HomeArticlesFinancial Fit as Important as Academic Fit

Dear Estelle. We keep hearing the mantra that “A good fit is critical to a student’s success in college.” This sounds terrific but what if the good fit is much more than we can afford? When our first daughter was applying to college five years ago we were told she should just apply everywhere she wanted to go and the funds would follow. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. 

Several friends are restricting their children’s applications exclusively to state schools saying an education in Colorado is good enough and affordable. We dislike putting those kinds of restrictions on our son, an outstanding high school senior, but frankly we would feel more comfortable financially if he applied only to Colorado schools. He will likely have numerous options to select from around the country. WCG, Cherry Creek Parent

Finances have begun to play a significant role in college affordability. Families have begun to seriously consider whether college is worth the high price tags, whether they want their children saddled with enormous debt upon graduation, and whether there’s some risk involved with tapping into other sources of money like retirement funds.

While many schools meet close to 100% of student need there are many schools which provide little in the way of tuition discounts or merit aid. Certain schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford give a full ride to families earning less than $60,000 annually, others give little to the middle class. If you haven’t set aside thousands of dollars in savings, forget Georgetown, Amherst, the Ivies and the Elites!

Name brand is so important to many families that they fail to apply to more affordable colleges until after the deadlines have passed. Besides finding academic fits, it behooves parents to identify those schools which will fit their budgets. Remember a quality education is available at many places. If you are planning to apply for financial aid remember to submit applications to state universities and colleges that are need-aware too.

Don’t forget to apply to colleges that provide merit aid to outstanding students too. Typically merit aid is awarded to students who rank near the top of those admitted to a specific college or the top10-25% of those accepted. Merit aid colleges are those that aren’t ranked in the top 50 or 100 schools but offer a quality education and offer merit aid to attract outstanding students to elevate their rankings.

Think long term! If your student has excessive debt when he graduates college, it may delay his buying a home, starting a family, or pursuing further education.

A recent article in the Journal of College Admissions compared Ponies, Porsches and Penn State to the tough choices families must make when dealing with children of all ages. For example, If a child asks for a pony, it’s easy for most parents to say no. When a 16 year old requests a Porsche—99% would say no way. However, if an 18 year old wants a $60,000 a year college education (over a lower priced education of similar quality, such as Penn State), it is difficult for parents to say no. Many families get caught up
in the prestige and “name brand”.

Understanding the long-term ramifications of financial aid can be confusing . Sometimes generous first-year freshman aid packages are followed by poor packages in subsequent years, often requiring an increase in the amount of self-help aid by families.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, nearly three-quarters of students graduate with loan debt, with the average student owing around $28,000 and some as high as $80,000. No small chunk of change.

One school which is doing an excellent job in explaining college costs to prospective families is Sewanee, The University of the South. Rather than just talking about affordability, their website outlines the various options for financial aid. They discuss interest rates for federal student loans, academic requirements for merit aid recipients, and the process Sewanee officials follow when awarding aid. “There are no surprises!” states Beth Crager, a financial aid officer at Sewanee. “Students are sometimes so focused on getting in, that they forget about the costs that will come down the road as a sophomore, a junior, a senior…….We try to convey how costs can shift and help students and their families take a really comprehensive look at the financial aid available.”

Sometimes the outcomes can be really sad if families don’t carefully explore the financial aid fit of colleges in addition to the academic and social environment. Trying to navigate the world of college costs and financial aid can sometimes be very confusing. Sometimes students are left with plenty of college acceptances but no place to go to college.

Several important resources to educate yourselves more about financial aid in general are the College Navigator, a free online resource and the book by Lynn O’Shaughnessy, The College Solution.

View the latest in what colleges are looking for in their applicants!

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