Archive for ‘back to basics’

March 4, 2015

Can we afford this college?

by Grace

One of the most basic questions during the college planning process is often one of the hardest for a family to answer.

Can we afford this college?

The hard part is usually not in knowing what you can afford to pay, but in trying to find what the net cost of attendance will be for your child.  Here’s a three-step process that may help you answer this question.

  1. Run the Net Price Calculator
  2. Check the college website to find answers to the College Board “dirty dozen” questions
  3. Contact the school’s financial aid administrator


1.  Run the Net Price Calculator (NPC)

The NPC is an online tool that is a useful first step in comparing affordability.  Every college website has a calculator, which typically requires entering family financial information such as income and assets before the estimated net price of attending is generated.  Remember, this is an estimate and may not produce accurate results for business owners and other situations.  Proceed with caution, and check for online resources like the CollegeBoard tip sheet to help in the process.

2.  Check the college website to find answers to the College Board “dirty dozen” questions

A list of 12 questions to get you started on gathering information about a school’s financial aid policies is provided by the CollegeBoard.  In my experience, the answers to most of these questions can usually be found on college websites.  Going through these questions often prompts families to consider other important questions about college costs.

3.  Contact the school’s financial aid administrator

Okay, so not all your answers about costs and financial aid were easily found on the college website or other online resources?  Contact the college’s financial aid office and get the information directly from them.  They should be able to give you information rather quickly, and if they don’t it might be an indication of how transparent and helpful they are in other situations.

For organized families, it’s not a bad idea to create a spreadsheet that can capture important information and allow for efficient comparisons.

January 19, 2015

Completing the FAFSA

by Grace

Students and parents often find the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be a little intimidating. The form asks more than 100 questions about family finances and demographic details. The FAFSA is slightly more complicated than the typical federal income tax return. Officially, the form should take less than an hour to complete, but most parents don’t have advanced degrees in economics. Some parents want help completing the FAFSA, because they worry that making a mistake on the FAFSA will affect their ability to pay for college, ruining their child’s life forever.

Don’t panic! Take a deep breath. Relax.

Edvisors offers an online Step-by-Step FAFSA Tutorial

… This step-by-step guide provides a tutorial overview of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is based on the bestselling book, Filing the FAFSA.

The book is available for free download at the link.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis offers a video that guides you through completing the FAFSA.

FAFSA 101
Take a stroll through each screen of the online FAFSA to see what information you’ll need on hand to complete the application quickly and accurately.

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November 17, 2014

The value of A.P. classes

by Grace

The New York Times Motherlode blog asks the question, “To A.P. or Not to A.P”?

Students, parents, and school administrators have mixed feelings about A.P. classes.  Students sometimes feel pressured to take these advanced courses even when it’s not appropriate, but in many cases taking at least a few A.P. courses is the right decision.

When taught well, A.P. and I.B. courses can offer high school students the opportunity to study college-level material while in high school. Administrators and teachers may be divided on the merits of offering A.P. courses, but they agree that secondary schools feel pressure to offer them to appear academically rigorous.

A.P. courses usually look good on college applications.  Selective colleges want to know if students have taken the “the most rigorous academic program available”, so the natural inclination is to take as many A.P. classes as possible.  While some experts advise students that more is not necessarily better, it’s hard to believe that in a competitive situation more high A.P. scores will not add points on a college application.

… “Selective colleges make it clear these days that they will not consider candidates that have not done AP or IB.”…

Students and parents often blame the Ivy League and other selective colleges for perpetuating the current cutthroat environment, insofar as such schools advise taking “the most rigorous academic program available” (as stated on the University of Virginia’s admissions website).

“What parents are saying is that ‘until colleges change their message, I’m not going to let my kid be the sacrificial lamb,’ ” Pope observes.

But colleges say it’s the literal interpretation of this advice that gets students into trouble.

“What admission officers almost always say…is focus on what lights your fire and take advantage of the most challenging offerings in those areas,” urges NACAC’s Hawkins. “That’s a very different message from, ‘Take all of the AP classes.’ ”…

Why take A.P. courses?

A.P. courses can be the appropriately challenging level of study for advanced students, and a way to avoid being bored in classes that are too easy.

Students can earn college credit for A.P. courses when test scores are above a certain level.  This can save money and time, even enable graduation in less than four years.

In some cases colleges do not give credit, but use A.P. test scores to allow a student to skip over introductory classes.  This can be a benefit, but in some cases students should still take the lower-level college class.  For example, a STEM major may wish to take the college calculus course as a way to establish a stronger foundation for advanced course work.

Why avoid A.P. courses?

For some students, A.P. classes add excessive stress, either because of the extra work involved or because the student is not prepared to perform at the higher level.  In these cases, the lower-level course is the more appropriate placement.

There are borderline cases, where the question is whether it’s better to get an A in a regular college prep course or a lower grade in an A.P. course.

The answer that most colleges will give you is that, it’s better to get an A in the Honors/AP class.  Well, of course.  And most highly selective colleges will expect that you do.  But in reality, most colleges would rather see a B in an Honors or AP course.  They want to see that you are truly challenging yourself, but that you are still mastering the material….

The decision to take or skip A.P. courses is not always easy.  Consider it carefully.

ADDED:  Gas station without pumps blog gives commentary and advice on How many AP courses are too many?

Probably the most reasonable course is for students to take AP courses (and exams!) in those subjects that most interest them and pursue interests outside the AP classroom. Community college courses that go beyond the AP courses are also a cost-effective choice, if you can get in.

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Jessica Lahey, “To A.P. or Not to A.P., That Is the Question”, New York Times, November 13, 2014.

Amy Brecount White, “Under Pressure”, Arlington Magazine, September-October 2014.

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November 13, 2014

A reminder to look at net costs when comparing colleges

by Grace

Families should look at the net costs, after financial aid of all types, when assessing potential colleges.

Parents comparing college costs would be doing themselves and their kids a huge disservice if they just pay attention to listed tuition prices. What really matters is how much the school will cost you after financial aid and outside scholarships. And frankly some schools offer more scholarships than others….

Reyna Gobel offers a three-step method for getting started on a college list.

1. Have your son or daughter gather a list of 10 schools they’re interested in attending….

2. Use the net price calculators on each school’s website….

3. Talk to the high school counselor for your teen….

Net price calculators are imperfect estimators, so be aware of the cases where they are more likely to produce inaccurate results.

Related:  Are you eligible for a college tuition discount?

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Reyna Gobel, “Why Applying to Schools Based on Tuition Prices Can Cost Families Money”, Forbes, 8/31/2014.

November 11, 2014

What is Work-Study?

by Grace

Federal Work-Study is a program that provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate college students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses.

How does it work?

You apply for work-study just like you do all other forms of financial aid: by filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your financial need usually determines the amount of work-study you are eligible for.

You find work-study jobs through job banks or postings by the financial aid or college employment offices. In most cases, students will have the opportunity to interview with potential work-study employers. The interviews help students and employers find out if the job is a good fit. Sometimes the college arranges these interviews; sometimes the student does. Even if you are eligible for work-study, there is no guarantee you’ll get a work-study job. In the end, whether or not you are hired is up to the employer.

What kinds of jobs are available?

If you get a work-study job on campus, the college will usually be your employer. Typical jobs include working in the library or bookstore, serving other students in the dining hall, and assisting with college events. Off-campus work usually benefits the public in some way and should relate as closely as possible to your course of study.

How can work be considered financial aid?

Sometimes it’s difficult to see how working part-time during college could be considered “financial aid.” Keep in mind that the money you make from a work-study job does not need to be repaid, nor does it count against you when you apply for aid the following year. Plus, the smooth hiring process, flexible hours, choice and availability of jobs, and preset salaries of a typical work-study program usually make finding a work-study job easier than finding work on your own.

Work-Study can be an important benefit, with advantages over other types of jobs. Contact colleges to obtain details about their programs.  The federal student aid site is a good source of information:

Federal Work-Study jobs help students earn money to pay for college or career school.

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“How Work-Study Works”, College Data.

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October 9, 2014

Colleges want students who ‘can pay full price’

by Grace

Here’s a sobering reminder for students working on their college applications now.  It’s number 8 on the list of “10 things the college admissions office won’t tell you”.

We’d rather admit someone who can pay full price

All other things being equal, a full pay student often has a better chance of admission than a student who needs financial aid.

According to the College Board, 10% of college freshmen in 2013 were foreign students. One reason colleges woo these international scholars: Many are wealthy enough to pay the full price of tuition.

At publicly funded state universities, higher tuition for out-of-state students often helps subsidize education for state residents. For example, for an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, in-state tuition is about $13,000 a year; for an out-of-state or foreign student, tuition is about $36,000 a year.

Full pay can be an admissions boost for marginal students.

The interest in full-pay students is so strong that 10 percent of four-year colleges report that the full-pay students they are admitting have lower grades and test scores than do other admitted applicants.

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Daniel Goldstein, “10 things the college admissions office won’t tell you”, MarketWatch, Oct 4, 2014.

September 15, 2014

Which top colleges are most welcoming to low-income students?

by Grace

Which top colleges are most welcoming to low-income students?  The Upshot used the percentage of students receiving Pell grants along with net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families to find the most economically diverse top colleges.

Most Economically Diverse
Vassar
Grinnell
U.N.C.-Chapel Hill
Smith
Amherst
Harvard
Pomona
St. Mary’s (Ind.)
Susquehanna
Columbia

The biggest theme to emerge from our analysis is that otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity….

Similarly, by looking at schools on the list like Barnard and U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, it’s clear that otherwise dissimilar colleges show similar economic diversity.

How many low-income students actually graduate?

An additional data point that would be informative is the graduation rates for Pell grant recipients at these schools.  That’s a significant measure of how well a college serves its low-income students.

Low-income families can look at these lists and search out other information to help them understand how welcoming a particular college would be for their child.  Schools that partner with the Posse Foundation, a support program for that enjoys a 90% graduation rate for its participants, should be considered.

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David Leonhardt, “Top Colleges That Enroll Rich, Middle Class and Poor, New York Times, Sept. 8, 2014.

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September 9, 2014

Look at this chart before enrolling in college

by Grace

The bottom quarter of earners with a college degree don’t make more money than the average high school graduate. And this hasn’t really changed much in 40 years.

20140908.COCBottomQuarterCollegeGrads1


This chart may explain why “college isn’t for everyone”, but additional considerations are important.

… First, we don’t know for sure how much money this bottom quarter of degree-holding earners would have made without their college education. Furthermore, much of this could boil down to career choice: there are many jobs that require a degree but don’t pay very well. If someone earns a degree for reasons beyond making more money, it could be that the upfront investment is worthwhile regardless.

“On ‘average’, it’s still worth going to college”, but be careful about making personal decisions on the “average” case.

Here’s some good advice:

In the meantime, students who are unsure of what they want to study or do are probably best advised to be very cost-conscious when choosing a college, and to be unafraid to wait until they are sure how they will use their degree before they start to pursue one.

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Chris Matthews, “Why college isn’t for everyone, explained in a single chart”, Fortune, September 5, 2014.

August 18, 2014

Are you eligible for a college tuition discount?

by Grace

How do you know if a particular college is likely to offer you a discount on their tuition price?  Before you even apply, you can get an estimate by running your specific profile data through a Net Price Calculator (NPC), a tool that can be found on every college’s website.

Forbes ran a Net Price Calculation for five schools using several hypothetical scenarios.  The results show discount rates (financial aid) that would be awarded given specified parameters.

… two types of students, one from a family with an annual income of $300,000 and another from a single-earner family making a mere $12,000 a year. We tested two different academic scenarios: a supersmart kid scoring 1540 on his SAT, with a 4.0 GPA and in the top 10% of his class, and a “B” student scoring 1250 on the SAT, with a GPA of 3.0 and in the top 50% of her graduating class.

20140803.COCNPCForbes1

The biggest surprise is that RPI gives more financial aid to English majors than to engineering students.

As you can see all the top institutions except well-endowed Amherst offer discounts or “merit” aid. Only Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) differentiates its aid on its calculator by the student’s intended major as well as by income and ability. RPI clearly wants more poets and is willing to pay for them. President Nixon’s alma mater, Whittier College in southern California, clearly isn’t eager to attract lower-income students. In our test it offered an additional grant of only $1,334 to the low-income overachiever. Even after its ample discount, the needy student’s family still has to come up with half the cost of attendance.

This illustration is a reminder that a Net Price Calculator can help guide your college search.

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Lucie Lapovsky, “What’s Your Tuition Discount?”, Forbes, 7/30/2014.

August 14, 2014

Furnishing the freshman dorm room

by Grace

Julie at the Family CEO has some wise words of advice for parents who are shopping for a college freshman going away to school.

1. Err on the side of less. Let them live at school for a while and figure out what they need.

2. Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons. Save them all (they accept expired coupons) and let the cashier help you figure out the best ones to use.

I wholeheartedly agree, based on my limited experience sending one child away to dorm life.

We went shopping at the crowded Bed, Bath, & Beyond store closest to my son’s campus the day before he moved into his dorm room for the first time.  Among the other shoppers, I found I could tell which families had daughters and which ones had sons even before I saw the students who were accompanying their parents.  A shopping cart overflowing with color-coordinated supplies invariably belonged to a girl, while the boys’ carts held fewer items with seemingly little color coordination.

Here’s Julie’s exchange with her son:

Reason #458 why boys are different to raise than girls:

Me: Do you want this laundry bag of Lindsey’s? We bought it for her when she went to college.

Grant: Why do I need a laundry bag?

Me: To carry your clothes back and forth when you do laundry at school.

Grant: I figured I’d just use a trash bag or something.

That sounds very similar to conversations I had with my son.  It’s not uncommon for female college roommates to coordinate the decor of their shared space well in advance of move-in day. I’ve never heard of boys doing this.  If boys agree that one of them will bring the fridge and the other will supply the rug,, neither is likely to ask about their room’s color scheme.  In fact, they’ll probably not even think about a rug unless mom suggests it.

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