Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Visit Colleges?

Before heading to New Mexico last week to visit Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), I checked the weather report.  My image of a temperate southwestern climate was quickly dispelled when I read the forecast:  snow showers.  I put away the t-shirts and packed the parka.   Thanks to I was not at all surprised to see the snow covered peaks as the plane began its descent.  Yet other revelations were in store. I was already familiar with Santa Fe’s reputation as an artist haven, yet it never occurred to me that it was also a destination for filmmakers and winter enthusiasts.   In fact, the city, at 7,000 feet, is a short drive to several challenging ski areas and sits at a higher elevation than Denver.   So much for preconceived notions; many of my assumptions about attending college in Santa Fe were tossed before I even stepped foot on the campus.

Seeing is believing, and getting to know a college is no exception.  Visiting is the one sure way to get a feel for a university and to imagine oneself as part of its community.  Do your research before a visit so you have some idea of what to expect, but be open to a few surprises.  A trip to a college is the best way to get to know a university, its offerings, student body, campus feel and surrounding community.  If you are the type of person who needs to experience things firsthand, all the more reason to plan a visit. 

When I scheduled my trip to SFUAD, I did some online research in advance to ensure that I wouldn’t arrive on campus clueless about its programs.  A college’s website is the obvious place to start any search in order to gain an initial sense for whether a school has the right academic fit for a student.  Sites like Unigo and College Prowler can also be helpful in providing the student perspective.  However, nothing can replicate the college visit. It would have been easy for me to make assumptions about SFUAD, a southwestern college in transition, which had been the College of Santa Fe in a recent former life. Today a re-born SFUAD, supported by an outside investor and the city of Santa Fe, has emerged as a niche liberal arts program focused in the fine and performing arts. On paper (or more precisely, online), its offerings sound similar to many other art colleges.  Yet the collaboration, not only among students but also departments, makes for a truly interdisciplinary artistic experience.  How do I know?  I saw it firsthand:  theater majors auditioning for film student productions, musicians involved in multimedia projects, and visual art students exploring every medium the studio art program has to offer.

Answers to questions such as ‘what type of student thrives here?’ and ‘what makes this college unique?’ begin to get to the essence of who might do well on a particular campus.  Yet the ‘being there’ impression is as important as the answers offered, if not more so.  A college may sound perfect from the description in the glossy view book, but it’s the campus visit that will confirm or dispel one’s preconceived notions.

How does one get the most out of a college visit?  With an open and inquisitive mind.  The feel is not just about physical beauty.  It’s also about the intangibles which are sometimes more difficult to see at first glance.  A few years back I visited a small Midwestern college that did not make a compelling first impression; the campus looked tired and downright sleepy. My colleagues and I reassessed our plan:  say a quick hello in admissions and leave as quickly as possible.  Three hours later, we were still choice!  The students we spoke to were smart, passionate and genuinely fired up about the many cross-disciplinary opportunities available to them and about the exceptional faculty mentoring.  We left applauding the college’s decision to choose the intellectual investment in the faculty and students over building a more sensory appealing state-of-the-art athletic facility.  Our focus had shifted from observing the physical setting to seeing the less tangible environment where possibilities abounded.  So take the time to get out of the car even if the grass is parched from an extended drought.  A college experience should be more than skin deep. Classroom environment, student engagement, career services, academic rigor, social scene, and opportunities in one’s chosen major…these are just some of the many areas that can and should be explored.

Reflecting on my trip to SFUAD, I am reminded that finding the right fit college is an art, not a science.  Getting to know my students and understanding the vibe of the colleges I visit are both essential to my assessment for which schools would be appropriate for each individual.  However, the decision in the end rests with the student and family.  It is an important decision which warrants as much firsthand knowledge as possible.  So whether your child sees each campus before he or she applies or just prior to making a final choice, don’t under estimate the value of a road trip.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Who Should Apply for Financial Aid?

“If we aren't likely to qualify for need-based aid, should we file a FAFSA?”  “Is it true that everyone should complete financial aid forms, regardless of need?” “Do I need to complete the FAFSA to receive merit aid?” These are questions I often get from parents who are trying to determine whether there is any benefit to filling out this "black box" form.  The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as the FAFSA, is the federal form that all colleges require students to complete in order to qualify for certain types of financial assistance and any federal student aid.  (Nearly 400 colleges also require submission of the CSS/Profile form, found on the College Board website, for the allocation of their own institutional aid). You will need to fill out the FAFSA to receive need-based aid, but that is not the only reason to spend the time and effort.

Who should complete the FAFSA?  Anyone who believes he or she may qualify for need-based aid should invest the time; filling out the form is the only way to know for sure.  There is no maximum income or set amount which precludes one from qualifying.  Rather, many factors in addition to income influence eligibility including the age of parents, assets owned, family members living in the household and 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 Stafford loan program, regardless of financial situation, must file a FAFSA.  This even applies if a parent chooses to take out a PLUS loan.  A handful of colleges 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.  
Completing the FAFSA is relatively straight forward 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 their tax return.  But here’s the Catch-22:  You must wait approximately 2 weeks if you process your return electronically, or 6-8 weeks if you file by mail before you can access this feature.  By then the college financial aid deadline might well have passed (check individual college websites) so you may still be faced with the challenge of estimating your prior year tax information (a word of advice: better to under than over-estimate earnings).  For those who estimate, you will ultimately have to amend your FAFSA with the actual numbers, and can take advantage of the data retrieval tool at that point.  If you are certain you will not qualify for need-based aid yet will complete the FAFSA in order to borrow either a Stafford student loan or PLUS loan, you are not constrained by college financial aid deadlines so file your tax returns first to simplify the process. 

For a helpful guide on filling out the FAFSA form, you may want to view the 7 Easy Steps to the FAFSA tutorial before you get started.

Keep in mind that qualifying for financial aid is not a guarantee that you will receive lots of free money so go into the process with realistic expectations.   As I have emphasized in many of my blog postings, your personally estimated need, your FAFSA 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 FAFSA is not frequently updated and consequently underestimates today's cost of living, especially for those who reside in expensive regions of the country. Furthermore, most colleges won’t fully plug the gap between the Cost of Attendance and what you are expected to pay. Like many of us managing our personal finances, colleges struggle to judiciously allocate a finite pool of resources.  So embark on this process with tempered hope and expectations.