Should you file a FAFSA if you don’t think you’ll qualify?


Every student should file the Fafsa every year, even if they do not expect to qualify for need-based financial aid. The formula is complicated enough that subtle changes from one year to the next can have a big impact on aid eligibility. Also, the Fafsa is a prerequisite for the unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans, which may be the least expensive option for students who need to borrow.”

Mark Kantrowitz
Founder of
Answered on The Choice

College essay, interview and financial aid videos are now in the Collegewise store

Videos of my three most popular Collegewise seminars are now available in our online store

  • “How to Write a Great College Essay”
  • “Financial Aid and Scholarships”
  • “College Interviews”

Each video is 1-hour long and sells for $12.99 as a streaming download here.

Seminars have been a Saturday morning tradition since I founded Collegewise in 1999.  We serve up some muffins and coffee—then I spend an hour preaching the Collegewise way and making complicated subjects simpler.  We want everyone to leave feeling more confident about their college planning, and I always encourage them to take the leftover muffins so I don’t eat them myself.

But we thought the seminars might appeal to a wider audience of people who don’t live near one of our offices.  So we brought in a film crew, they set up their lighting and cameras, and I gave our regularly-scheduled seminars to the Collegewise families (who graciously signed release forms to appear on the video).  There’s no scripting here and these aren’t polished infomercials—just me teaching Collegewise families how to write college essays, apply for financial aid, and have memorable college interviews.  It’s what you’d see if you were attending live as part of our Collegewise program (minus the muffins and coffee).  And for families in our counseling programs, you’ll now have free access to the videos to view if you’re unable to attend a seminar. 

Later this month, we’ll also be releasing these videos as hard-copy DVDs for teachers, counselors, non-profits and anyone else who works with students and wants to share them with a class.  But for now, go here to learn more or to purchase your download.  And if you have questions or feedback, feel free to email me at kevinm (at) collegewise (dot) com.  Our Collegewise families have always enjoyed these and I think you will, too.

The Net Price Calculator is here

I wrote a post last month about the then-soon-to-be-available net price calculator, an online tool that estimates your financial aid eligibility, subtracts that from the sticker price of your chosen college, and estimates how much you will need to pay to attend that school next year.  The federal government has mandated that colleges must have the tool available on their websites by October 29, 2011.  But if you don’t want to wait until then, the College Board has it available here.

Introducing the net-price calculator

Soon, it might get a lot easier for families to estimate exactly how much each college will cost–including the financial aid package you may (or may not) receive.  The federal government has mandated that by October 29, colleges and universities must post to their websites a new tool called the "Net Price Calculator."  You input the information financial aid forms ask for (like income and savings).  Then the net price calculator estimates your financial aid eligibility, subtracts that from the sticker price of the college, and tells you how much they estimate you will need to pay next year to send your student to that school.

There's some debate about just how helpful this is going to be, and it's described well in this article on The Choice blog.  And colleges are going to need to use plain-English, non-financial aid-y language to explain to people exactly what this calculator does and doesn’t mean.  In fact, colleges, here's my suggested language.

Use our net-price calculator
How are you supposed to know how much a college you’re applying to will actually cost if financial aid awards aren’t given until your acceptance letter arrives?  This net cost calculator might help.  It’s designed to help you estimate how much it would cost for you to enroll next year with us (you reapply for financial aid each year that you’re in college, so the calculator is only estimating next year’s costs).  It asks you the same types of questions you’ll later be asked on financial aid forms and estimates the amount of need-based financial aid you’ll qualify for based on the information you give us.  The difference between the cost and your aid is the net cost, and the calculator even does that math for you. 

Please don’t take the result as a promise (or a denial) of future financial aid.  We’ll need to ask you for a lot more detailed information when you fill out your official financial aid forms in January, and the result then might be different than what our calculator tells you now.  But we think that giving you a well-calculated estimate is better than giving you no information at all.  So be as accurate as you can when you’re inputting the numbers.  Then talk over the results with your parents and your counselor.  We’re hoping this calculator can help you make more informed decisions about where to apply.  And if you have any questions, please call our financial aid office—we’d be happy to explain anything that’s confusing. 

Bad ways to cut college costs


Want to avoid college debt? Don’t cut back on the time you spend at college. Instead, pick a school that does not cost so much. President Obama’s new nominee to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, co-authored in 1999 a paper, “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College,” showing that expensive big-name schools add little if any value to a college education. He and co-author Stacy Berg Dale demonstrated that the character traits that bring success — such as persistence and good humor — produce just as much income with a degree from Delaware State as one from Cornell."

Jay Mathews
Bad Ways to Cut College Costs

College financial aid and divorced parents

If you have questions about how college financial aid is determined for students with divorced parents, who's expected to pay for college, and what (if any) financial obligations fall to the stepparent, spend ten minutes on this page from and you'll probably get all your questions answered (for free). 

I have yet to find a more comprehensive, useful or cheaper website for information about how to pay for college.

Have questions about financial aid?

The folks at have a great FAQ section here. And in the "I can't believe it's free" department, they have a service called "Ask The Aid Advisor" in which over 100 financial aid administrators from across the country have volunteered to answer questions for free.  You fill out a form, submit your question, and get an email response within two weeks.  The site says they've already answered over 10,000 questions. 

Every college-bound student and parent who's concerned about paying for college should spend a weekend pouring over the information they give away for free at  There's no shame in admitting that you're concerned about college finances and need help paying for it.  But with resources like this available to you, you can be as informed as possible and make sure you don't make mistakes. 

When considering college costs, evaluate the potential partnership

Parents, when you question whether a particular college is worth the money, remember that you’re evaluating a proposed partnership between the college and your student.  It’s like deciding whether to invest in two companies who’ve just announced they’re teaming up; you need to do your due diligence on both parties to decide if it’s a good investment.

Families should evaluate colleges.  Learn about the mission of the school, the majors offered, the class size, the focus on teaching, the academic and personal support, and lots of other categories that will impact your student’s experience.   

But a lot of parents forget to evaluate the other partner—the student.  A college can only do so much, and both parties need to work together for the partnership to succeed.  

If you have a student who’s been academically disengaged in high school and he wants to go to an out-of-state (and more expensive) university because he wants to be at a big school with good snowboarding, you’ve got some hard questions to ask.

Is your student going to be more academically engaged in college?  Will he put his hand up in class when he has questions and visit the free tutoring center when he needs even more help?  Is he going to meet with an academic advisor and look for a major that excites him? Will he take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to him while his in college?

If he doesn’t do those things, is it really fair to blame the college?

I’m not arguing that B and C students don’t deserve to go to the colleges they’re excited about.  Lots of formerly B and C students become A students in college.  But that happens when the partnership is a good fit and both parties do their part. 

College is expensive and parents have every right to question the value. But when you do, don’t just evaluate what the college proposes to do.  Think about your student, too, and evaluate what both parties propose to do together. 

You can find even more advice in our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download. 

A financial aid assignment for parents

The “Parents” page on covers everything from college savings plans, to maximizing your financial aid eligibility (legally), to negotiating financial aid offers from colleges.  And all of the information is free.

The financial aid process can be confusing and frustrating with so much unfamiliar terminology and so much riding on the process.  But does just about the best job out there of breaking it down.

So here’s my suggested assignment for parents.  Unless you are confident that you can painlessly write checks for four year’s worth of college costs for each of your kids (some people can, but most can’t), spend an afternoon studying the “Parents” page and learning about the financial aid process.  Don’t be intimidated by it, and more importantly, don’t feel ashamed.  A lot of parents feel embarrassed about needing financial aid but I promise you that with the cost of a four-year college education now exeeding $150,000 at some schools, you have absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about in asking for help paying for it.