What does college really cost?

There's often a big difference between a college's tuition and what it actually costs to attend it. 

In addition to the tuition and fees, families will also need to pay for room and board, personal expenses, and travel.  That total annual cost is what colleges call the "COA" or "Cost of Attendance."  It's the number that will be used to determine whether or not your family receives any need based financial aid.  And that's a good thing.  When colleges are evaluating your ability to pay, you want them considering all of the costs you would incur.

The distinction between tuition and the COA is important.  Consider the University of Wisconsin Madison, for example.  According to their website, the tuition/fees for 2011/2012 is $9490.  But the COA is $22,330. 

So the COA, not just the tuition, is what families need to factor into your college budget and your college research.  Most colleges calculate the COA for you. Just visit the financial aid section of colleges' websites to find it. 

The FAFSA isn’t all that’s required for financial aid

Most colleges' deadlines to apply for financial aid will be in approximately the next month.  And every college bound senior who wants to be considered for financial aid should fill out the FAFSA.  In fact, if you haven't submitted it yet, you should do that as soon as possible.

But the FAFSA gets so much air time as the crucial first step in applying for aid that some families overlook other forms colleges can require in addition to the FAFSA, namely, the CSS Profile and the colleges' own, separate forms. 

Senior families, there is only one guaranteed, mistake-free way to make sure you file the correct forms–visit the financial aid section of each college's website and verify what they require.  That's your first step. 

Even colleges that share the Common Application for admission can have entirely different requirements to apply for financial aid.  Don't rely on word-of-mouth.  Don't even rely on a college guidebook.  Visit the sites individually and print up the pages that list the financial aid application requirements for each.

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

More free financial aid advice

I posted last Friday about a series on The Choice blog where a financial aid expert was answering readers' questions.  He has since completed the series with four more installments, and this link will take you to a listing of all seven parts.

Topics he addresses include the best ways to save for college, the impact of a parents' divorce on financial aid eligibility, the viability of outside scholarships, and whether or not you can negotiate with a financial aid office. 

It's hard to imagine any parent of a college bound student not finding at least one question he answers that wouldn't be of interest to you. And I was impressed by how much free information he gives away.

Answers to your questions about financial aid for college

Are 529 plans really worth it?  Why should a family bother filling out the FAFSA if you know you won't qualify?  What colleges have "no loans" policies where any financial aid offered is always a grant, not a loan that needs to be paid back?

Mark Kantrowitz is a financial aid expert, author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship, and the founder of both finaid.org and fastweb.com which are two of the very best–and FREE–sources of information for financial aid and scholarships.

This week he's been doing a three-part series on "The Choice" blog answering readers' questions about financial aid.  The questions they chose are some of the most commonly asked, and the answers are detailed and helpful.  It's worth taking a look if you're concerned at all about your family's ability to pay for college.  Here are the links for part I, part II and part III

 

Avoid this common FAFSA mistake

Any class of 2011 senior who wants to apply for college financial aid should now be completing the FAFSA form, availalbe here.  But here's a common mistake you can easily avoid. 

"You" and "Your" refers to the student, not the parent, unless the form specifically says otherwise. 

The FAFSA is written with the assumption that the student–not the parent–will be the one completing it.  But that's often not what happens.  Many parents fill out the FAFSA for their kids, which is fine, as financial aid is the one part of the college application process where I think it can be a good thing for parents to jump in and help or just take over completely.

So parents, if you're completing the FAFSA for your student, remember that the form wants your student's information (name, birth date, social security number, etc.) until you get to the section that specifically requests parent information. 

For senior families: This is the time to start the financial aid process

Most students will submit their applications for admission before applying for financial aid (so you actually apply to college without necessarily knowing exactly how much each college is going to cost).  And a lot of families fixate so much on the admissions deadlines that they aren't aware of what they'll need to do to apply for aid. 

If you're a senior (or the parent of one) who wants to apply for financial aid, here are a few things you should do now.

1.  Visit the financial aid sections of your colleges' websites.

2.  Find out exactly what forms (FAFSA, profile, or school-specific) are required and when they're due. 

3.  Look for information about other requirements, like submitting business statements or providing step-parent information.

You want to enter the new year knowing exactly what you'll need to do to apply for financial aid and when you'll need to do it.  Getting that information ahead of time will make the process of actually applying faster, easier, and less stressful.

 

Updates on financial aid resources

Former high school counselor and continuing fellow inhaler of college admissions information, Cyndy, sent me this site.

I haven't tried it myself, but Cyndy has found it to be an "amazing resource" that she wishes was available when she was still counseling kids.

And I've recommended the book Paying for College Without Going Broke here before.  The 2011 version has now been released and there are a few disappointed reviewers on amazon.com who noticed that the book no longer includes the worksheets for calculating your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) using the institutional methodology.  I suspect this was due to in part to the protracted publishing process–maybe the newest information wasn't available when the book went to print?I'd still recommend the book as one of the best guides to understanding how financial aid really works. 

And to calculate the EFC using the IM, just go here (finaid.org is my other favorite financial aid resource).

Start here with your financial aid questions

I've shared the site finaid.org here before as a treasure trove of great financial aid information.  But this is one of those sites with so much information that it would be easy to spend a lot of time there and still overlook a tool or article that might have been exactly what you needed. 

Thankfully, they offer a great site map here.  Spend five minutes scrolling through the list and you're guaranteed to find exactly what you're looking for. 

You know a financial aid site is comprehensive when they even include a specific section with jokes.  I can't say that I knew there was such a thing as jokes about financial aid. 

Should parents talk with your kids about college costs?

When I did one of our "Financial Aid and Scholarships" seminars for our Collegewise parents last weekend, I asked them to leave the kids at home.  I want parents to feel comfortable asking questions about financing their kids' educations without the added pressure of having the students in the room.  But that doesn't mean parents shouldn't talk with their kids about college costs.  

A lot of parents believe that they should shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college, that it's a student's job to get accepted and a parent's job to pay for it.  But I think that parents should have honest, open discussions with their kids about college costs.  High school kids should know what their family can afford to pay for college, and what colleges will be off the table if financial aid doesn't cover the rest.  Kids should know the efforts parents have made to save for college and the continued sacrifices you'll be making during the four years you have to write tuition checks.  Having that conversation now, however unpleasant it might be, is much better than having it later when a student has an offer of admission in hand but a family doesn't have the money to pay for it.   

High school students who understand the realities of college costs for their families are more likely to appreciate that a college education is a gift, no matter what school they end up attending.  And once those kids get to college, they'll understand the financial and emotional investment their parents are making.  They'll be more likely to drag themselves out of bed for that 8 a.m. psychology class.  They're more likely to appreciate all the opportunities for learning, growth and fun that are available to them during their college careers. 

So parents, consider having the college financing talk with your kids.  Invite them to participate in the discussion.  A student who's mature enough to attend college is mature enough to know what it's going to take for her family to pay for it. 

The truth about outside scholarships for college

I did a financial aid seminar for our Collegewise families last weekend and talked a little about "outside scholarships,"  which are little-known awards or scholarships from private companies and foundations.  Families are often given the impression that there is a lot of money available from these sources if you're able to find it.

But according to Paying for College Without Going Broke, the money from outside scholarships accounts for only about 5% of the aid that is available.  The author points out that the biggest chunk of scholarship money comes from funds provided by the federal and state governments, and from the colleges themselves. 

So, is applying for outside scholarships even worth a student's time?  It's not an easy question to answer.  Even if the amount of money available is comparatively small, free money for college is always a good thing.  So here's how I recommend families consider that question.

Applying for outside scholarships is a time consuming process.  Kids have to research and find the scholarships, fill out the applications, and often write essays, get additional letters of recommendation and maybe even interview. So, let's say your student took the time to find and apply for 20 outside scholarships and won $500 – $1000.  Would you think it was worth your student's time and effort? 

If your answer is, “Of course!", then you should consider having your student apply for outside scholarships. 

If, on the other hand, you'd feel like a $500-$1,000 return on your student's investment of time and energy just wouldn't be worth it, you might reconsider and have your student spend her time studying and playing on the soccer team.

Of course, my figure of $500-$1000 is an arbitrary one; your student might win more or less than that.  But our experience with our Collegewise students has been right in line with the logic in the aforementioned book; the biggest awards don't come from the outside scholarships.  In fact, I can't recall ever hearing that one of our students won a $15,000 scholarship from a private foundation or company, but we see it happen all the time from the other sources, particularly from the colleges themselves.  

If you do decide to search for outside scholarships, never pay someone to help you find them.  All the information is available to you for free if you're willing to look for it.  Two of the best places to search, and to do so for free, are here:

www.scholarships.com

www.fastweb.com