Thursday, September 8, 2016

New FAFSA, New Timing

New FAFSA, New Timing

Imagine shopping for a new car and having no clue until the moment you pull out your credit card or sign the lease agreement what the vehicle will cost. College list prices, like those for cars, are readily available on websites, but what a family will actually pay is often a mystery until only a few weeks before a student must make a decision.  The lack of transparency in the cost of attendance has been a common gripe among families of college going students. This year the federal government decided on a simple though limited fix: move the availability date for filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, from January 1st to October 1st of the prior year.  Submission of the FAFSA is required in order to be eligible for all federal aid, and many colleges also use it as the primary determinant for allocation of their institutional need-based aid. The change goes into effect on October 1, 2016, just a few weeks from now. The actual impact on colleges and families is still not fully clear, but the change in timing should make filing the FAFSA easier and less of a scramble.

What eases the burden of completing the FAFSA is the move to prior prior year income reporting.  No longer will parents be pressed to estimate adjusted gross income in January for the calendar year just ended, often weeks before receiving W-2s and other necessary statements for filing taxes. Families of students applying for financial aid for fall 2017 will be asked to report their 2015, or prior prior year income instead. Most filers can take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool and, by merely clicking the Link to IRS button on the FAFSA, populate the required fields with their income data.  The timing of asset reporting will not change, meaning that parents and students will still report balances as of the date the FAFSA is submitted.  

The change in FAFSA timing accelerates some, but not all aspects of the college process. Applying for financial aid is now done concurrently with applications to colleges rather than two or three months later.  Families will benefit by no longer having to estimate income and update the FAFSA at a later date.  The earlier date also encourages students and their parents to address financial need and expectations earlier in the process.

Yet the question remains: will the advent of prior prior year income and the early FAFSA availability actually accelerate financial aid decisions to truly assist a family’s college planning? It’s too soon to tell.  Many colleges are moving up their deadlines for submitting financial aid forms to coincide with the FAFSA and CSS Profile’s October 1 availability date (the CSS Profile is an additional form required by roughly 400 primarily private colleges).  But are families really likely to know their financial aid packages sooner? Not unless admission decisions are accelerated as well.  Financial aid awards generally accompany or follow notification of acceptance. Clearly more will have to change than merely making it easier for families to complete and submit the FAFSA earlier. Under the current system, it’s unlikely that the timing of financial aid notification will change materially. 

Nevertheless, families would be wise to take advantage of the earlier filing date and get the forms submitted as soon as possible.  Checking financial aid requirements on each college’s website is necessary in order to confirm and meet the anticipated earlier deadlines.  It will probably take a few more tweaks to the process before families will be able to truly gauge the cost of college well in advance of making a final decision.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Grit: Discovering Our Mental Toughness

While ascending the never-ending sequence of climbs in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains last month, I wasn’t thinking about grit. I was purely determined to pedal my way to the crest of each hill and be that much closer to my destination: the next college on our itinerary. Cycling with six college guidance counselor colleagues in Virginia, I spent the week traveling from school to school on a bike fully loaded with the clothes and supplies I would need for the week. We college-bound road warriors biked 360 miles in six days, but one day in particular truly tested our stamina as we cycled 81 miles and climbed nearly 7,000 feet.  I will not lie. When we arrived at our Lynchburg College destination just before sunset, I was done, sure I would not have been able to complete one more rotation of my pedals if my life depended on it. In retrospect, I see that grit got me there. It allowed me to keep going, even when I was exhausted, parched and had no idea what ascents might lie ahead.
Merriam-Webster defines grit as mental toughness and courage, but I also like the Wikipedia definition: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Time horizon matters, as grit demands the drive to follow through even when the rewards are not easily within our sight or grasp.
As we begin another application season, I often ask students about their motivation. I want to know the things that excite them, their aspirations and goals, and how they hope to achieve them.  Where does college fit into these plans? Though I firmly believe that 17 year olds need not have everything figured out, I am curious about what inspires them to persevere, even when the path isn’t clear or the challenges seem insurmountable.  How and when are they mentally tough because they are driven by something that requires focus and effort, even when rewards don’t come easy, contrary to the short-term pleasure of immediate gratification?
While some people are naturally driven, I don’t believe one is necessarily born with grit. It develops over time as we find a purpose or an interest that engages us to persevere over the long-term.  Some kids find their passion early, whether it is discovering an artistic talent, a natural athletic ability or an academic curiosity.  But having an interest is only the start.  What keeps us going, drives us to delve more deeply and fuels our desire to set and work towards a challenging goal is an understanding for how grit feeds our soul. Rarely does this happen when the goal is within our grasp and comes too easily.  More often we develop grit and find our motivation when we take a risk, push ourselves, occasionally fall short but regain our mental and physical toughness to overcome the inevitable obstacles.  Only then can we see the true rewards from the toughness, courage and perseverance that got us there.  
Though I have enjoyed cycling on and off since the age of six, my infatuation with biking was kindled through a discovery of my love for colleges. It had been 30 years since I last owned a road bike, but I was determined to reacquaint myself with the sport and get myself into cycling shape to join and keep up with a group of counselor cyclists who found a way to combine these seemingly unrelated interests.  What I discovered on that hot July day somewhere around mile 70 when I was thirsty, weary and battling possible defeat at the sight of each new hill is that it wasn’t just about getting to the next college; it was about getting to the top of the mountain without giving up.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

Studying in the UK - An Option Worth Exploring

Walking into the sunlit classroom, the first thing I noticed was the castle. The art studio we had just entered offered one of the best views of Edinburgh’s 12th century fortress perched high above the city.  Artistic inspiration sat just beyond the classroom windows and I envied the students who created their own masterpieces with this treasure as a backdrop.  Many U.S. colleges draw students with their state-of-the-art facilities, teacher-to-student ratios and abundant school spirit. The University of Edinburgh, one of six ancient universities in the United Kingdom, offers some similar but also a few quite distinctive selling points: the opportunity to study at a world class university with renowned academics in a medieval city rich in history, culture and beauty.  And that’s just scratching the surface!  Though the primary purpose of my trip to the UK was to participate in the University of Edinburgh two day college counselor program, I took advantage of the opportunity to extend my escape from the New York bitter cold and snow and toured six universities located in both quaint medieval towns and in the urban capital city, London.  I spent the week learning about academic offerings and social life while discovering the essence of each university and factors that would lead to a good fit and positive student experience.

An important thing for students to know if contemplating study in the UK is the emphasis on depth over breadth. The concept of pursuing a broad liberal arts education is virtually non-existent, though a few universities such as the highly selective University College London, King's College London and Durham University have each introduced their own version of a liberal arts course of study. In contrast to the U.S. where many students do not declare a major until the end of sophomore year, students at UK universities enter directly into a field of study to which they devote much if not all of their academic focus.

Despite our different approach to higher education, the U.S. actually owes its liberal arts foundation to Scotsman John Witherspoon, an Edinburgh graduate, Declaration of Independence signer, and the sixth president of Princeton University who introduced the Scottish syllabus to the venerable New Jersey institution.  Today the U.S. system of higher education remains most closely aligned with that in Scotland where programs are typically four years and include foreign study in year three, much like our junior year abroad.  Though students in Scotland apply directly into their major(s), or Honours, opportunities to take some courses outside one's concentration provide a foundation and flexibility to switch should a student change his mind within the first two years. The three year degree common elsewhere in the UK makes changing course far more difficult, but the financial trade-off can be substantial. In addition to the shorter program length, tuition for most programs throughout the UK is significantly lower and can be as much as $15,000-20,000 less per year than at most selective private universities in the U.S.  Citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. are also eligible to take advantage of the Stafford federally guaranteed loan program to cover costs up to the annual and total borrowing limits.

Going to college in the United Kingdom has the potential to be a challenging transition for many students educated in the U.S., but it does offer an exciting and culturally rich alternative for American students who are primed to work independently, seek a more globally diverse and academically focused experience, and know what they want to study.  While support services exist for all students, including an assigned personal tutor and smaller seminar sections with professors for every course, the onus lies with the student to self-pace and master the material in order to sit for semester and year-end exams or submit papers which will likely be the only assessments.  Despite the academic demands, students do find time for recreation. Class-free Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to sports and societies, what we more commonly refer to as clubs, providing a way to get involved in the social and non-academic life on campus. 

The concept of fit is important in the UK too and students similarly should consider factors such as academics, social life and location to find the optimal collegiate environment. Campus life will feel very different in an urban center like London than in the ancient small town of Durham where university students form communities through their residential colleges and typically eat all meals as well. 

Fortunately for anyone thinking about studying in the UK and trying to decipher the alternatives, the process is relatively transparent; even international students can readily determine each university’s admission criteria and find a plethora of information about the student body, housing and of course, the requirements for a given course of study through the The Complete University Guide which is updated annually. Admission to a university is based primarily on exam results in related coursework or standardized test scores for non-UK students including APs, a personal statement that speaks to and substantiates a student’s academic interests and a teacher/counselor reference.  To identify and compare the strength of specific programs, students can access the official League Tables, an important source for choosing where to apply.

The process of applying to a UK university is seemingly more straightforward than navigating the application process in the U.S. Students complete and submit one application, the UCAS, which is accepted by all universities, write one personal statement and can apply to a maximum of five universities. They are cautioned to limit reaches to two schools and to have an “insurance” option.  Given the availability and transparency of each university’s criteria, students should have no doubt about which schools would be their sure bet choice.  Even the cost of the UCAS application, like the price of the education, is a bargain compared to the fee in the U.S. The £23 one time application fee is less than $40 at today’s exchange rate. 

Going to the UK as an undergraduate is not be for everyone and requires that a student have a clear academic direction and purpose.  Yet did I mention that graduate programs, or post-graduate as they are known in the UK, are typically only one year? If your son or daughter is not ready to take the step and enroll as a first year undergraduate student at a UK university, the opportunity will not be lost. There's always graduate school.