Financial Aid: Navigating the Waters

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Imagine getting into your dream college: You wake up one morning to your mom’s voice calling, “There’s mail for you.” You bolt out of your room, socks sliding on the floor, robe flapping as you sprint down a flight of stairs. In a brilliant impression of Tom Cruise in Risky Business, you slide into the kitchen, breathless. There on the counter is a fat envelope with your name on it. In a flurry of paper bits, you rip it to shreds. Golden light illuminates your kitchen, angels sing as you extract the thin sheet of paper that says, “You’re in.” But the music stops and the lights switch off as you extract the next piece of paper that reads, “Financial Information.” Is that the theme music to Jaws you hear playing in the background?

It’s true that for some, paying for college is as scary as the prospect of being eaten by a shark. Private four-year colleges can cost more than $35,000 per year. For example, Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., charges $57,556 total per year for tuition, fees, room, and board. Even more outrageous is the fact that college prices continue to escalate. Since 1981, tuition and fees associated with higher education have risen six fold, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. According to The College Board, the average family paid about $172 to $1,096 more in tuition this year than they did last year. In response to this information, one high school junior says, “It is definitely worrisome, especially in the economy we’re in right now.” Another student fumes, “The price of college is outrageous. I think that colleges are selfish!”

Of course most college-bound students will receive financial help from their university of choice. Last year, the average amount of aid that a full-time undergraduate received was $11,500. Unfortunately, many students are confused as to how the process of applying for such aid actually works. Families are expected to contribute as much as they can afford; this ability is known as the “expected family contribution,” or “EFC.” To determine this value, household information is taken into account, including parents’ marital status, the family size, and home state. For example, a student coming from a family of three or more kids, especially if some of those kids are in college already, will not be expected to pay the same amount for college as a student who is an only child. In the next and probably most important section reserved for finances, families will be required to submit all financial information. Some high school students may not be aware that not only is a family’s annual income taken into account, but assets like savings and real estate investments are also factored into the financial aid equation. For example, second home ownership may hurt a student’s chances of receiving a large financial aid grant.

Based on these parameters, if a student is expected to contribute less than what his or her college of choice costs, then the difference is known as “financial need.” Colleges try to meet this need, though some may be surprised to know that need is not always met through aid grants. The type of financial assistance awarded to a student varies among schools, and can take the form of student loans and jobs. Furthermore, aid grants themselves can vary because each school is allowed to set its own policies for awarding financial aid. A student may receive significantly more money from one institution than another simply based on each school’s policies.

But what is an aspiring undergraduate to do if he or she is still short on cash, even after a financial aid award? Never fear. There are many scholarships available to all kinds of students, not just valedictorians with 2400’s on their SATs. To research scholarships, check out the College Board’s scholarship finder online. Student loans are always an option, but a little creativity is all that is needed to make the college experience significantly more affordable. High school seniors should consider less expensive room and meal plans, or apply to become a resident advisor once after a few years. “RA’s” may have to go through a rigorous training process and supervise their peers, but they receive free room and board. Furthermore, most colleges have student employment offices to help undergrads find part-time work. It’s also fairly easy to find discounted books and school supplies, especially if they are used. Finally, aid grants can always be contested in the financial aid office, so if a financial burden proves to be truly unbearable, it’s possible to have the financial aid grant reevaluated.

Paying for college is a daunting task for most American teenagers, but it is certainly not insurmountable. For some, the hard work of getting into college is only the first step. However, it is important to remember something Thomas Jefferson once said, “I’m a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more if it I have.” Even though the "college ocean" might sometimes appear to be infested with sharks, creativity and hard work can help make the college experience smooth sailing all the way.





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