Before College: May 1 is Right Around the Corner!

May 1 is just 34 days away. That’s the deadline for paying a nonrefundable enrollment deposit to hold a spot at the 4-year college your student decides to attend this fall. When it comes to affordability, there’s much to do.

(1) Award Letter: Be sure your student has his financial aid offer from each school he’s considering. If a school’s award letter hasn’t arrived yet, make sure you’ve completed verification (if the school required it), then contact the financial aid office to request one IMG_5726ASAP.

(2) Outside Aid: If you know about scholarships your student’s getting from parties outside the school, report them to the aid office right away. Not doing so will freeze financial aid once the school learns of these awards, because it’s required to determine that the aid it awarded isn’t affected by outside scholarships. Should reductions be required, schools usually cut loans, then work-study and, last, grants or scholarships.

(3) Appeal: File a financial aid appeal ASAP if it might lower your student’s Expected Family Contribution and qualify her for more need-based aid. The aid office can tell you how.

(4) Affordability Analysis: Evaluate the affordability of each school under consideration.

First, use the “Tuition, Fees, and Estimated Student Expenses” on the National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator website to calculate annual growth in the average cost of attending a school over the last four year. Multiply the school’s 2017-18 costs by this average for each of the next four years to project your student’s 4-year cost.

Now project the financial aid to be received over four years. Some institutional grants and scholarships are for one year only, so be sure to differentiate between them and 4-year IMG_5659awards. And watch out for schools that practice bait and switch. Assume federal and state grant amounts will remain constant each year. Keep your borrowing assumptions within annual federal loan limits.

Subtract your 4-year financial aid projection from your 4-year cost projection. Now the big question — can you and your student cover the remaining gap? If so, keep that school on the list for consideration. If not, it may have to be dropped.

(5) Fit: Fit is absolutely critical. If a college or major doesn’t work for your student, chances are he’ll transfer, which’ll increase the cost of his degree. So consider fit carefully.

Need help analyzing the affordability of the colleges your student is considering? Contact College Affordability Solutions by email at collegeafford@gmail.com or by phone at (512) 366-5354.

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Before College: Why Begin At A Community College?

What’s your student’s higher education goal? If it’s to get a certificate or associate’s degree that’ll get him started in a trade or technical field, than he should be looking to attend a community college or public technical institute. But even it’s to earn a bachelor’s degree, your local community college may still be the place for him to start.

Why a community college or public technical institute? Because although there are many excellent private vocational schools, these schools are subject to little oversight and regulation. The result is that way too many of them are operated by con artists — people who rip students off by charging big bucks for degrees and certificates that don’t prepare them for gainful employment. Furthermore, private vocational schools often charge high rates of tuition.

Why begin at a community college if your student’s goal is a bachelor’s degree? Simple — it, too, is a much less expensive way to earn credits that’ll count toward that degree.IMG_5561

This year, the average total cost of attending a U.S. community college is $17,000 — just 69% of the $24,610 average total cost of attending a public 4-year college or university.

If your student lives at home with you while taking community college classes, he will (on average) lop another $8,060 in room and board off his costs. So now a year at community college averages just 36% the average cost of attendance at a public 4-year public institution.

Small wonder many high school counselors and state officials urge low-income and middle-class students to begin higher education at community colleges, then transfer the credits they earn there to 4-year colleges and universities. Many low and middle-income students can pay for their time at community colleges without borrowing a penny.IMG_5566

So community colleges can be one of the most cost-effective paths to a bachelor’s degree. But in considering this option, think carefully about the pitfalls that can come with attending a community college. If none of those are a problem for your student, than enrollment in local community college can be a wonderful money-saver.

NOTE:
WE’LL BE TAKING SPRING BREAK NEXT WEEK, SO OUR NEXT POST WILL BE ON MARCH 22.

College Affordability Solutions can help you conduct an affordability analysis on various paths your student may take to earn a bachelor’s degree. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com if you need such assistance.

Before College: Problems With Beginning at Community Colleges

The financial reasons for beginning at a community college are compelling. But this isn’t necessarily what’s best for every student. Problems along the way undermine some students’ ability to complete an affordable higher education.

If your student seeks an occupation requiring a bachelor’s degree, he’ll eventually need to transfer to a 4-year college or university, so carefully consider whether he has the academic dedication, drive, and perseverance to get there.IMG_5562

Only 16% of students who begin at community colleges transfer and get bachelor’s degrees. Of course, not all these students want such degrees but, at an age when peer pressure is a big influence on your student, these will be his classmates and friends. They could distract him from his ultimate educational goal.

Course transferability is another problem. Your student will actually lose money whenever she must retake a community college course at a more expensive 4-year school.

She’ll probably be able to transfer some, but not all, community college courses to substitute for “core” courses at your state’s 4-year colleges and universities. Chances IMG_5628are that some of her less community college coursework won’t be accepted by those schools for classes she must complete to earn a specific degree. So before she registers for community college classes, urge her to check this out with that college’s academic advisor or the admissions offices at 4-year institutions to which she may transfer.

If your student has been accepted to another college, consider his scholarship offers that are limited to attending that institution. Most scholarship providers won’t hold their awards until he transfers from a community college. If those offers are large enough, he could actually lose money by not beginning at the school to which they’re tied.

Finally, to really save at a community college, your student will have to exercise spending and borrowing discipline while there. Attending a community college but borrowing to live an expensive lifestyle is a losing proposition. Your student may actually end up taking on more debt than classmates who began and ended at her 4-year college or university.

An affordable college experience isn’t worthwhile unless your student graduates with the degree she wants. Beginning at a community college can work If her eventual goal is a bachelor’s degree, but only if she avoids or overcomes the problems described above.

NOTE:
WE’LL BE TAKING SPRING BREAK NEXT WEEK, SO OUR NEXT POST WILL BE ON MARCH 22.

College Affordability Solutions can help you conduct an affordability analysis on various paths your student may take to earn a bachelor’s degree. Contact us at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com if you need such assistance.

Before College: Check Out Those Hidden Fees

When checking out the cost of colleges your student may attend, you’ll find their tuition and fee charges on their websites. But understand that these charges only include fees required of all undergraduates.

Students are also subject to other fees — sometimes labeled “discretionary” or img_5527“optional” — that can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. These are “hidden” fees because schools typically don’t include them in their published cost of attendance.

Some hidden fees aren’t really optional. For example, most schools charge for summer orientation sessions to help incoming students get familiar with campus, it’s organizations, and it’s services. But orientation is often when students get their initial academic advising and schedule their first semester classes, too, do missing it may not be advisable.

Similarly, some courses required by your student’s major may have computer fees, course fees, course materials fees, or lab fees.

Still, it’s easy to avoid other optional fees. If your student isn’t interested in intercollegiate athletics, don’t pay athletics or sports ticket fees. If your student doesn’t absolutely need a car on campus, keep it at home — you’ll be surprised how many hundred dollars in parking fees (and how much gas, maintenance, and body damage) this can save each semester.

img_5529So research hidden fees. Search the school’s website for terms such as those listed at the end of this article. Call the admissions or business office and request lists of optional fees. Inquire with others attending the school about fees that surprised them.

Maybe you can’t avoid all hidden fees. But the more you know the better you can include them when analyzing college affordability, and the better you can budget for and plan strategies to minimize them.

College Affordability Solutions can help you analyze the affordability of colleges your student is considering. Contact (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com.

Sometimes Hidden College Fees

  • Academic excellence fees
  • Activities fees
  • Add or drop fees
  • Application processing fees
  • Athletic or sport ticket fees
  • Building use fees
  • Change of schedule fees
  • Chapel fees (private, church-affiliated colleges)
  • Commencement or graduation fees
  • Computer or digital media fees
  • Course fees
  • Course materials fees
  • Convenience or credit card fees
  • Digital media fees
  • Diploma fees
  • General student fees
  • Health center of health service fees
  • Health  insurance premiums
  • ID card replacement fees
  • Lab fees
  • Late registration fees
  • Late payment fees
  • Library fees
  • Legal services fees
  • Library fees
  • Intercollegiate athletics fees
  • Internet or telecommunication fees
  • Matriculation fees
  • Orientation fees
  • Parking fees
  • Recreation center fees
  • Shuttle bus fees
  • Student success fees
  • Student government fees
  • Student services fees
  • Study abroad fees
  • Transportation fees
  • Yearbook fees

 

Before College: Beware of “Bait and Switch”

Bait and switch is a sleazy practice in which some, though not all, supposedly reputable colleges and universities engage. These institutions include some but, again, not all, schools requiring mid-February enrollment deposits from students offered “early admission.”

Here’s how bait and switch works: (1) Unsuspecting freshmen are lured to a school with generous grant and scholarship (gift aid) offers that seem to significantly discount their 4-year cost of attendance. (2) The school manipulates its awards so all thor most of their recipients lose them after a year or two. The cancelled funds are then switched to bait future recruits. (3) Families suffering gift aid reductions must then borrow more or use more of their financial resources to keep their students at the school.

Not surprisingly, colleges don’t publicize bait and switch. You have to look for it before paying your student’s enrollment deposit. Here are some common practices and ways to spot them.

Renewable Non-Renewable Gift Aid

A big grant or scholarship is renewable for 4 years. But its renewal criteria — e.g. GPA, credit hours completed — are so grueling that few students meet them.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ Code of Conduct img_5441requires institutions to disclose grant and scholarship renewal criteria, but the criteria may be obscurely placed or written in a complicated way.

So carefully read the “fine print” on your student’s financial aid award letter or the school’s website, and honestly assess your student’s ability to meet gift aid renewal standards.

The Incredible Shrinking Gift Aid

The overall amount of gift aid awarded drops each year, even if the student’s ability to pay college costs holds steady or decreases.

img_5440To identify this practice, you generally have to pose direct questions to the financial aid staff about whether the school engages in it. Make sure you get clear, comprehensive answers.

Gift Aid Displacement

Gift aid originally awarded decreases as the student brings in other scholarships. They may be outside scholarships, but the financial aid office may also reduce gift aid it awarded due to scholarships from the school’s academic departments. The student typically looses a dollar for every other dollar received.

Federal and state rules sometimes force displacement because they prohibit the receipt of financial aid in excess of cost of attendance. But sometimes displacement is an institutional choice.

Ask the financial aid staff for the order in which it makes reductions if additional scholarships come in. Hopefully it’s unmet financial need first, loans second, and gift aid third. If it’s gift aid first, the school clearly employs displacement.

Need help scrutinizing the financial aid offers you’ve received from colleges and universities? Reach out to College Affordability Solutions at (512) 366-5354 or collegeafford@gmail.com. 

Before College: Shop Comparatively Using the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet

Many colleges have begun sending newly admitted undergraduates “award letters” showing the types and amounts of financial aid they can expect if they enroll in those schools. If your high school senior hasn’t already received such letters, they’ll probably start arriving in the next few weeks.

So dust off your calculator because, just as with any major purchase, the key to college affordability is comparative shopping.

Unfortunately, no two award letters are alike. Each uses its own unique layout and terminology. Few offer consumer information you need to know about institutions. This makes it difficult to compare schools based on affordability.

img_5222That’s why the U.S. Department of Education created the “financial aid shopping sheet.” Thousands of colleges send it with their award letters, making it easier to compare key numbers about them.

The shopping sheet’s left side shows each school’s cost of attendance — the college’s “sticker price” for the upcoming academic year.

Next comes the grants and scholarships your student is set to receive at that college for that academic year. These discount sticker price to determine the college’s “net price.”

Then comes other types of financial aid — work-study, loans — being offered to help your student pay the school’s net price.

The shopping sheet’s right side also has useful data. These include 6-year graduation rates at universities and 3-year graduation rates at community colleges. Such rates show how schools compare to similar institutions in getting undergraduates across the finish line.

The sheet also discloses the percentage of the school’s alumni repaying their federal student loans three years after beginning to do so — indicating how well the school prepares students for gainful employment.

Finally, you’ll see the median amount the college’s students borrow in federal loans, and their median monthly payments. This can give a rough sense of how much debt your student might be burdened with to attend that school.

Schools use shopping sheets on a voluntary basis, but beware of colleges that don’t provide them. Why are they trying to make it more difficult for you to compare them with other institutions? What don’t they want you to know about their aid offers or graduation and borrowing data?

You should select a college based on many factors, but the shopping sheet gives you useful, easy-to-compare affordability information for this all-important decision.

College Affordability Solutions conducts affordability analyses on institutions students are considering, whether or not those institutions provide shopping sheets. Call (512) 366-5354 or email collegeafford@gmail.com for more information.