Navigating the complex world of higher education can be confusing and often downright maddening. Not looking at options could mean the difference in thousands of dollars of debt at graduation. For many families, the process bears little resemblance to what they experienced a generation ago. And no wonder: The cost of attending college has gone up 900 percent since the late seventies.
Glossy brochures convince teens that there’s a perfect place for them, that college is a rite of passage – and that they should apply first, find funding later.
“I knew my parents would do anything to try to pay for college,” said Julia Whitehead, a Chesterfield native starting her freshman year at the University of South Carolina. “But I wanted to make the best choice.” By looking at options and writing some extra essays for applications, she scored a generous scholarship that made going out of state cheaper than staying in Virginia.
Determine the cost of education.
The first step is to determine how much college will cost. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Though there’s a move afoot to standardize the way universities and colleges report costs, it’s still a bit of a guessing game. Every college has a website, and every website has a link for tuition and fees. Some are more generous, adding in things like travel and incidentals onto the expense list; others don’t.
A good starting place is the College Board (the same national organization that administers the SAT and AP tests), which has a new tool on its website.
The Net Price Calculator standardizes the costs for more than 330 colleges in the U. S., said Myra Smith, the College Board’s executive director of financial aid services.
“It is strictly governed as to what we count in the net price,” she said. “Basically it’s the cost of attendance – tuition, living expenses, room and board, travel, books, supplies, and personal expenses. You take that, subtract any gifting you might be eligible for, and that’s your net price.”
The average cost of an in-state public university is nearly $20,000 a year and a private college could be closer to $60,000. Prices are rising every year. But many colleges claim they’ll meet financial need (though you might not agree with what they consider need ), so until all the numbers are crunched, it’s not time to write off a dream school immediately because of its price tag.
Most colleges tell potential applicants not to exclude a school because of money. They’re willing to help find a way to afford it.
Figure your finances.
Still, many experts advise families to have a frank discussion about what they can afford – before the applications go out.
Karen Doran, chief operating officer and a counselor, at GRASP – the Great Aspirations Scholarship Program, based in Richmond, says it can be difficult for parents to admit to children that they can’t fund the dream school. “Unfortunately the economy is such that they haven’t saved for college and if they have saved for college that has now been pulled to live off of because somebody’s lost a job. Things have changed financially for a lot of families.”
Everyone should fill out the FAFSA – that’s the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form, available at FAFSA.gov, collects information on income, assets, and factors such as the number of other children in college. It will give you an estimated family contribution (EFC) that many universities use to determine aid awards. Some schools require supplemental forms, including the College Board’s CSS profile form.
Doran notes one frequent mistake families make filling out the FAFSA: The real FAFSA has a .gov address; a similar .com site will ask for a credit card number.
“Unfortunately for families and for schools, the financial aid process does not work the same at every school,” says Cindy Deffenbaugh, director of Financial Aid at the University of Richmond. “As you and your student narrow down your school choice, you can start to spend some time reviewing and reading to see how they handle it.”
Deffenbaugh says that families often experience sticker shock. “When they fill out FAFSA, they see these huge amounts they’d be expected to pay, it’s overwhelming.”
After the sticker shock subsides, it’s time to get to work.
Doran and colleagues, who work in most Richmond area high schools, help students navigate the financial aid system and cobble together scholarships, grants, work-study and loans to pay the bills.
Basically, need-based aid is divided into government grants, institutional grants, work-study, subsidized loans, and unsubsidized loans. Merit aid is usually scholarships based on statistics such as test scores, grades, and special talent.
Though loans are the norm, Doran said many families initially don’t want to consider them. Recent media reports have focused on the amount of debt carried by the average college graduate (nearly $24,000) and the Obama administration’s call for reform. But, she says, families need to keep aversion to borrowing in perspective, noting that they don’t have the same qualms about borrowing for a new car after graduation. “I think our whole society has a mindset where we look at loans for college and cringe. But I tell kids that with college loans, at least you’re making an investment for an education to last you a lifetime.”
The scholarship hunt.
Thinking of going for a merit scholarship? Whitehead advises students to start early in high school planning a rigorous curriculum, with as many advanced placement classes as possible to boost the grade point average. Community service, extracurricular activities, and leadership roles also factor in.
The options are unlimited, from schools themselves and from outside organizations. Some offer scholarships in a formulaic manner; others take more of a holistic approach. All institutions, including Virginia’s community colleges, have some money available.
Scholarships often are available for students with special qualifications, in specific fields of study, or those who are members of underrepresented groups. There are scholarships for exceptional community service, musical talent, athletics, the oft-used example of a left-handed student attending Juniata College (Google it and see for yourself!) – and anything else imaginable.
You don’t have to be a straight-A student. Though many scholarships are super-competitive, others reward interests and unusual talents. Some organizations want to encourage prospects to enroll in underrepresented majors (there are plenty ofopportunities, for example, for women in engineering) or to honor the legacy of someone who has passed away. Some students might be more intrigued by winning money for designing a prom dress from duct tape rather than for physics potential.
And sometimes you never know what will happen. One well-known Virginia organization received fewer applications than it planned to award last year to children of employees. The result: Every student who applied received a $1,000 scholarship.
The Internet is full of information on these awards, along with high school guidance offices and public libraries. Investigate websites like meritaid.org and finaid.org for starters. It can pay to check your old elementary school, religious and civic organizations, and local and national businesses (even fun ones, like Build-A-Bear, give scholarships).
Abbey O’Farrell, a Henrico native on a full-tuition academic scholarship to Virginia Tech, said that she learned a lot while searching for college funding options. “I didn’t realize how many schools themselves had all these scholarships, in addition to all the outside scholarships. But it does require some looking.”
Many colleges offer presidential or academic scholarships to attract talented students. This is especially true at second and third tier institutions, where students who wouldn’t qualify at a prestigious school might get a full ride.
Many applications require multiple essays (students can sometimes find a way to repurpose classwork or college application essays) or a portfolio, so it pays to plan ahead. And don’t write off the smaller awards; winning even a small scholarship adds a line to your resume That can help you win other awards. Several small awards can add up to a significant amount of money.
But beware: The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers about companies that guarantee they can find you scholarships, many of whom use high-pressure sales at seminars. Alarm bells should sound if you have to pay money to get money. “I discourage people from paying for a scholarship search,” said Deffenbaugh.
Read every word.
“When you’re looking at colleges, really scour the financial aid part of colleges’ websites,” said Doran. “At some schools, when you apply you’re automatically considered for [institutional] scholarships. But at other schools, on the admissions page they say applications are due Jan. 1, but if you want to be considered for any scholarships, you have to apply by Dec. 1. If you’re just looking at admissions page, you don’t see that.
“You have to be careful to stay on top of what the financial aid page says.”
And read the applications carefully. Henrico native Dan Wegerbauer was accepted into george Mason’s University Scholars program, which includes full tuition, said his mother, Elisa. It was a simple as checking a box on the application, and was an amazing surprise for the family. Many colleges, like GMU, evaluate applicants for honors programs and scholarships based on the application; others require extra paperwork.
When you do get a scholarship offer, read it carefully. Some are renewable if you maintain a certain gPA. Others Are one-time awards. Some are known as “front-loaders,” when high school seniors are offered financial enticements to get them to enroll, but subsequent aid packages are lower and may include more loans.
Play by the rules.
You’re not going to make money going to college. Every institution has a policy that states what happens to a need-based aid package when you win an outside scholarship. These scholarships are considered resources – and that means they will reduce your financial aid package dollar for dollar.
You are required to report outside scholarships to the school’s financial aid office (even if the check is made payable to the student, not the school). “Our policy is that we’ll allow an outside scholarship to reduce the work-study and the direct loan first,” said Deffenbaugh. But each school has a different policy, and it pays to check.
Sound unfair? After all, some students spend hours researching and applying for scholarships. If your school doesn’t generally reduce the amount of loans, it is worth asking if the scholarship sponsor could defer the award to a future year.
But in the end, every dollar you can score helps fund another study-date pizza, a tank of gas, or text book.
“It’s so competitive, and sometimes it feels like you’re just throwing your name into a big ocean of scholarship entries,” said O’Farrell, who will start her tuition-free freshman year at Virginia Tech this month. “But sometimes it just works out.”