Saturday, January 10, 2015

Paying for College - Don't Overlook Financial Aid Forms

If you are the parent of a high school senior, it's time to turn your attention to another set of online submissions: financial aid forms. With the cost of college reaching new heights annually, many parents of college students today cannot ignore the financial aid piece of the college process. In order to qualify for financial aid or even to borrow under a federal loan program, you will have to complete at least one and perhaps two financial aid applications.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is the form that colleges require students complete in order to qualify for certain types of financial assistance and for any federal student aid.  More than 300 institutions also require submission of the CSS/Profile form, found on the College Board website, for the allocation of their own institutional resources.

Completing the FAFSA and; CSS/Profile (if also required) is the only way you will know for certain whether you qualify for need-based financial aid. College net price calculators and other online tools may give you a ballpark figure, but there are too many variables that these simplified calculators won’t capture. While parent income will be the most significant determinant, there are several factors in addition to income that influence eligibility including the age of the older parent, assets owned, number of family members living in the household and the number of children in college.  Yet the FAFSA is not only required to calculate demonstrated need. Any student or parent who wishes to borrow under the federal loan program, regardless of financial need, must file a FAFSA.  This even applies for parents who may choose to cover college costs with a Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students or PLUS loan.  A small handful of colleges also require that students complete the FAFSA in order to receive merit aid awards.  The single best way to find out a college’s documentation requirements is to visit the financial aid pages on its website where you will also find the college specific deadlines. They may be as early as February 1.
FAFSA completion is relatively straightforward, especially for those who have already filed a tax return and meet the eligibility requirements to take advantage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.  This enables filers to fill in much of the financial information on the FAFSA automatically by transferring data from the IRS.  But there is a catch. This feature is not available until two weeks after processing an electronic return and can take up to eight weeks if you file by mail.  Furthermore, the data retrieval feature will not be active until early February, too late for colleges with February 1 financial aid deadlines. This means you may still be faced with the task of estimating your prior year income and expenses. A word of advice if you estimate: better to under than over-estimate earnings since this is what will be used for the initial calculation of the financial aid award. Your FAFSA must ultimately be amended with the actual tax return numbers, so you can take advantage of the data retrieval tool at that time.  If you are certain you will not qualify for need-based aid yet will complete the FAFSA in order to borrow either a federal student loan or PLUS loan, you are not constrained by college financial aid deadlines so file your tax returns first to simplify the process. 

I also recommend that you take advantage of other resources available that can guide you through the form completion process and shed additional light on the factors that will influence your eligibility.  For a helpful guide on filling out the FAFSA form, there are online tutorials such as the FAFSA tutorial offered by Edvisors, a college financial aid website.  On the College Board website you will find the CSS/Profile and tips  for completing the form as well as the list of colleges that require it. 

Keep in mind that qualifying for financial aid is not a guarantee that you will receive a lot of free money so go into the process with realistic expectations.  Your own estimated need, your formula determined “demonstrated need,” and the amount of assistance you might actually receive can and will likely be three different numbers.  Financial aid formulas may yield a higher Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and lower demonstrated need than what you believe you can afford. The formulas are not frequently updated and consequently, underestimate today's cost of living, especially for those who reside in more expensive regions of the country. Furthermore, most colleges won’t fully plug the gap between the Cost of Attendance and what the formulas determine you should pay. Like many of us managing our personal finances, colleges struggle to equitably allocate a finite pool of resources.  So embark on this process with tempered hope and expectations. But don’t put it off. Familiarize yourself with financial aid requirements and deadlines to give yourself the best chance to receive any aid for which you may qualify.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Application Tips from a Graduating Senior

My guest blogger, Kasey Wood, is a graduating senior who heads to Bates College in the fall. Kasey recently reflected upon her college admission process and offered to share some thoughtful advice from her own experience. I am posting her tips here in the hopes that rising juniors and seniors might benefit!

Kaseys Tips for Applying to College

1.      Finish the CommonApp before summer ends. It’s eighty degrees outside, the beaches are beautiful, and there’s a party every weekend. The last thing on your mind is writing an essay about a turning point in your life. At the same time, I cannot tell you how much stress I saved myself by finishing the CommonApp before the first day of school senior year. I witnessed my peers as they were on the edge of tears, feeling absolutely overwhelmed. Not to say I wasn’t busy myself, but when I was cramming for my AP Calculus quarterly test, I sure was glad that I didn’t have to worry about finishing the activities section of the CommonApp.

2.      Give the admissions staff plenty of material to work with! Even the strongest writer may have difficulty conveying his or her own uniqueness within the allotted word count of a college application essay. Be sure to ask if you can send in extra work; an art supplement, a short story, or even a home-made movie can really set you apart from everyone else in the crowd. Show admissions your true personality.

3.      Visit campus. This one is a biggie. Before I visited colleges, I thought I wanted a large state school. This made logical sense; I’m from a small, fish-bowl-y community and have lived in it since I was three-years-old. But as I visited different colleges and universities, I realized that smaller schools have offerings that are very important to me. So if it is a reasonable thing for you to do, take the time to experience a potential school firsthand. Watch the people who go there and hear what students and faculty have to say about the school’s personality.

4.      Take notes. Do this throughout the whole process. Whether you are on the computer perusing a school’s website or walking around a campus, write down your thoughts. What impresses you? Is there something that really bugs you about the school? Are you confused about something the school advertises or offers? You will always be able to refer back to these impressions which will help you when deciding which schools to apply to and will prove to be especially helpful when it comes time to write supplements.

5.      Don’t pull the early decision trigger unless you are absolutely certain. You may feel a little left out in December if you choose not to apply early decision anywhere, but do yourself a favor and don’t commit just for the sake of getting the application process out of the way. I’ve seen too many of my peers who were committed to a school by December start to feel anxious as they had time to reconsider whether or not they are actually going to the right place. And that’s most definitely not a good place to be in; you want to arrive on campus full of excitement, not regret.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What Football has Taught Me about College Admissions

When I want to expand my knowledge of football, I don’t typically turn to college admissions.  Yet Peter Johnson, Director of Undergraduate Admission at Columbia University, recently introduced me to the term YAC, though Super Bowl Sunday was not the topic of conversation.  Johnson was addressing a group of professional members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) at an industry retreat. Responding to a question about the importance one’s high school plays in the college admission process, Mr. Johnson used yards after catch as a metaphor to form the perfect imagery.  His point: Columbia doesn’t admit schools; it admits students.  Where a student goes to school is the pass; where the student takes that opportunity is what counts. 

Think about that for a moment. Johnson just explained how competitive colleges not only seek to level the playing field, but also identify the MVPs.  Test scores and grades may put students in the conversation, but it’s their independent intellectual curiosity that propels them towards the end zone. 

Though fewer than 7% of applicants will likely be admitted to Columbia this year, Director Johnson’s message is useful advice for anyone seeking admission to a highly selective college or university.  It is no longer simply about having top grades, perfect test scores and a plethora of extra-curricular activities.  The student who catches the attention of an admission officer fills a niche and demonstrates a deep commitment to and measurable success in something that sets him or her apart.  It can be national or regional recognition for science research, development and mastery of a talent, or demonstration of a relentless curiosity through an academic pursuit. Elite colleges are interested in students who have been carving their niche over time and through their own persistence.  And as President Obama seeks to include college accessibility for more low income and first generation students as part of his legacy, colleges will search out the students who have excelled in the absence of certain privileges and advantages. Expect the trend towards measuring the yards after catch to become even more entrenched in the competitive college admission process.  

I am sharing Director Johnson’s candid message with you not to discourage, but to add a bit more transparency to the admission process at the most selective colleges.  His insights also dovetail well with the ideas expressed by journalist and author David Brooks in his February 4th New York Times Op-Ed article: What Machines Can’t Do.  Though the subject of his piece is not what selective colleges look for, Brooks emphasizes that these same qualities are valued in life as well as in college admissions.  The era of technology no longer rewards skills that machines can replicate, i.e., mental functions that rely on facts, rules and the information we are given.  Instead, our new age society will continue to find more value in and reward those who are motivated by pure enthusiasm and who possess “a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity.” Elite colleges look to build a class of niche players who possess this same independent intellectual curiosity to run the distance with the ball.

While Peter Johnson’s talk was specific to Columbia admissions, I think it is safe to say that the top tier colleges in terms of selectivity (not to be confused with quality) all employ their own version of YAC in how they admit students.  Coming to terms with what these colleges want to see is not a cause for despair; it might just be a reason to broaden the focus.  There are many fine colleges and universities that realize students don’t necessarily develop their interests at the same pace.  Instead these colleges hope to provide the opportunities and stimulation to facilitate that discovery.   Sometimes that means we must reassess our own goals. Today’s world and the one our children will encounter in the future will value, as David Brooks noted, enthusiasm that drives their intellectual curiosity.  Now is the time to encourage our kids to not only catch the ball, but also find the college or university that will excite their desire to run with it.