Looking for “need-blind” colleges?

“Need-blind” colleges are those that make admissions decisions without considering—or in many cases, even having knowledge of—whether or not a student will require financial aid to attend. If you’re a family who’s concerned not only about paying for college, but also that your financial need could somehow be held against you in the admissions process, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has put together this helpful list of the 100 colleges that identify themselves as need-blind.

It’s important to understand, however, that just because a college is not on this list does not mean that they make admissions decisions based on who can pay and who cannot. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you should hesitate to apply for financial aid at any school, need-blind or not. I’ve written on this topic several times in the past, but for new readers, here are the past posts that I hope will not only assuage your fears that applying for financial aid will somehow be held against you, but also encourage you to file the necessary forms for the aid you need to attend college:

Can applying for financial aid hurt your chances of admission?

Applying vs. needing

Should you indicate that you will apply for financial aid?

Seek good certainty

I always remind seniors who are weighing their college options that some amount of uncertainty is normal. That’s the way that big decisions like a job offer to accept, a new city in which to live, and yes, a college to attend, work. You do as much research, thinking, and soul searching as you can. Then you just have to listen to your gut and make the leap. Don’t assume that you necessarily have to be sure of this choice when you make it. In fact, that uncertainty is often the best part.

But here’s one thing you can be absolutely certain of–if you take on student debt to attend college, you’re going to have to pay it back.

Whether you’ve already identified your post-college career or haven’t even chosen a major yet, life will always offer uncertainties. You may fall in love with a career option that just doesn’t pay very well. You may not get into the graduate school that you hoped to attend. You may land–but then be laid off from–your dream job. These things happen even to smart, successful people. And if they happen to you, you’ll need to be flexible and resilient to keep going.

But your student loan lenders will not care how your plans changed or what unforeseen circumstances you’re facing. They’ll want to be paid on time. That’s a certainty.

This is not an argument that you shouldn’t take on student debt. I think that’s a decision that each student needs to make with their family. And there are certainly adults who are not only thankful that they took on the debt required to attend the college they did, but also very proud that they responsibly paid off what they owed.

But the more debt you assume when you start college, the bigger role that debt will play in your post-college plans. The less debt you owe, student loan or otherwise, the more freedom you’ll have to make decisions based on what’s best for you, not best for your creditor, and the more flexible you’ll be able to be when life has different plans. And nobody ever lost sleep at night because they just didn’t owe enough people more money.

The more uncertainty you have about your college and your future career, the more cautious you should be taking on a potentially large debt to attend. If the only thing you can be sure of today is that the school you’re about to choose won’t leave you with hefty student loans when you graduate, that’s a pretty good certainty to carry with you to college.

What’s this about “front-loading?”

The Chicago Tribune recently ran “Decision time approaches for college applicants,” which included this important reminder for families as you compare financial aid awards:

“Be sure to read the fine print in the [financial aid] offer. Does the school promise that the awards will be renewed as long as you maintain acceptable grades? According to Mark Kantrowitz of Cappex.com, a college advice site, about half of all colleges practice ‘front-loading’ of grants, where the grants for the freshman year are far more generous than in subsequent years.

He notes that at www.CollegeNavigator.gov, you can search each school, click on the ‘financial aid’ tab, and compare the percentage of students receiving grants, as well as compare the average grant amount for first year students with all undergrad students.”

Final college decisions: the financial piece

As senior families begin considering their college options among the schools that said yes, it’s also important to consider the financial questions tied to those decisions, like “How much does each school really cost?” “Should we take out loans?” and “Should students be expected to help pay?” Here are a few past posts, with some links to some outside expert advice, to help guide you through this portion.

First, make sure you know how to compare your financial aid awards (hint: financial aid can come in several forms, and not all of them are a discount off the sticker price).

Here’s some advice about whether or not kids should help pay for their education.

And if you do decide to have your kids chip in for their education, this article features some particularly helpful advice from Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College without Going Broke.

How to search for scholarships safely

Last week, I posted a recent listing of scholarship search platforms, along with a warning from a high school counselor that she’d stopped recommending one site based on the spam it generated for her students. Here’s a recent Time piece, The Scary Thing You Don’t Know About ‘Free’ Scholarship Searches, with advice from privacy and college experts to help families “avoid becoming a target for marketers.”

The best scholarship search sites?

Reviews.com just published a list, The Best Scholarship Search Platforms of 2017.

Like most rankings lists (especially college rankings), it’s not an exact science. But I do like that they “spent over 40 hours researching 17 of the most popular sites across five core metrics including search functionality, scholarship availability, ease of use, application tools, and additional helpful resources.” And for several of their top picks, they do provide a more detailed explanation of how that platform earned its spot.

One heads up—While Fastweb ranked #1, and the explanation seems sound, Becky, a high school counselor and loyal reader, alerted me several months ago that Fastweb had become a source of too many spam emails, and even some pushy marketing phone calls for her school’s families who’d used it. Fastweb was the original brainchild of financial aid guru Mark Kantrowitz, who’s long since moved on. But his new home, Cappex, comes in at #2 on the list. While I can’t compare and contrast the two services, if Kantrowitz’s wisdom built #1, it’s probably worth trying his new tool at #2.

Once more into the weeds

For families navigating the college admissions process, especially those doing so for the first time, financial aid can be one of the most confusing and, frankly, intimidating subjects to wrap your head around. Sometimes even the most reputable experts and sources for guidance exacerbate the complexity. There’s a time and place to dive into topics like the financial aid impact of a home-based business or the income calculation metrics used for divorced parents. But there’s no sense wading into the financial aid weeds just yet if you’re a family just trying to learn the basics, like what’s available, how to apply, and when to do so.

If you’ve been hesitant to dip your toe into the topic, consider starting with this 1-hour video Kaplan Test Prep recently hosted with financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz (even just reading the included short summary of tips is a good place to start).

You won’t be an expert yourself after this hour. But you’ll know the terms and the timeline. You’ll know what to do and when. And most importantly, when you need to venture into the weeds to get the information most applicable to your family, you’ll no longer be an intimidated novice.

Vetted financial advice

There’s no shortage of sources purporting to offer families advice about how to pay for college. But it’s not always easy to gauge the credibility of the source, and in some cases, if they’re sneakily trying to steer you towards particular services or lenders.

Thankfully, NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) has complied a list of “trusted, up-to-date sources to help your students and their families navigate this process.” You can access all of the materials here.

Is the financial aid offer good for four years?

Consumer Reports just came out with this piece, Having the College Money Talk: 10 key questions every family should discuss. While a good read for any family concerned about college costs, #4 is particularly important for senior families who are or will soon be reviewing their various offers of financial aid:

4. Are Financial Aid Offers Good for Four Years?
In what can seem like a bait and switch, some schools may offer more generous scholarships and grants to freshmen to entice them to enroll, but be aware that this money might not be fully renewable, says Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke. “You need to know what strings are attached to get it every year,” says Chany. If you receive a merit-based scholarship, ask what the requirements are to qualify each year. You may need to maintain a certain GPA, for example. If you have a generous athletic scholarship, find out whether it continues if you sustain a career-ending injury, and have a contingency plan in case it doesn’t. Even if the amount of grants and scholarships stays the same for all four years, tuition is likely to rise, so the aid will cover less of the cost.

To maintain federal financial aid, you need to file the FAFSA each year. The amount of assistance you are eligible for can change if your financial circumstances change.

The early bird gets the scholarship worms

One of the questions I answered in last week’s Frequently asked college search questions was, I keep hearing that there is a lot of money out there in scholarships. How do we get those?

My answer directed readers to past posts sharing the truth about outside scholarships, and five traits that will improve your chances.

But I left out an important piece of advice—start searching for these outside scholarships (those that come from sources other than the state, federal government, or the colleges themselves) now.

You’ll file your applications for admission and your FAFSA (the starting point for all need-based financial aid) in the fall of your senior year. But by that time, the deadlines for many of these scholarships from companies, foundations, and other sources will have passed. In fact, many scholarships are open to freshmen, sophomores, and juniors to help them secure money to save for college.

The best starting point? Head over to a free, reputable scholarship search engine like Scholarships.com (any online source that charges you just to look for scholarships is a scam). Complete your profile as accurately and completely as possible, then get to searching.

And here are a few more scholarship tips courtesy of expert Mark Kantrowitz.