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Colleges Want You: Be Prepared

Uncle Sam Wants YouThis isn’t just a mantra to boost your student’s self-esteem.  This is the reality behind much in the way of college admissions. Colleges will pay for those students it wants. BUT for students to qualify for merit-based scholarships and grants – financial aid you don’t have to pay back – you have to have the RIGHT STUFF.

Colleges are under pressure to bring diversity to their freshman classes.  It’s good for the learning experience of others and further helps them in their recruiting efforts.  So as a parent you need to get your son or daughter positioned to be on that recruiting poster. 

To qualify for these merit-based scholarship opportunities, students will have to meet the new higher thresholds set by colleges on standardized test scores and GPAs. And whether it’s being a virtuoso piccolo player or a stand-out on the high school varsity badminton team, it will only help if they have a special skill or talent that the school wants on campus.

Like many parents of college-bound students, schools are having their own financial troubles and while they may be non-profits they are not charities.  This means that the difference in your financial need [Cost of Attendance less Expected Family Contribution (your EFC) equals your Financial Need] and the amount of aid actually put on the table can leave your EFC much higher than what you are eligible for.

In spite of all attempts to make it less so, the admissions and financial aid process is a virtual black hole.  It’s nearly impossible to know in advance how much of a tuition discount or merit-aid package a college will offer a family.

Buying a college education is completely opposite how most consumers buy almost any other thing.  Most families don’t comparison shop for what will be one of the largest expenses they will ever incur – probably even ahead of the expense of buying and owning a home.  Most families simply allow their student’s emotional choices to dictate what the parents’ long term wealth will be.

To counter this insane way of buying what is basically a commodity, the Federal government has required Net Price Calculators to be a part of each college web site.  These NPCs are supposed to tell you what the estimated net cost of educating your student will be.  The reality is that these tools provide only a “guess-timate.”  They also don’t provide any indication of what future aid packages may look like for a particular family’s situation. 

Competition: It’s a Good Thing

To have a fighting chance to pay the lowest amount possible by playing one college’s financial award off another, you’ll need to find colleges that compete for the same students. If you do, you’ll have a greater chance of having a college “sweeten the pot.” Because so much money and debt is at stake, parents need to have a conversation with their student explaining that the new reality of selecting and paying for college calls for an adjustment in expectations, and that the family needs a strategy.

Remember the advice your dad gave you when car shopping:  Be prepared to walk away.  When you’re not emotionally tied to a purchase – and the seller knows it – then they have less leverage.  They know you’re not going to simply go the school at any price because you or your son or daughter HAS to go there.  Knowing this then means the colleges are more likely to increase their financial aid offers especially when they see an offer letter from a similarly ranked competitor school. You’d be surprised by how much keeping your emotions in check will save you now and in future loans.