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Financing A College Education

Before You Apply

Estimating College Costs

Once you have compiled your list of colleges to which you will apply, calculate the average cost of attendance at each institution. Be sure to include costs of tuition and registration fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and sundry personal expenses. Also take into consideration that the cost of attending a college or university will slowly increase over the course of your four years there. You can usually find a listing of annual tuition over the past five or more years on a college’s website, and if that is not available, contact the admissions office for this information.

Need-Blind vs. Non-Need-Blind Admissions

There are a growing number of colleges and universities across the country that have implemented what is called “need-blind admissions”. This relatively new concept means that if you apply to that institution, your financial need will not be a factor in their decision to admit you or not. In other words, admissions officers don’t look at your family income before making a decision on your application. Under this program, any student who is admitted to a school offering “need-blind” admission will be offered a financial aid package sufficient to cover the costs of attendance.

Unfortunately, “need-blind” admissions is still limited to a handful of upper-tier college and universities. For the most part, schools of higher education are still forced to make a percentage of their admissions decisions based on the financial need (or lack thereof) of its applicants. This is usually only true of the weaker end of the applicant pool, however, so this will not affect you if your scores and supporting materials are strong relative to other candidates.

Early Decision and Financial Aid

The “Early Decision” policy offered by many colleges and universities requires that, if admitted, you will attend that institution unless the financial aid package they offer is too low. This has become a problem in recent years because, traditionally, Early Decision financial aid packages are lower than those offered during the regular admissions cycle, putting many lower-income Early Decision admittees in a crunch—the financial package offered to them is not enough, but they can’t reapply again for regular admission and a better package. The effect of this phenomenon is that more higher-income students end up matriculating “early”, while may lower-income students are forced to give up their dreams of attending their top school, even though they were admitted! The lesson seems to be, don’t apply early to a college unless you are absolutely sure you have the financial resources (loans, etc.) to cover the difference between tuition and even a bad financial aid package. If you are unsure, your best bet is to apply for regular admission and hope you will secure the best package possible. There are, of course, no guarantees you will be admitted regular decision, so it is best to discuss the matter with a  high school counselor or college admissions office before making a definitive decision.

Merit-Based or Other Scholarships

Aside from financial aid assistance, many schools offer merit-based or other types of scholarships that have nothing to do with family income. Check the admissions section of the institution’s website for more information, or speak to someone in the admissions office. (Note: this only refers to non-financial-need based scholarships given by colleges and universities; scholarships given by the state and federal governments, and public and private institutions will be covered later.)

Financial Aid Applications

Most colleges require a separate application for financial aid. Find out from a school’s website or admissions office what forms need to be completed for the financial aid application, as well as the deadline for completing these forms. Usually, financial aid packages arrive with or just after letters of admission. However, because matriculation deadlines vary, it is always good to make a list of the dates when schools will notify you about financial aid.

Before You Choose

The Financial Aid Package

You should first compare and contrast the total amount—including books, room and board, and personal expenses—your family will be responsible for paying at each college. Be sure to inquire of each school whether there are any “hidden” costs such as registration fees that are not included in the financial aid package. Remember that just because one school is more expensive than another it does not mean it offers a superior education. Oftentimes, less expensive schools—like public or in-state universities—actually have much better resources for the money than the pricier, smaller colleges.

Loans

If you are unable to pay the amount stipulated in your financial aid package at a particular university, there are still options that will help you finance an education at that school. Public and private loans are available to college students as very low interest rates, and usually do not have to be paid back until after a student’s course of study is complete. Federal Stafford Loans are available in two types: subsidized loans which the government pays the interest on until after the student’s graduation, and unsubsidized loans which have a low interest rate that can either be paid during your course of study or deferred until after graduation.

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