June 16, 2020
I am finishing my junior year and never thought I would be able to go to college, so I never really investigated anything about it. My mother always just said "we can't afford it." But a teacher of mine told me basically how financial aid works and indicated that it's possible I could go to college for almost nothing because of my family's financial situation (my father died 10 years ago, my mother is on disability). And in looking at it, I actually have enough saved up from Social Security from my father's death to finish almost three years of state school even if I don't get financial aid. So now I'm thinking maybe I should apply and see what happens. But my understanding is that I'm pretty late to this process. How do I start with the application process knowing that I'm finishing 11th grade and I've done nothing so far? Are there some basic steps I should take to be ready to apply this fall?
Thank goodness for teachers (and why aren't they paid more??)!! It sounds like you have one who's really on the ball, and it's definitely not too late for you to find colleges that should be affordable for you. However, the financial aid process can be complex, so let's start with a crash course.
In general, there are three types of financial aid:
These are awarded to students directly by colleges. Typically, "merit aid" is designed to lure the most desirable applicants to enroll. Merit scholarships usually range from a couple thousand dollars (which won't make much of a dent in total costs) up to the full cost of attendance for four years(!) Whenever your grades (and, often test scores ... more on these in a minute) are at the high end of a college's median range or above it, this will improve your chances of receiving a merit scholarship, although other factors (e.g., course selection, leadership, special talents, demographics) are usually considered as well. In the past, ACT or SAT scores have often played a starring role in determining who gets merit dough — and how much — but this is changing a lot for you seniors in the coronavirus era because many colleges, even most of the hyper-competitive ones, are now SAT/ACT optional for next year (and maybe, forever). However, some colleges that have switched to a test-optional policy will continue to require the SAT or ACT for merit scholarships, or at least for their best ones. FairTest.org will soon be reporting which ones. So check in with them in a month or so for an updated list.
If you want to know whether your grades and test scores (if you have them) are in — or above — the median range for any colleges you're considering, start with the College Board's "Compare Colleges" website. Here you can type in the names of up to three institutions and get a quick look at data that includes school size and location, acceptance rates and median test ranges. From there, if you click on each school's name, you'll get to another page with a menu on the left hand side. Click on "Applying" and then select the "Academics and GPA" tab. This will help you see how your GPA and class rank (if available) mesh with those of other applicants, so you can figure out if you are at the top of the applicant pool. The closer you are to the top, the more likely you are to receive merit aid if the college offers it in the first place. (Most do, but some of the more selective, well-known colleges only offer need-based aid, which I'll get to below.)
Hint: If you're using a mobile device, request the Desktop Site to access the most information from the College Board website
Warning: It can be very flattering to receive a big merit grant (say, $25,000 a year for a total of $100,000), but be careful. Sometimes these super-sounding aid awards come from not-very-selective private colleges that may cost up to $60,000 or $70,000 dollars per year to attend. So even a sweet merit award may have little impact on your overall costs. Thus, you might be better off attending a much cheaper public college where you qualify for in-state tuition. And, in fact, the public college could even be more selective and prestigious than the private one. So don't get too starry-eyed when the merit scholarships start to roll in until you determine how much will be left for you to pay once the merit money is deducted!
Another warning: Most merit scholarships are awarded automatically to eligible candidates — with no separate application necessary. But on the other hand, the really great ones (e.g., half-tuition; full-tuition; full everything) usually do require additional submissions and sometimes even an early application. It can be something of a treasure hunt to find merit-aid information on college websites. So be persistent, and look carefully for all merit-aid requirements and deadlines so you don't miss out.
This is determined by a family's income and assets, not by grades or test scores. So if two students are admitted to the same college and one has a 4.0 GPA and the other has a 3.5, the student with the lower grades may get a lot more aid than the one with the higher grades, if their family has greater financial need. Once you (and your mother) have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you will learn your EFC ("Expected Family Contribution"). Plan to fill out the FAFSA in October.
Because your mom is disabled and your dad passed away, your EFC will probably be very low. Maybe even 0. In theory, the EFC is the amount that your family should pay each year for your college costs (tuition, room, board, and all other fees). And that figure shouldn't change, whether you are attending a college that costs $70,000/year or one that costs only $7,000/year.
Also in theory, when your EFC is low — as yours is sure to be — then the colleges should make up the difference.
College A costs $42,000 total. If your EFC is $10,000, this college should give you $32,000 in scholarships and loans to make sure you can attend.
If College B costs $25,000, your EFC is still $10,000. It won't change from school to school. So College B then should give you $15,000 in scholarships or loans. Get it? Maybe your teacher explained this already.
When your EFC is lower than the cost of attendance (which is likely to be true for you, no matter where you apply), then you will qualify for need-based aid ... although you don't always get it.
Warning: In reality, many colleges practice what is known as "Need Gapping." They say, "Okay, we see you require $32,000, but we're going to give you only $12,000. You'll have to make up the difference on your own. We don't care how you do it. Take out extra loans. Hit up Grams and Grampy; sell the family heirlooms. It's not our problem." The less selective a college is, the bigger the "gap" is likely to be.
Another warning: Most of the highly competitive colleges promise to "meet full need." That is, they don't gap, and, they will give you enough aid to cover the difference between your EFC and their total costs. BUT ... some of the colleges that claim to meet full need will actually give you a financial aid "package," which includes some "grant" (money that you need not repay) along with some loans, which must eventually be repaid. So even if a college claims to meet full need, it doesn't necessarily mean that your financial worries are over. You will have to be wary of graduating with a lot of debt.
How much debt is "a lot?" Head to the College Board website, but, this time, click on "Paying" and not "Applying." Then you'll see a tab at the top of the pages that says "Financial Aid by the Numbers." If you click on that, you'll get tons of figures, including one labeled "Avg indebtedness at graduation" (on the right at the bottom). Try to aim for colleges where that number is under $25,000. This may sound like a lot of money to owe, but it can be repaid with reasonable terms. Be cautious, however, of taking on more debt than that and — of course — if you can graduate with less debt (or no debt), so much the better!
Since you won't be submitting your FAFSA until the fall, it could be helpful to get an idea now of what your EFC should be. You can play around with this online calculator to get a rough sense of your EFC. You will need to have your family's most current income tax forms in front of you in order to use the EFC calculator.
Shortly after you start the online calculator, you will be asked to choose a "formula" — "Federal Methodology," "Institutional Methodology" or "Both." Select "Both." Once it's time to actually apply to college, you'll find that all colleges on your list will require the FAFSA from those seeking aid, and some will also require the CSS Profile form.
Colleges that ask for only the FAFSA will compute your aid award based on Federal Methodology.
Colleges that also require the CSS Profile will use Institutional Methodology (well, more or less … their final figures may not be exactly the same as the results you get from the calculator).
In addition, all colleges in the US are required to put a "Net Price Calculator" on their websites. The NPC is usually similar to the College Board's EFC calculator. However, most of them are more specific and may consider factors that are especially important to that particular college. Some even estimate if you will be in the running for merit aid.
It can be very time-consuming to fool around with the NPC for every college on your list. But once you've done this generic version, above, you might want to try one or two of them, just to see if the figures you get are different. (There are usually links to the NPC on a college's financial aid sites. Otherwise, you can find it via Google.)
These usually come from businesses, religious groups, civic organizations, etc. Some are national awards; some are local. As with merit aid, the amounts of these scholarships will vary tremendously, but usually they are much lower than the merit aid that colleges give out. You may qualify for outside scholarships because of your grades and test scores. In addition, you may qualify based on your ethnicity, the place where you live, your prospective major or career goal, or perhaps because you submitted a winning essay, art project, etc. There are a number of online search engines to help you find the outside scholarships that are good fits for you. Some scholarships may require a lot of work for little gain, but others may look like they're actually fun to go after. So take a shot at the ones that seem like your best bets.
You've already mentioned applying to public colleges, and that's a smart idea. Most (but not all) states have a "flagship" university which is usually very large and is the best known and most selective public school in the state. Then there are also additional (usually smaller) public universities and colleges, along with two-year community colleges (which sometimes offer housing, but not usually). Depending on your grades, which "The Dean" doesn't know, each of these options may be viable for you, and you should research all of them. Ordinarily I would say, "If possible, aim for an institution where you can live on campus and fully experience college life." But in these crazy COVID-19 times, lots of students who might otherwise head for a four-year college with dorms are considering community colleges so that they can live at home more safely and frugally, with the realization that they may end up at home anyway, taking their classes via Zoom. So definitely don't rule out your closest community college when you make your list, at least as a "Safety" school. All community colleges have "articulation agreements" with four-year universities, which facilitate (or even guarantee) transfer to grads who have met certain criteria.
In addition, use the College Board's "Big Future" search to help you complete that college list. Here, you can select preferences for size, location, majors, etc. and add in your grades and test scores to find colleges that you may not have considered.
Hint: Select "No Preference" for the "Paying" questions. Otherwise, the search engine will eliminate pricey colleges that might actually offer you great financial aid. Although eventually you may have to cross some schools off your list because of the cost, don't eliminate them from the get-go. The most expensive colleges are often the ones with the most money to give away!
Do a Google search for a list of colleges that promise to meet full financial need, but do remember the warning, above, that sometimes these schools will include loans in financial aid awards. So you can also look up "Colleges that meet full need without loans." Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it's possible that some college policies may change this year, but most online lists should still be accurate. Note, however, that the vast majority of colleges that have the best need-based aid (big grants; few or no loans) are also highly competitive. If you have a GPA of about 3.75 or above in the more challenging classes, you should have a shot at these uber-selective schools. If your mom and your late father did not earn bachelor degrees so that you're a "first generation" college applicant, admission officers will give you some added wiggle room for grades or test scores that are lower than their norms.
This is a lot to digest, so swallow it slowly. Then what do you do first? "The Dean" recommends that you begin with the online EFC calculator to learn how much you'll be expected to pay each year. Then try the College Board's "Big Future" search to help to create a college list. Be sure to include a balance of "Reach," "Realistic" and "Safe" choices. Do you have a counselor at school who can help you with these assessments? How about the teacher who pointed you down the college road in the first place?
Although the college process is confusing and stressful for most teenagers and their families — and for the high school class of 2021 in particular — attending college is usually affordable for students who have performed decently in high school and who make wise choices about their next steps — even for those who have been told that a college education is out of reach. Best of luck as you continue to navigate this maze, and write back to The Dean if you need additional direction.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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