The Right Way to Start the College Search

I graduated from college back in 1978, but I’ve got college on my brain every day because of the college book that I’m writing. My desk and the couch in my office are covered with stacks and stacks of college material that I’ve gathered from my interviews, as well as from such places as The Chronicle of Higher Education,, The Higher Ed Watch and many, many other sources.

As I head into the final two months of work on the book, I thought I’d share just one tiny portion of what I’ve been writing about. So here goes:

When you and your child begin the college search, spend time right at the start determining whether you have a shot at financial aid. That’s critically important because it should help you focus on the schools that are more affordable. This absolutely doesn’t automatically mean those with the cheapest price tag.

If you qualify for aid, you should look for schools that are generous with financial aid. In particular, you should hunt for colleges and universities that hand out lots of grants. It doesn’t do you any good if a school brags that it meets 100% of a kid’s financial need, but it just dispenses loans.

If you don’t qualify for aid, tailor your search to schools that offer merit awards. Your child, by the way, doesn’t have to be an “A” student to capture an award. At some schools, “B” students or those with SAT scores below 1100 can get some money.

You can get a rough idea on where you stand on the financial aid question by using a couple of free online calculators. You can find both at FinAid, which is an excellent web site that explains financial aid rules in exhaustive detail.

The first calculator uses the federal methodology. Nearly all public schools rely upon the federal methodology when determining financial aid. The second calculator, which you can find on the same link, uses the institutional methodology, which many private schools rely upon.

These online tools aren’t going to flash a green light if you can expect financial aid or a red light if you won’t. It’s a bit more involved than that. What the software will generate is something called a Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is presented as a dollar figure.

The EFC represents what your family can afford to spend in one year on your child’s college education. This dollar figure is generated after examining the parents’ and the child’s income and assets.

Suppose, for instance, that your EFC is $15,000 and the instate school your daughter wants to attend is $12,000. You’d be expected to pick up the entire collegiate tab because the school is cheaper than what the EFC indicates you can afford to pay. In contrast, if the school costs $40,000, you could end up with $25,000 in financial aid. In this scenario, you’d subtract your expected contribution of $15,000 from the $40,000 price tag.

The next time I write a post, I’m going to share how you can figure out what schools are generous with financial aid and/or merit awards.

In the meantime, please click on my latest column, which will be posted by Sunday morning.

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  1. A very informative column. I can’t wait to see the next column on the how to determine colleges that give the most financial aid.