Archive for ‘paying for college’

April 16, 2014

How to talk to your kids about paying for college

by Grace

When should parents have the “talk” with their children?

Of course, I mean the talk about how their college education will be financed.  According to comments in a recent College Confidential thread, fourteen is too early and 12th grade is too late.  And just like sex education, kids should not be hit with everything all at once.

It’s like the sex talk … Tell them a little at a time in chunks they can understand.

“Parents of High School Juniors: Talk Finances NOW” is the title of the thread, and the original poster wants families to avoid the disappointment that sometimes occurs this time of year for high school seniors.

If you are the parent of a high school junior who will be applying to colleges next year, now is the time to take a close look at what you will be willing and able to pay toward your kid’s college education–and to make sure your kid understands it. You may never have told your kid about your family’s finances–now, you must do so, even if you’d rather not. Don’t be the subject of a thread next year when your kid says, “My parents told me I could apply to any college I wanted and they’d make it work, but now they’re saying I have to go to the relatively undesirable college that’s giving me a scholarship.”

So, look at some price calculators on college websites, get financial advice, think about whether your kid will have to have scholarships, what you feel comfortable borrowing (if anything), what you will expect your kid to contribute, whether you will expect your kid to pay back any of the money you spend on education, etc. And share the result with your kid. There should be no unpleasant surprises when acceptances come in next year–at least, there should be no surprising changes in your position.

In US News, Ryan Lane outlines a series of steps in planning for the talk.  It’s important to set clear expectations, and he even suggests putting it in writing to instill a better understanding.  Whatever else they do, parents should avoid the mistake of making a vague and uninformed promise that “we’ll find a way to pay” for college.

One way to begin the process is to run a few Net Price Calculators for some prospective colleges, including both private and public institutions.  It can serve as a reality check in laying the groundwork for the big talk.

April 9, 2014

Want to appeal your college financial aid?  Go for it

by Grace

Ron Lieber in the New York Times has some tips for students hoping to appeal their college financial aid packages before making the final decision on where to enroll in the fall.

A change in a your financial situation holds the best chances for a successful appeal.

Your best shot with an appeal will come from a change in your family’s financial circumstances since you applied for aid. Possibilities include job loss or other reduction in income, new health expenses, death of a parent, disability of a family member, nursing home costs, natural disasters or parental credit woes that make borrowing impossible.

Adjusting need-based aid may be a more straightforward proposition, but that’s not always true since need-based awards are often based on a ‘student’s academic merit’.

Some tips:

Some schools automatically match offers from similar schools.

Cornell instantly corrects itself if you’ve got higher need-based aid offers from other Ivy League schools or M.I.T., Duke and Stanford; it will match that offer, no questions asked.

Carnegie Mellon appears to be acting similarly, noting on its site that the university has “been open about our willingness to review financial aid awards to compete with certain private institutions for students admitted under the regular decision plan.” …

Go for it.
Based on some feedback from colleges, Lieber seems to suggest that the odds are not bad that an appeal will result in increased aid.

The worst that can happen is that the financial aid office says no …

Related:  Will colleges negotiate financial aid packages? (Cost of College)

March 24, 2014

Need-based college financial aid often based on ‘student’s academic merit’

by Grace

When some colleges award financial aid, ‘even “need-based” grants aren’t based solely on need: The size of the grants also depends on a student’s academic merit’.

While families do not usually know the details of how financial aid is disbursed, colleges have access to comprehensive, detailed information about applicants in what amounts to “a massive information imbalance”.

Most colleges offer “vague and superficial” disclosures about how they allocate their financial-aid dollars, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert with Edvisors, which publishes websites about paying for college. “They don’t give details about the actual formulas they use.”

Schools use “financial aid leveraging” to attract stronger students.

While universities don’t want to disclose the details, they have become increasingly strategic in recent years about how they use their aid and which students get it. Aid isn’t just given to students in need, it’s also used now for what schools call “financial aid leveraging” — often to entice high-scoring students who will help a school’s ranking or to give a small, feel-good discount to attract out-of-state students who will still end up paying a higher price.

Boston University is unusually candid about its strategy of using need-based financial aid to attract stronger applicants.

If you are an incoming student, your application for a need-based BU grant award will be considered based on several factors. These include calculated financial eligibility, academic achievement, and the availability of funds for your program of study.

BU publishes informative student profiles showing average aid awards.  I ran some simplified* Net Price Calculations that further illustrate how their financial aid works.  Given the same financial need, the stronger student is would receive more need-based financial aid.

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The Straight-A Student is estimated to receive $35,500 in grants and scholarships, compared to only $12,00 for the Solid B Student.  Remember, this is need-based financial aid.  Merit scholarships may be awarded in addition to these amounts.

* In these examples, total earned income was $80,000/year.

Marian Wang,  “How Exactly Do Colleges Allocate Their Financial Aid? They Won’t Say”, ProPublica, Feb. 25, 2014

Related:  Psst – one of Duke’s so-called merit scholarships is actually need-based (Cost of College)

March 17, 2014

Can the FAFSA hurt a student’s chances of admission or financial aid?

by Grace

The simple act of submitting a FAFSA could harm an applicant’s chances for admission or financial aid at some selective colleges.

Some colleges are denying admission and perhaps reducing financial aid to students based on a single, non-financial, non-academic question that students submit to the federal government on their applications for student aid.

Millions of high school students and their parents probably have no idea this happens after they fill out the ubiquitous Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form, known as the FAFSA, is used by nearly every American who needs help paying for college.

Here’s how it works.  Some schools have found that “the order in which students list institutions corresponds to students’ preferred college”.

When would-be college students apply for financial aid using the FAFSA, they are asked to list the colleges they are thinking about attending. The online version of the form asks applicants to submit up to 10 college names. The U.S. Department of Education then shares all the information on the FAFSA with all of the colleges on the list, as well as state agencies involved in awarding student aid. The form notes that the information could be used by state agencies, but there is no mention that individual colleges will use the information in admissions or financial aid — and there is no indication that students could be punished by colleges for where they appear on the list.

But the list has turned out to be very valuable to college admissions offices and private enrollment management consultants: They have discovered that the order in which students list institutions corresponds to students’ preferred college.

Now, some colleges use this “FAFSA position” when considering students’ applications for admission, which may affect decisions about admission or placement on the wait list, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

If a student happens to place his favorite college toward the end of the list, he may be hurting his chances of admission.

So the institution is disinclined to use up a precious admissions slot for a student who is unlikely to enroll.

Does this really happen?

Explicit evidence was not provided in the Inside Higher Ed article on this, so I understand the skepticism expressed in the comments and elsewhere.  However, it’s understandable that schools would be reluctant to admit this practice.  Plus, I doubt the National Association for College Admission Counseling is creating this story out of thin air.  So I believe it happens at some selective schools, and as an applicant I would take this into account.

In case it’s true

One approach to avoid the risk of losing out on chances of admission or financial aid would be to submit the FAFSA one school at a time.  That way it removes all possibilities of  being dinged for the order of schools on the list.

It would be better if the government would just stop sharing the entire list with all the schools a student puts on the FAFSA.

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March 11, 2014

The reduced purchasing power of the Pell Grant

by Grace

Cornell professor of political science Suzanne Mettler writes about how federal student aid has become less effective in promoting opportunity”.

…  In the 1970s, the maximum Pell grants for low-income students covered nearly 80 percent of costs at the average four-year public university, but by 2013-14 they covered just 31 percent. Presidents beginning with Bill Clinton introduced costly new tax policies to help with tuition, but these have failed to improve access for the less well off.

Perhaps if Pell Grant funds were spent more efficiently, they could be used to cover a higher percent of costs for qualifying students.

‘Pell Grants Shouldn’t Pay for Remedial College’

 … A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates and warping the country’s K-12 system.

Current Pell Grant spending is wasteful.

About two-thirds of low-income community-college students — and one-third of poor students at four-year colleges — need remedial (aka “developmental”) education, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit group. But it’s not working: Less than 10 percent of students who start in remedial education graduate from community college within three years, and just 35 percent of remedial students earn a four-year degree within six years.

One solution would be to limit Pell Grant eligibility to students prepared to do college-level work.  That could be accomplished by having colleges establish minimum requirements for admission based on rigorous entrance exams.

Related:  We spend $40 billion yearly on Pell Grants, but we have no idea about results (Cost of College) 

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February 18, 2014

Free tuition at New York state universities for top STEM students?

by Grace

The proposed New York State budget includes a provision to offer free tuition to top students who choose to major in STEM fields.

“New this year under the governor’s budget proposal, some students at the top of their classes will have a chance to skip tuition payments entirely. Those who plan to major in a field related to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects would receive free tuition to any SUNY or CUNY institution, as long as they remain in the state for five years after graduation to pursue their careers. The $8 million budget line is intended to help reverse the “brain drain” of the best and brightest from New York State.”

Students must graduate in the top ten percent of their high school class to qualify for the scholarships.

Details must be worked out.

Final budget approval is expected this spring.  Questions have been raised about how the requirement to stay in the state for five years after graduation would affect students who wish to attend graduate school.  One estimate predicts funding is only sufficient for 166 four-year scholarships, so it is possible that demand will be greater than supply.

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February 13, 2014

Paying for SAT tests can be the first financial hurdle in affording college

by Grace

The cost of SAT and AP tests can easily amount to hundreds of dollars, but low-income students may be eligible for fee waivers.

A high school senior complains about the high costs of College Board tests.

With college-admission deadlines quickly approaching, my debt to the College Board keeps growing. Two SAT tests, five subject tests and six Advanced Placement (AP) tests later, I am ready to report my scores through the College Board website to the 10 colleges to which I am applying. On top of the total $102 I paid to take the SAT, $114 for the subject tests, and $534 for the AP tests, the College Board now demands $11.25 for each electronic submission of the test scores to the schools on my list.

That makes a total of $750, including the $100-plus needed for electronic scores submission.  Are these fees too high? 

The College Board should behave more like the nonprofit it claims to be. Lowering the cost of the SAT would encourage more students whose parents make modest incomes to retake the test and compete against students from higher income households who often take the test upward of four times, aiming for higher scores. (I took the test twice.)

The total cost of applying of applying to college can easily reach thousands of dollars, creating a strain for many low- and middle-income families.  On the other hand, doing well on an AP test can generate college credit for a student, presenting a substantial value when compared to the typical cost of college tuition.

The College Board offers fee waivers for lower-income students who meet their criteria.

Related:  A recommended schedule for taking the SAT, ACT, and AP tests (Cost of College)

February 6, 2014

College 101 Infographic

by Grace

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College 101 Infographic from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has basic information about choosing a college and paying for it. 

Be educated and informed. Forecast your financial aid with the FAFSA4caster calculator. Find out what percentage of students received federal financial aid in 2012 and see the results of an April 2013 salary survey. Use a calculator to estimate the size of your monthly loan payment and the annual salary required to manage that payment. Learn about the top 75 college destinations with a link to the College Destination Index. Identify some of the reasons students select particular colleges…and more.


Short videos cover three topics:

  • Choosing a college
  • FAFSA
  • Financial aid

Related:  Ten questions to ask about college financial aid (Cost of College)

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January 29, 2014

Is your income too high to qualify for college financial aid?

by Grace

Mark Kantrowitz answers the recurring question about how much is too much income to qualify for college financial aid.

Question:

Is there a certain level of income and assets at which it doesn’t even make sense to apply for aid? I know this is not cut and dried, but before going through all the forms and submission expense, is there a formula where you can absolutely say that if your income is above x (say for a family of four) and your assets (outside of your primary home and retirement fund) are y, don’t even bother? - Stephanie

Answer:

The need analysis formulas are complicated enough that there is no simple answer to this question. The number of children in college can have a dramatic impact on eligibility for need-based financial aid. For example, a family with $100,000 in income and $250,000 in assets might have an expected family contribution (EFC) of about $29,000 with one child in college, but an EFC of $15,000 with two children in college. That won’t qualify for a Pell Grant since the EFC is more than $4,995, but it might qualify for subsidized Stafford loans or even institutional grants depending on the cost of the college. Financial need is defined as the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) and the EFC, so even a wealthy family might demonstrate financial need at a higher-cost college.

If family members have unusual financial circumstances, they may be able to qualify for more financial aid by asking the college financial aid administrator for a professional judgment review, sometimes called a special circumstances review or financial aid appeal. Unusual circumstances include anything that changed from last year to this year or anything that sets the family apart from the typical family. The college won’t make an adjustment for boat payments, but adjustments for job loss, unreimbursed medical expenses and high dependent care expenses (for example, for a special needs child or elderly parent) might qualify. Job loss is the most common reason for an adjustment. According to the 2011 College Decision Impact Survey, about one in six (17.6 percent) high school seniors had at least one parent lose a job in the last year.

Many colleges and scholarship providers require families to file the Fafsa to ensure that the student receives all the federal and state aid to which he or she is entitled. Families often overestimate eligibility for merit-based aid and underestimate eligibility for need-based aid.

Filing the Fafsa is also a prerequisite for low-cost federal education loans, like the Stafford loan and Parent PLUS loan. Almost half of Bachelor’s degree recipients from families with adjusted gross income (AGI) of $100,000 or more graduated in 2007-8 with student loan debt. More than two-fifths of students from families with AGI of $250,000 or more graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and student loan debt. More than a quarter of students from the top 1 percent borrow to pay for their education, perhaps because their parents want to ensure that the student has skin in the game.

Should you fill out the FAFSA if you are a high-income family?  It’s complicated, but keep this information in mind:

  • The FAFSA must be submitted to qualify for a federal loan.
  • Some merit scholarships require a completed FAFSA.
  • A family income that is higher than about $200,000 disqualifies most students for financial aid, but there are exceptions.

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January 22, 2014

The risk of promising your child that “we’ll find a way to pay” for college

by Grace

Don’t make promises you cannot keep.

In the college search and selection process, parents should think very carefully before assuring their child that “we’ll find a way to pay for it.”  That promise could be the cause of deep disappointment or crushing student debt.

In answering the question, “Should Students Apply to Reach Schools?“, Do It Yourself College Rankings discusses the pitfalls of applying to colleges that are financial reaches.

The simple answer is not to apply to any college that you can’t afford to attend.

The more detailed answer would be that it’s fine to apply to a financial reach school if everyone clearly understands that only significant financial aid would make matriculation possible should the student be accepted.  But to avoid unnecessary disappointment and stress in making the final decision where to attend, one recommendation is to get a sense about the likelihood of receiving financial aid by running the Net Price Calculator tool very early in the process.  Also consider the realistic chances of merit aid, which is often not included in the NPC estimate.

For more insight on what makes sense for your family when deciding whether to apply to a financial reach, check out the complete DIY Rankings answer.

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