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.

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.