O.K. seniors. April is YOUR month. The college decision power is now all yours! You’ve got your acceptances, you’ve received your financial packages telling you how much you have to pay, how much your parents have to pay, how much your loans are worth, and how much aid, scholarship or grants you are receiving from the colleges. Often you learn that there’s a gap of a few thousand dollars with no idea where that money is coming from.
It’s your month because once the colleges choose you, they want you. They have programs to visit their college again, go to class, meet other accepted students. Colleges do everything they can to get your May 1st deposit. The month of April, then, is when the power is all in your hands.
If you have a copy of Mitchell’s Eight First Choices, don’t even think of evaluating those packages without first reading Chapter 6, “College Economics 101.” And if you don’t have the book, get it online. No matter what, read on.
Let’s say the college costs $43,000 a year. The expected contributions from you and your parents, the loans, and work-study all amount to $30,000. That difference between what the college has figured out for you and what you’ve got or can borrow is $13,000 and is called “gapping.” The colleges realize from the forms you sent them, that you need more money than is accounted for. They do that because they can’t afford to pay 100% of your need. They have also found that sometimes grandparents or others come up with the difference in cost, or there is money available not reported. They also gap because even though you qualify, the colleges can’t afford to give you any more money, and they want to spend some of their money on merit scholarships in order to get the high testers at their colleges. It doesn’t really matter why they gap, the point you should know is that it isn’t a mistake in calculations on their part.
What can you do about it? If you have more than one acceptance, you can go to the college that you can afford. Often times students tell me that they like best the college with the least amount of money offered to them. That happens. You and your family have to decide how much indebtedness is a particular college worth to you, others can’t decide it for you. Many families have no idea how much indebtedness to manage, because it’s such a new thing in college financing. Parents can’t compare your debt with what debt they had for college, or even for older siblings. The cost of higher education takes much more of a family’s income than it used to, regardless of inflation and changing economic times. Just to give you a ballpark figure, $25,000 to $35,000 isn’t unusual for a four-year indebtedness. Check the colleges that you are considering and learn if they load up on debt. Check them to see if graduates leave with the lowest debt. A few colleges have figures lower than most, an average debt of $15,000 or less. These schools are Amherst, Beloit, Grinnell, and Rice. Ask about average loan debt from the financial aid Director before you agree to terms.
Can you negotiate? Yes you can, but you have the advantage if you have a better package from another college in order to make your case. And if there has been a major change in the family economics (a parent has lost her job since applying to the college, major medical bills), then by all means, call the Director of Financial Aid and explain the changed circumstances.
Lastly, the best Website sponsored by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is the best resource for you, other than the college financial aid director. That address is www.finaid.org. Check it out and don’t hesitate to send in your questions to the financial aid website before you get in touch with the college.
*Adapted from Eight First Choices: An Expert’s Strategies for Getting Into College, Second Edition, by Joyce Slayton Mitchell. www.JoyceSlaytonMitchell.com.