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.

 

What does your financial aid award really mean?

This year’s applicants could file their FAFSAs on October 1—a full three months earlier than in the past. And while financial aid award letters have traditionally been sent out in mid-March, one of the upshots of the earlier FAFSA filing date is that as admissions decisions are now being released, half to two-thirds of colleges are also including their financial aid decisions, according to estimates by financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz (the full article is here).

So this seemed like the right time to share a past post on how to interpret your financial aid award letters. Mine is the version for my fellow non-number crunchers, but if you’d like to get a far more detailed (and numerically complex) explanation, here is Kantrowitz’s How to Read Financial Aid Award Letters.

Financial aid is where the fit is

Last week, the counselors in our Collegewise office in Newton, Massachusetts calculated that so far, their seniors had been awarded a total of $776,250 in scholarships for the 2017-18 school year. That doesn’t even include loans or work study. Almost a million dollars of free money that doesn’t have to be paid back. And that’s just for those applicants who applied early action and early decision.

What’s notable here is that like the rest of our Collegewise offices, our Newton counselors don’t offer scholarship services.

Collegewise counselors don’t do scholarship advising or matching. We don’t assist with financial aid paperwork. We don’t run a complex analysis of schools’ records of financial aid generosity. We’re happy to try to answer questions around these areas. And of course, we make sure our Collegewise families know what forms need to be submitted and when to apply for need-based financial aid. But we don’t profess to be financial aid or scholarship experts. So that’s not a service that we sell.

So how did our Newton office do it? They helped their students (1) find the right colleges that fit, (2) apply to a balanced list of schools that include plenty where they have a reasonable chance of admission, and (3) submit compelling applications and essays. A student who does those three things dramatically increases the chances of receiving a generous financial aid package.

Financial aid isn’t just a measurement of cost and what your family can afford to pay. Financial aid offices have a lot of power to offer more generous packages to students they think are right for the school and are more likely to attend. That’s why finding schools that fit, balancing your list, and submitting strong applications is a powerful financial aid strategy.

The mission of the financial aid office is to help those admitted students make up the difference between what they can afford to pay and what the school costs. But the specific aid package you’re offered, and whether or not that package is even more generous than what you’re eligible for, can have a lot to do with how badly the admissions office wants you at that school. A strong student who fits well with that college is more likely to get a generous award package that has more free money, with fewer loans or work study components.

In fact, a particularly desirable student can often receive a scholarship that has absolutely nothing to do with financial need. That’s why every year our Collegewise seniors across the country receive generous—and often unsolicited—offers of financial aid and scholarships from their chosen colleges. It’s not our focus. It’s a byproduct of what we do best.

If you want more financial aid, find the schools where you fit, including those that are most likely to accept you. Then convince them of that fit with your applications and your essays. That strategy is available to any student of any means who rejects the idea of applying to a long list of colleges based on name only and embraces the idea of matchmaking.

As the parents of this year’s juniors start down the path towards applying to college, here are a few past posts to help families take some productive steps now to pay for one of those colleges that eventually says yes.

First, some financial aid strategies for 9th-11th graders.

Here’s some encouragement to talk with your kids about college costs.

And some advice about how to balance your college list.

Finally, a reminder that affordability is part of fit.

Congratulations to our Newton office and to their students. They proved once again that financial aid is where the fit is.