Kiplinger’s Best Value Public Colleges 2011

Kiplinger’s has published their 2011 list of best value public colleges.  While I am not generally a fan of college ranking sites I think there is some validity to sites that rank colleges based on financial aid issues.

However, cost alone is not the only issue. Pay attention to the 4 year graduation rate because if you have to pay for more than 4 years of college it will be more expensive in most cases than the college that graduates students in 4 years.

You should also pay close attention to the average debt at graduation to know what you are likely to have to repay.

Like many ranking systems, the best aspect of the Kiplinger list is the information that it provides to students and families. Use the ranking as a general guideline but pay attention to the actual information they give you. And remember, many private colleges can be just as affordable as public colleges for families with low or middle income.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on January 7, 2011

Does Legacy Status Help Financial Aid Awards?

I was recently asked if colleges offered a more attractive financial aid package to a student if the parents have contributed to the alumni fund? And do colleges generally award better financial aid to children of their alumni?

It can vary from college to college but in general terms, contributions to the alumni fund will have no effect on a financial aid award. Similarly, children of alumni do not generally get better financial aid awards.

It is true that colleges often alumni preference in the admissions process. This is done in the hope that there will be more monetary contributions coming back to the college. Their focus is on getting money back, not giving more out. Getting in may be easier for alumni, but you won’t get better financial aid.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on October 14, 2010

Change in Financial Aid Policy at Cornell and Dartmouth

Cornell University and Dartmouth College are announcing changes in their financial aid policies according to an article in Inside Higher Education.  Basically, the new policy is that each of these colleges will match the financial aid award offered by some of their competitor colleges including the other colleges of the Ivy League.

Here is how it would work. If a student applies to both Cornell and Harvard and gets a financial aid award from Harvard that is better than the one from Cornell, Cornell will match the award at Harvard. Sounds good since the student can now make a college selection without the issue of which college has the better financial aid package.

But, things aren’t quite that simple.  The student needs to know about this policy and ask Cornell or Dartmouth to match the financial aid award from the competing college.  Don’t ask, don’t get more money. The reality also is that a student admitted to both Cornell and Harvard will in all likelihood choose Harvard if the cost is the same at both.

So why are Cornell and Dartmouth changing their policies?  The real focus of this new policy is recruited athletes.  Recruited athletes will often choose a college based on that particular athletic program or the coach at that college. If a recruited athlete prefers Cornell’s athletic program to Harvard’s they now can get more money to play for Cornell.

This has the consequence that two students applying to Cornell, one who also applied to Harvard and is a recruited athlete, may get a better financial aid package to Cornell than the non athlete. Doesn’t quite seem fair given that the Ivy League rules specifically forbid the granting of merit based scholarships including athletic scholarships.

This also has the additional consequence of potentially increasing even further the applications to the Ivy League colleges with stronger aid (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) since you need to have a financial aid award from one of the those colleges to show to Cornell or Dartmouth.

The only good news from this deceptive practice is that Cornell is being open about what they are doing.  As long as you are an avid follower of Ivy League admissions, you as a recruited athlete can get a good deal. Just remember to apply to Harvard or Yale as well.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on September 2, 2010

Poll Confirms People Don’t Understand Financial Aid

There is a new poll out by the College Board and the Art and Science Group that finds that people don’t understand financial aid when choosing a college. These are not people reading my blog, of course, since you all know that understanding financial aid is critical. Right?

The poll finds that many people still rule out particular colleges based on cost. As I have talked about many times, it is not the stated cost of the college that should be of concern to you. Your only concern should be what the college will cost your family.  Don’t forget about financial aid whether it be need based or merit based.

The poll also found that most families do not use financial aid calculators to see approximately what they might have to pay for a college.  Everyone planning on going to college should get a preliminary estimate early on in the process to better plan for how they will pay for college. My favorite college calculator for quick estimates is the expected family contribution calculator available at the College Board website.  That lets you see your families estimated contribution for both those colleges that use the FAFSA only, the federal methodology, and for those colleges that also use the CSS PROFILE, the institutional methodology.

The last finding of the poll I want to comment on is the view of most people that the job of researching scholarships and completing the FAFSA are the most difficult parts of the college admissions process besides the college essays.

I can’t let that finding go without comment. Most of the money for college comes from the federal government and the colleges themselves. NOT outside scholarships. For the money from the colleges you need to research and understand how each college handles financial aid.  Outside scholarships are the most helpful for those students whose family makes too much to be considered for financial aid. Don’t just assume your family fits into this category. Check it out at each college.

The FAFSA used to be fairly complicated to complete but the government has been working hard to simplify this document. It is much simpler now that is was 5 years ago. For most people it will take less than an hour to complete.  You can also complete an early FAFSA and get an estimate of your expected family contribution by going to the FAFSA4Caster.

There are a number of other findings from the poll and I encourage everyone interested to view the poll results yourself.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on June 29, 2010

What Colleges Don’t Want You to Know About Financial Aid

I see it all the time.  High schools hold financial aid nights, hosted by a college financial aid officer.  Seems to make sense, but the problem is that colleges are businesses and it is not in their best interests for students to really understand financial aid.

These financial aid meetings explain the FAFSA and discuss various types of loans, scholarships and work study.  But they don’t tell students what they really need to know about financial aid.

So what do you need to know that the financial aid officers won’t talk about?

  • You need to understand how college financial aid works at a particular college. It is not the same for each college.
  • You need to understand what percent of need a particular college is likely to meet.
  • You need to understand what gapping means and, if the college gaps financial aid, what percent of gapping is typical.
  • You need to know what the typical student takes out in loans by the time they graduate.
  • You need to know if the college offers merit based loans and, if so, might you qualify.
  • You need to know what the 4 year graduation rate is at the college.
  • You need to know if the college has a particular package of grants and loans or if it differs depending on the student.

If you need financial aid and don’t understand these questions or don’t know the answers to each of these questions for each college you are considering, you are making a mistake that will cost you thousand’s of dollars.

To understand how college financial aid works, go to my financial aid page and it will all be explained.

To get some of the answers to these questions for the colleges you are considering, check out each college at the CollegeBoard website.  Search for that college by name and then look at the page on Cost and Financial Aid.  That page will tell you the cost of the college but more importantly, the number of students who had their full need met, the average percent of need met, the breakdown of a typical financial aid package between grants and loans, whether there are merit based awards and the average debt at graduation. If a college does not provide that information, trust me, the answer is not good.

These websites will give you the basic information you need to understand how college financial aid works without relying on the college that is trying to get your money.  Want more in depth information about college financial aid? Check out Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kalman Chany.  This book is updated each year so make sure you get the most recent edition.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on June 22, 2010

Getting the Most Money for College

Now that admissions decisions are in, everyone seems to be talking about how families can afford to pay for the college of their choice.  The New York Times recently had an article entitled “How to Get More College Financial Aid.” Basically, the article talks about how to ask a college for more financial aid after they have given you their first offer.

Can you ask for more financial aid? Sure. Are you likely to be successful at most colleges without a change in circumstances since you filed your FAFSA or PROFILE? No.  Some colleges will reconsider their aid offer if they really want you as a student but asking for additional aid is a last ditch effort.

Do you really want to get more money for college? The best way to do so is to understand financial aid before even deciding where to apply.  Yes, I know I may sound like a broken record here but it really is true. If you understand college financial aid you will have a much better chance of understanding which colleges will be likely to give you more money. This is a much better option than applying to a college without understanding how that college handles financial aid and then hoping the college will reconsider their aid offer.

Be proactive, not reactive, when it comes to financial aid.  If you are, you will be much happier to look at that financial aid award.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on April 13, 2010

Choosing, and Paying, for College

US News has a new article entitled “How to Pick the Best College for You (and Your Wallet“).   The article is a discussion with Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org and provides some helpful information for students who are in the process of finding the best college for their needs.

While the information provided is very helpful for students who are trying to evaluate financial aid offers, families with younger students should not view this as the whole story on financial aid.  One of the biggest problems I see with paying for college is a lack of early planning when choosing a college.

Regular readers have heard me saying this many times, but if a family is concerned about paying for college, they need to take financial aid into consideration when first deciding which colleges they will apply to.  If you take that extra step in choosing a college, the considerations discussed in the US News article will provide the extra help to make that final decision.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on April 6, 2010

College May be Cheaper Than You Think

It costs a lot to go to college. But, as I have said here before, what it will cost you to go to college is probably less than you might think.

Inside Higher Ed has reported on a new report out from the National Association of College and University Business Officers that details the discounts that students often receive from colleges.  The reality is that colleges don’t charge most students the full, stated cost of the college. Instead they provide discounts that make the college more affordable.

Average discount rate for 2008 freshman? 42%!  Most of this discount is occurring in the form of merit based scholarships where the colleges reward high grades, or talent like music and athletic talent.

While I am all for the cost of college being cheaper, one of the problems with this large discount rate is that for many colleges, the discount is being given to those who can afford to pay for the whole cost of college.

I hear you saying, what is wrong with merit scholarships? Merit scholarships have been around for years and are fine. But for every dollar that a college uses for a merit scholarship, there is less money available for those students who have real financial need.

Colleges can use their money any way they want and if it makes college cheaper for you, great. But, I worry about what is happening to those students who, even with high discounts, still can’t afford college. We need to come up with options so that everyone in this country has the right to higher education.

In the meantime, don’t be scared off by the high stated cost of a particular college. You might just find it is more affordable than you thought.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on March 31, 2010

Hamilton College Goes Need Blind for Admissions

Hamilton College in New York has announced that they will now be need blind for admissions. For those of you not up on your college financial aid jargon, this means that Hamilton will now make admissions decision without considering whether a student will need financial aid.  Hamilton also  meets 100% of the financial need of each admitted student.

This is very good, if not somewhat surprising, news. With all of the losses sustained by college endowments in the past few years, colleges have been looking at reducing their generosity, not increasing it.  Williams College, for instance, recently decided to reverse their no loan policy for financial aid packages.  Williams is still need blind and meets the full need of all admitted students.  But Hamilton has a much smaller endowment than Williams.

Unfortunately, the new policy will not extend to transfer students and international students but given the resources Hamilton has, I think they are being very good stewards of their money.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on March 8, 2010

100 Best Value Colleges-2010

Princeton Review is out with their latest list of what they consider the 100 best value colleges in the country. The list includes 50 best value public colleges and 50 best value private colleges.

There are some very good colleges on both of these lists but remember you can’t rely on a ranking to determine what is the best college for you. This is true whether someone is trying to rank the quality of the school or the quality of their financial aid.  You need to do your homework to understand financial aid.  Once you understand the basics of financial aid, information like that provided by Princeton Review will make more sense and can help you figure out what might be an affordable school for you.

Finally, a word of caution. There are a number of colleges that provide strong financial aid that are not on the lists from Princeton Review. Don’t ignore a college just because it is not on one of these lists.

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Filed under College Admissions Counseling,College Financial Aid by Todd Johnson on January 13, 2010

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