Sunday, January 23, 2011

Awarding Institutional Funds - The Black Box of Financial Aid

How colleges use their own institutional funds to provide assistance to students is often the black box of the financial aid process. Just consider the 500 or so private colleges and programs that make use of the CSS/Profile form to determine the allocation of institutional aid. If your son or daughter is applying to one of these schools or is currently attending one, then you may already be familiar with this comprehensive form that asks for multiple years of earnings and a full list of your family assets, including your home. But what you may not realize is that colleges pick and choose which pieces of this collection of data they wish to consider in the calculation of their applicants’ financial need. Colleges take advantage of a practice known as Professional Judgment. While the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for federal aid purposes is standard regardless of the college, professional judgment allows schools some flexibility to set their own terms for distributing their institutional funds. This is one of the reasons that financial aid packages for the same student can vary significantly from college to college (that, and the fact that many colleges “gap” students, meaning that they do not fully cover demonstrated need).

Don’t waste your time trying to decipher the formula or determine which of your assets a college will consider. The process is far from transparent and few colleges actually disclose on their websites the factors that come into play in their decision making process. While admittedly I have not done an exhaustive search, Princeton is one of the few exceptions I have found. And for anyone interested, Princeton does not consider home equity in its calculation. As an aside, you might want to inquire with the financial aid offices on your child’s college list as to how they treat home equity in today’s economy, given that banks have made tapping that resource increasingly difficult.

So why is any of this worthy of mention? Understanding how colleges use financial aid formulas and why aid may vary from school to school can partially demystify an often perplexing process. It also underscores the fact that if you are applying for financial aid, you won't know what college will really cost until you have the award letters in hand. The bottom line is that it may be as important to apply to financial safeties as it is to include colleges where the probability of admission is high.

If cost is a factor for you, then hedge your bets by having your child apply to both public and private colleges, recognizing that the private option may turn out to be the better deal. How do you identify the financial safeties? You should approach it the same way you find right fit colleges. First, know that this is an art, not a science; there are no magic formulas so you won’t know for sure until your child is accepted and receives an aid package. So start by understanding your student’s chance of being accepted. The more desirable he or she is as a candidate, the more likely the school will be generous with money. The most obvious way to get a preliminary idea for one’s chances is to compare grades and test scores to those of the average student admitted.

Recognize that schools which state they fully meet demonstrated need are less likely to gap. However, keep in mind that for colleges using either the CSS/Profile or a proprietary form, the specifics of their calculations will not likely be disclosed to you. You can, however, make use of resources such as College Navigator to get a sense (not an assurance) for how generous your child’s college choices are likely to be with need-based aid. You can search colleges by name and look at the net price for different income ranges. The major shortcoming, however, is that there are virtually no details for families making above $110,000 annually, but the website can still provide some insights into what students pay.

While the lack of transparency makes it tough to project your true out-of-pocket expenses when it comes to paying for college, there are ways to get a better handle on the probable cost. Approaching the financial aid process strategically will hopefully lead to more affordable choices and less disappointment in the final analysis.

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