FAFSA, EFC, CSS…It’s not just alphabet soup

A lot of families assume that they won’t qualify for any kind of aid from the federal government to help pay for college, so they don’t fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).  This is a huge mistake because many colleges and universities require that the FAFSA is completed in order to be considered for their institutional aid.

When you complete the FAFSA, you will receive an EFC (Expected Family Contribution).  This is a measure of your family’s financial strength and is used by schools to determine how much and what type of aid you will receive.  This aid can come in the form of grants, loans or work study opportunities.

Over 400 individual institutions also use a form called CSS to determine institutional aid.  If a school uses the CSS profile it will be listed on their website.  Again, the results of this information can provide your student with institutional grants, loans or other opportunities on campus.

So, why does all this matter to you or your student?  It is nearly impossible to get your hands on the financial opportunities to help pay for college without completing these forms and getting them turned in on time.  With application season ramping up for rising seniors, it is an important time for parents and students to understand the financial aspects of the process.  A quick way to get ahead of the game is to complete an estimate of your EFC now using the FAFSA 4CASTER.  The earlier you can understand this part of the process, the less stressed everyone will be.  Your accountant can be a great resource to help with this process as well.

What does “test optional” mean for your student?

There is a growing group of schools that have chosen to stop requiring college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.  The most recent of these schools is the very selective liberal arts school Bryn Mawr which only accepts about 40% of those who apply.  By making this decision, they join the ranks of schools like Wake Forest in Winston-Salem NC who was a leader in the test-optional practice for highly selective schools. Poor test takers across the world are breathing a sigh of relief as we speak.  Don’t let all that breath out just yet, however, because the practice isn’t wide spread and the test optional student better have an impressive resume, otherwise.

So, what does this mean for your student?  Ultimately, for students in the Midwest coming from middle income families it doesn’t mean much yet.  Going forward, it means that we will have tons of great research available about whether or not the SAT and ACT help determine college readiness.  For now, the majority of the schools that have chosen this practice are somewhat selective small liberal arts schools.

If a school doesn’t look at test scores, how do they determine whether or not to admit a student?  Depending on the school, they will look at a variety of factors including things like:  grades, the level of challenge in their curriculum (rigor), interests, essays, interviews, letters of reference, extracurricular activities, etc.  Essentially, either a well-rounded student or a student they refer to as “pointy” is a good candidate.  A “pointy” student is one that shows a great deal of talent and/or interest in a really focused area.

For more questions about the role of college entrance exams in the college application process for your student, contact me through my contact page.

Myths about college affordability

The number 1 myth about college affordability is that the state school is cheaper than the private school.   While it is typical for a big state school to have a less expensive sticker price listed than the private schools,  that does not mean they are less expensive for your student. The price you pay for a school is unique to you based on many factors.  A private college may cost less for your student than a state school.   Here are just a few factors that affect your cost:

1).  Your family income.  Every college and university uses the information they receive from the FAFSA and the CSS profile (if they use it) to determine “need” and then they offer financial need packages accordingly.  If you want to get an estimate of your Estimated Family Contribution, then head to the FAFSA 4CASTER.  It’s a good idea to do this sometime during your student’s junior year or earlier.

2). Merit aid.  Again, each college decides how they plan to award money for merit.  Some schools look only at grades/rigor/test scores while some look at community service hours, the student essay or other contributions.  Small private schools are notorious for offering a lot of money to certain students they are trying to recruit.  These merit scholarships require different GPAs and scores depending on how rigorous the school is.

3).  Athletic Talent.  I am pretty sure this is an area many people are familiar with.  Don’t forget, however, that there are three divisions in the NCAA and that Div 1 and 2 can both offer direct scholarships for athletic talent.  Div 3 can not offer direct support, but it can provide an opportunity for admission to a school you are interested in or just the opportunity to continue on in your sport.  If you are interested in playing or continuing your sport, chances are good there is a place for you on a college team.

4).  Music or Artistic Talent. Even if you don’t plan to pursue music or art as a major, some schools will give scholarships to participate in their programs.

5).  Understand the difference between “Need-Blind” schools and those that make you declare your intentions to seek scholarships when they consider your application.

6).  Schools handle “need” in different ways.  There is money you never have to pay back and money you do.  Trying to find more dollars that you don’t have to pay back is the trick.  Some schools tout that they cover 100% of the gap between EFC and total cost.  You want to find out whether that is covered with grants (you don’t pay those back) or loans (you do).

Finally, the best way to get your financial need met is to create a college list that meets your specific criteria.  The college list should be built carefully and should include at least one school that you know you can get into and you can afford that meets your academic, social and personal criteria.  Beyond that, it is a great idea to include some reach schools that you might or might not get into and might or might not get the money you need. Pay close attention to the application deadlines for the schools  you are interested in to be considered for merit aid.  The merit aid deadline is normally earlier than the regular decision application deadline.   You’ll never know until you’ve tried.  Just make sure you have at least one strong safety school on the list before you start swinging for the fences!

Dos and Don’ts of the College Visit

I frequently get asked questions about what to do on a college visit.   After working with loads of students and having my own personal experiences, I can honestly say that it depends on the teen.  Here are just a few general suggestions:

DO attend when school is in session if you can.

DO plan ahead for parking because college campuses are notorious for having limited parking.  Driving and parking on a college campus is tricky at times.  Allow for an extra 30  minutes to find your parking and to walk wherever your first meeting is going to be.

DO check the weather ahead of time because you are probably going to go on a tour-if there is a torrential downpour it will not be fun!

DO remember that this visit is about your teen and what is best for them.

DO remember to have a little fun-plan to go to a local restaurant or check out the student center on campus.

DO plan for a long day.

DO schedule the visit with the office of admissions (take the tour, meet with admissions and eat in the cafeteria).

DO prepare your teen for possible questions they might be asked.  The most common question is what they think they will major in.  If they don’t know, let them know it is ok to say that they are “undecided”.  That sounds a little better than the deer in the headlights nonresponse you are likely to get if you don’t prepare them!

DO bring a notebook to keep track of the names of people you meet, jot down notes, etc.  When you visit several campuses they can all start to blur together.

Finally, try to do the initial college visits early in the junior year to reduce stress.  Students and parents are preparing for a big transition and these early visits can cause stress.  Adding a deadline for applications and pressure to make a decision quickly is certain to make this worse.  The earlier you begin the process, the less stressful it will be.  Remind your student that they are not deciding where they will go to school during early visits, but instead getting a feel for the choices and beginning to form a list they would be willing to consider.

Good luck and have fun!

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