College Admissions

Paying For College

Bringing Down the Cost of College

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Wesleyan. Families around the country are touring colleges during spring break, some visiting a dozen or more schools in search of that perfect college. While gleaming new science buildings, low faculty to student ratios and beautifully landscaped campuses may be enticing, finding a good college fit also means looking at affordability.

The most selective, wealthy institutions often provide generous need-based financial aid. But very few schools have the resources to meet full need. And at a time when tuition, room and board at a private college can add up to more than $60,000 a year, cost is a major concern even for families that don’t qualify for need-based aid.

The good news is that there are ways to bring down the cost of college. Most schools offer merit-based aid, also known as scholarships. Every year, I see many students receive offers of $15,000 to $25,000 a year. One student was recently awarded a scholarship of $38,000 a year at his first choice college. Some schools will consider leadership and service, but these offers are generally based on a student’s academic record and test scores. It’s important to target colleges that offer substantial merit aid, and you need to be in the top of the applicant pool to receive the biggest scholarships.

If you live in a region that has a tuition reciprocity arrangement, you may be able to attend a public university in a nearby state without paying full nonresident tuition. Qualifying students in California pay 150% of in-state tuition at participating public institutions through the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program. Some students are paying less than $10,000 a year in tuition at these schools.

There are also colleges that have a lower cost of attendance. They may offer less need-based aid and smaller scholarships but charge lower tuition for all students. They may be located in parts of the country where expenses are lower and that’s reflected in the cost of attendance. They may be public institutions that want to attract out of state students and keep their nonresident tuition relatively low. It may take some research to find them, but there are affordable options.

Finances and Final Decisions

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

College have made their decisions, and once the initial euphoria or despair passes, high school seniors need to evaluate their options. They have until May 1 to make their final decisions, and with student debt reaching one trillion dollars, cost has become the primary factor for many families.

Financial aid packages are often disappointing. Even if your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is $30,000 and the cost of attending a college is $55,000, that doesn’t mean you will receive $25,000 in grants to cover the difference. Aid packages generally are a mix of grants, loans and work-study employment, except for a few wealthy institutions that are able to provide packages that do not include loans. Private colleges that ask for the CSS Profile form in addition to the FAFSA will use institutional methodology in awarding non-federal aid. This can result in a higher family contribution.

Then there is the fact that most colleges do not have the resources to meet full financial need. There can be a substantial gap between the student’s demonstrated need and the aid package. And they don’t necessarily allocate those resources equally. Many colleges use preferential packaging, offering the best aid packages to the students they don’t want to lose to another school.

It is possible to appeal a financial aid package, and colleges have been getting more appeals in recent years from families impacted by the recession. If a parent has lost a job, financial aid officers can use professional judgment to increase an award.

Some parents try to negotiate an increase in a merit scholarship, but that is less likely to be successful. It doesn’t hurt to ask as there may be cases where an award is increased, but remember that financial aid officers are hearing pleas from students in desperate financial straits. If a family does not need the money, financial aid officers are reluctant to divert limited resources from students who need the funds to be able to attend the school.

Whatever you are asking for, it’s important to be honest, respectful, and courteous. While admissions and financial aid officers do want the students they admit to enroll at the college, like most people, they don’t respond well to threats or manipulation. If a parent calls and says that other colleges are offering more money and this school needs to come up with a better package or his son will go elsewhere, he may be told that he should do just that.

Even if you can afford to pay full fare at an expensive college, you may be wondering if it is worth the cost. As competition for admission to the most selective schools has become more intense, many high-achieving students have been turned away. Those students have gone to other colleges and raised the quality of schools that might previously not have attracted such strong students. This means there are more excellent colleges out there, and unlike the most selective schools, many of them offer merit scholarships.

Some families are concerned that attending a less prestigious college will mean fewer job opportunities. This is a real concern and admitted students and their parents should use the next few weeks to do more research. If you will be visiting the school, go to the career services office and ask for list of companies recruiting on campus this spring. Ask where recent graduates are working or attending graduate school. You might also want to talk to graduating seniors and ask how satisfied they are with the career services, and whether the school helped them get internships as well as job offers. How happy are they with the education they received at the college? Did financial aid keep pace with the increase in costs over the four years or are they graduating with significant debt? If they had it to do over, would they choose this college again?

Younger students who will be going through this process in the next few years can learn from older siblings and friends. Seeing someone receive a merit scholarship worth $15,000 or $20,000 a year can be very motivating. Freshmen and sophomores have time to improve their academic record and juniors can still make sure their college list includes schools that offer merit-based aid and where they are in the top quarter of the applicant pool.

Preferential packaging means having a strong academic record is also important in securing the best need-based financial aid package. All of this means if you work hard and earn excellent grades and test scores, there could be a real payoff. If you spent 40 hours preparing for the SAT, and that effort resulted in a $10,000 a year scholarship, which would add up to $40,000 over four years, you would have earned $1,000 an hour. Even the best babysitting gig doesn’t pay that kind of money.



Right Price For the Right College

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Budget cuts at the University of California and other public universities have resulted in overcrowded classrooms and mandated enrollment cuts, leading more families to  consider private colleges. The good news is that tuition increases at private colleges will only average 4.5 percent for 2010-11. That still outpaces inflation but is lower than pre-recession average annual increases of 6 percent. 

The better news is that despite lower endowments, which have forced all schools to look for ways to reduce expenses, many colleges are still offering substantial merit scholarships. This year, some of my students received offers of $20,000 a year, making a private college education much more affordable. In addition to having smaller classes and receiving more personal attention, students at private colleges can get the courses they need to graduate in four years. Certain colleges are known for offering generous scholarships, which they use to attract the most desirable students. Applying to schools where you are at the top of the applicant pool will enable you to maximize your scholarship offers.

You may also find good deals at public universities, particularly those in neighboring states. For example, the Western Undergraduate Exchange enables students in Western states to pay the bargain rate of 150 percent of in-state tuition at some public colleges in the region.  

While cost is certainly a major factor in choosing a college, it’s not the only consideration. The cheapest college is no bargain if you would be miserable there for four years. Being in an environment where you’re happy and engaged means you’re more likely to be productive. A successful college career will lead to graduate school acceptances and job offers. It’s worth the extra effort to find colleges that are a good fit educationally, socially and financially.

Getting A Better Financial Offer

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

In recent weeks, I’ve received phone calls and emails from lots of happy students who have been admitted to their favorite colleges. Many have also been awarded generous merit scholarships or financial aid packages.


That’s important, because getting into a school you can’t afford to attend is painfully frustrating. If your financial aid package is not what you expected, it is possible to appeal. If there are special circumstances, such as a job loss or death of a parent, contact the financial aid office. They may be able to improve the package. If another school has offered a financial aid package that has more grants and fewer loans, you can send a copy of the better offer and the financial aid office may match the other school’s offer. Some colleges engage in preferential packaging, where the best aid packages go to the students they want the most.


In addition to providing more need-based aid, some liberal arts colleges are increasing merit scholarships in order to make their school financially attractive. Students are in the strongest position if other, similar colleges have made better offers. You can send copies of those offers to your favorite college, which may be more likely to increase its offer this year, rather than lose a desirable student.


For students who will be applying to college in the fall, it’s more important than ever to do your research and apply to a number of similar colleges that are likely to award good financial packages, so that you can then take those offers to the school you prefer. If that school matches the offer, you have the school you want at a more affordable cost. If your preferred school does not match the offer, you can decide whether the school would provide a significantly better college experience that is worth the extra money, or whether you would be just as happy at one of the schools that will cost less.