Finding a Financial Safety
The first hurdle in the college admissions process is getting in. The second hurdle? Paying for it.
In this mini-course we are going to be:
- Thinking about what a safety school is
- Looking for a school that is a financial safety
- Thinking about need-based versus merit-based aid
- Checking out essential tools that can help you
Who is this mini-course geared towards?
This mini-course is geared towards students who will be bound for college in the next few years. It is also for parents and guardians of college bound students who are looking towards the future. Unfortunately for our international students, some of this will not be applicable.
Introduction: Why is a financial safety school important?
Love is a strong word, so maybe the title to this post is exaggerated. â€œExcitedâ€ is more of what we are going forâ€”something you can look forward to. When you start putting together your college list, â€œsafety schoolsâ€ are usually an after-thought. Safeties are a just-in-case, a backup, something you (probably) won’t need. I hope this winds up being true for all of you. The reality, however, is that a lot of students wind up attending their safety schools, and many end up LOVING their experience (sorry, I did it again!).
Finding a college that is a â€œlikelyâ€ acceptance for you is, unfortunately, not enough. After all, half of the battle of the admissions process is getting inâ€”the other half is paying for it. This is the tricky part.
Section 1: Thinking about what a safety school is
I am not going to get too specific with defining what a safety school is for you. Simply, different students will have different safety schools. What the definition is for you will depend on a variety of factors (including transcript, test scores, what type of school you are looking). As a very general rule of thumb, you should be looking for the following:
- Colleges that accept mores students than they deny (acceptance rates > 50%)
- College and universities where your GPA and test scores are above the upper 75%
These are some very general guidelines, but things that you should keep in mind as you are researching schools. Most schools evaluate applications holistically and look at the entire application. However, nearly every college and university will be most concerned with your academics first and foremost.
There are 4,000+ schools in this country, how do I start my search?
- Talk to your college counselor at schoolâ€”they may be able to give you some suggestions for schools to look at
- Check out sites like Cappex and Unigo, which list overlap schools for every college/university. This can help you generate some ideas for other schools to research.
If it helps, write down the characteristics/qualities you like in your top school choices. Things like size, specific academic programs, location, specific varsity sports, etc. are all good things to think about.
Now that we have thought about…
Section 2: Financial aid: What kind of financial aid do I need?
The key part of the term â€œfinancial safetyâ€ is the first part: financial. What is financially reasonable really depends on your family’s financial situation and what they can contribute to your education. Start this conversation early with your family, so there are no unpleasant surprises regarding what is unaffordable. This will also help you figure out if you are going to be looking for need-based aid, merit-based aid, or perhaps both?
For the sake of simplicity, I am going to break this down into two separate situations: students who are interested in need-based aid and merit-based aid. Most students are going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two situations, but the lessons are applicable.
Section 2a) My family CAN NOT contribute much to my college education and I will qualify for lots of need-based aid!
On the need-based side, your best friend is going to be the Net Price Calculator (NPC). This tool is on the website of very college and university and helps determine â€œhow muchâ€ a school will cost. If you have any trouble finding the NPC on a specific school’s website, get in touch with their financial aid department.
Some of the things that the NPC takes into account include:
- Household income
- Number of family members in college
The result will be a ballpark estimate of the financial aid package a school may award you. Remember, this is not a certainty, but it can give you a good idea of this school may be a â€œfitâ€ financially for you and your family (note: families whose income fluctuatesâ€”if a parent is in sales, for instanceâ€”the NPC may not be the most accurate indicator of financial aid).
If you know you will be in need of a lot of financial aid, it is worth looking at schools that promise to meet 100% of demonstrated need. This means that:
Cost of Attendance â€“ EFC (estimated family contribution) = Total Financial aid
This means that you will not be gapped with a large financial aid deficit. The one caveat with schools that meet 100% of demonstrated need, is that they tend to be some of the most competitive and selective colleges to get into. Certainly worth considering, but just pay attention to their selectivity.
So, in summation, if need-based financial aid is important to you:
- Sit down with your parent or guardian and use the Net Price Calculator tool for the schools you are interested in
- Remember that this tool will provide a ballpark, but this is not definite or guaranteed.
- Consider schools that meet 100% of demonstrated need, because you know you will not be left with a huge financial gap to meet.
Section 2b) What if I will not qualify for much (or any) need-based aid?
Sticker price of college can be very expensive and not all students qualify for much, if any, need-based aid. If you and your family is in this situationâ€”income and assets are too high, but not high enough for college to be affordableâ€”then you will want to be looking at merit scholarships.
If you are looking at schools where you are in the top quarter as far as GPA , rank, and test scores, you will likely be a very competitive merit scholarship applicant at that school.
Better yet, check out colleges that offer automatic merit scholarships to students based off of various academic criteria. College Confidential has a great thread on this topic: http://tinyurl.com/n58q6gk
Another option is applying for individual scholarshipsâ€”Scholarships360 has a robust listing of merit scholarships, so check them out!
The take-away from this:
- Apply for institutional merit scholarships
- Check out schools that offer automatic merit
- Apply for any scholarships early and often
Section 3: The Financial Safety for Everyone!!!
I suppose I could have started with this, but there is a trick to this whole lesson. Every student in the United States of America (sorry again international folks) has a financial safety school, literally right in their own backyard.
In-state public schools exist to support the residents of the state where they are located. This means that they offer low and affordable rates of tuition for in-state students (and select out-of-state students: see tuition consortiums).
These schools also run the scope of selectivity, so there should be something for every student. From the â€œPublic Iviesâ€ like University of Virginia and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to schools with open admissions policiesâ€”there is something for everyone’s version of a safety school.
Go back to part #1 (thinking about what a safety school is) and apply it to the public schools in your own state. Are there schools that may be good fits for you? Remember, not all public schools are massive and impersonal schoolsâ€”some of them are small and undergraduate focused.
The other great thing about in-state public schools is that most (if not all of them) should be within driving distance to visit.
Another option is taking a hard look at public two-year colleges in your state. This can be a great option for improving students who may not be competitive for much merit-based aid. Many two-year colleges have agreements with four-year institutions for transferring.
Some states even have programs that pay your tuition to the two-year college!
One of these programs is New Jersey’s NJ STARS Program. If you are a New Jersey high school student in the top 15% of your class, you can attend any NJ two-year college for free. Students who transfer to one of the partner schools (including Rutgers University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and The College of New Jersey) will receive a renewable $2,500 scholarship.
Conclusion: Final Thoughts and other tips
- If you have any tricky questions about financial aid, reach out to the financial aid office at the school.
- Talk to your family and have a discussion of what will be affordable. An open dialogue about finances and expectations can go a long way.
- Apply to scholarships early and often.
- Give schools in your state a look. Even if you are set on leaving and going across the country, it is better to have a safe and affordable school.
- If your grades are not where you want them, the community college option can be a smart move
- Remember that just applying to/or considering a school does not mean you will be attending. Safeties are backups, but in the world of competitive college admissions, it is best to have a solid safety.
Net Price Calculator
Every school has a separate one (probably on the financial aid part of their website). If you have trouble finding it, contact their financial officeâ€”NPC’s are mandatory (per the Federal government) for all colleges and universities.
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