took the test as a junior, you might want to try it one more time this fall. Your score will probably go up.

As for the financial aid process … it can be so complex that even professionals often struggle to understand it. But here’s a brief crash course:


There are three main types of financial aid:

1. MERIT SCHOLARHIPS are scholarships that are awarded to students directly by colleges. Typically, merit aid is designed to lure the most desirable students to enroll. Merit scholarships usually range from a couple thousand dollars up to full tuition + room & board for four years. If your ACT score is at the high end of a college’s median range or above it, this will improve your chances of receiving a merit scholarship, although other factors (e.g., grades, leadership, special talents) are usually considered too. Sometimes only students who qualify for need-based aid (see below) are eligible for merit scholarships, but usually a family’s income is not considered when making these awards.

College Confidential’s SuperMatch can help you find colleges that meet your preferences for size, location, major, etc. and which MIGHT also offer you merit aid. Go to http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_search/ and answer all the questions. Under the “My Scores” heading, be sure to check the box next to “I’m interested in schools where I would be well above average, to increase my financial aid opportunities.” Many colleges offer merit aid, but some offer only need-based.

2. NEED-BASED AID is determined by a family’s income and assets, not by grades or test scores. So, if two students are admitted to the same college and one has a 36 on the ACT and the other has a 26, the student with the lower score may get a lot more aid than the one with the higher score if her family has greater financial need. Once you and your parent(s) have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will find out your EFC (“Expected Family Contribution”).

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. (Only a handful of elite colleges meet full need without requiring loans.)

If you’re not sure whether or not your family will qualify for need-based aid, you can play around with this online calculator to get a very rough sense of your EFC. https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/paying-your-share/expected-family-contribution-calculator You will need to have your family’s most current income tax forms in front of you in order to use the EFC calculator. (Note, however, that the FAFSA is only for U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents. If you are not a citizen or Permanent Resident, write me back and I’ll give you some other suggestions.)

Shortly after you start the online calculator, 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 FAFSA 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 (well, more or less … their final figures may not be exactly the same as the results you get from the calculator).

In addition, all colleges in the U.S. are now required to put a “Net Price Calculator” 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 NPC’s for EVERY college 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.

3. OUTSIDE SCHOLARSHIPS usually come from businesses, religious groups, civic organizations, etc. Some are national awards; some are local. As with merit aid, the amounts of these scholarships will vary tremendously but usually they are much lower than the merit aid that colleges give out. You may qualify for outside scholarships because of your grades and test scores. In addition, you may qualify based on your ethnicity, the place where a parent works, your prospective major or career goal, or perhaps because you submitted a winning essay, art project, etc. There are a number of online search engines to help you find the outside scholarships that are good fits for you. I like FastWeb (www.fastweb.com) Some scholarships may require a lot of work for little gain, but others may look like they’re actually fun to go after. So take a shot at the ones that seem like your best bets.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite whatever scary stuff your brother is feeding you, you will indeed have college options. Many students attend college using a combination of merit aid, need-based aid, and outside scholarships. So here are your “action items” …

1. Do the online EFC calculator to get a sense of how much your family should expect to pay for college each year. If you think that this number is much higher than what you family can really afford, look for colleges that are likely to offer you merit scholarships.

2. Use SuperMatch to try to identify colleges that meet your preferences and where you may be a strong contender for merit aid.

3. Do the FastWeb questionnaire and hone in on outside scholarships that fit your profile and that you think may be fun and worthwhile to apply for.

4. Sign up to take the ACT one more time. A slightly higher score might increase acceptance odds and, especially, merit aid chances.

And, finally see if you can enlist your brother to be helpful rather than hurtful. The college application process can require a lot of secretarial and research duties, so perhaps he’s just the man for those jobs! 😉