Paying for College in Tight Times
When searching for the right college, it’s easy to be a savvy shopper if you do your research and explore ways to save.
When shopping for the right college, you don’t necessarily want the cheapest or the closest, so you need to do lots of research to find out what will best fit your college-bound student’s interests and your family’s resources. The more research you do, the more likely you are to save thousands in the long run. At The Princeton Review, we do our best to make sure our guidance is simple and necessary because we know it can seem daunting to shop for a college and to research financial aid. To help you narrow down the list of potential colleges for your teenager, here is a checklist of characteristics to research.
Every year the sticker price of a college education bumps up about 6 percent, and some private colleges can cost more than $50,000 a year. While you’d love to select a school based on academics alone, cost is nearly impossible to separate out of the equation. There is much-needed assistance, though, in the form of financial aid, such as federal grants, scholarships, state financial aid, loans, and work study. And, despite the steep price tag, a college education will ultimately pay for itself because people with a college degree find themselves in higher income brackets than those with only a high school diploma.
Filling out the FAFSA
To receive financial aid from the federal government, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You may have to complete two separate forms: the FAFSA form (no sooner than January of senior year and no later than March) and the financial aid/scholarship form for the college to which you are applying. You must complete a FAFSA for each year of school. Our book Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kal Chany outlines specific financial aid application procedures and tricks.
Financial Aid Offerings
Sure, there are many types of scholarships available: merit-based, religious- or community-sponsored, interest- or subject-based, and even awards through contests, but there are many more financial aid options that can take the sting out of a school’s sticker price. In order to get scholarships for academics, your son or daughter will need outstanding grades and strong standardized test scores. You should be aware that even a full scholarship might not cover the full cost of attending because of other expenses such as room and board, books, and student fees. You should spend a good amount of time researching a school’s financial aid offerings and how generous a school’s financial aid package is likely to be. While it might add frenzy to the process to even apply to a school that will cost $35,000 per year, you may earn a financial aid package that leaves you paying less out of pocket than a package from a school with a lower sticker price. It’s important to understand your options, to be familiar with financial aid definitions, and to equip yourself with school-specific financial aid data and scholarship information to make yourself and your college-bound student the most savvy of college shoppers.
PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship
A strong PSAT score isn’t just something to be proud of—it can mean money! Each year, a (very) limited number of high school juniors qualify for National Merit Scholarships based on their PSAT scores. Each year, approximately 50,000 students (out of 1.4 million) qualify. Those who qualify will be notified in September of senior year. About 8,000 of those will win scholarships. (The Princeton Review is giving students the opportunity to take a free practice PSAT on September 17. Call 800-2REVIEW for details.)
You teen’s decision to live on campus in a residence hall instead of in an off-campus apartment can save thousands of dollars a year. In addition to the cost of utilities, deposits, and extra commuting, the simple act of shopping for furniture and kitchen supplies can throw a wrench into any budget. Make sure you check what kinds of food options are available as well as the basic costs of living in an area. Attending college in New York City, for example, can cost a lot more than perhaps going to school somewhere else simply because the cost of living in New York is so much higher.
How much does it actually cost?
While tuition is a significant portion of the cost of college, there are other factors that can add thousands of dollars to a final price tag. Fees for books, lab classes, parking, and meal plans; room and board costs; and personal vehicle and travel expenses are often left out of college budgeting plans. Don’t forget to add in a few bucks for entertainment!
Stats and Numbers
School-specific stats coupled with student opinions about classroom experience provide the best litmus test when trying to find the best academic fit for a student. Being a savvy college shopper means understanding admissions numbers intimately, and we recommend that you gauge a college’s stats the same way college admissions officers assess students. Admissions committees generally first look at the important metrics such as GPA, class rank, and ACT or SAT scores, because they know that the raw numbers a student brings to the admissions table speak volumes about the challenges he or she conquered in high school. Though a college’s numbers—percentage of applicants accepted, attending and accepting a place on the waitlist—do not paint a complete picture, checking out a school’s data is always wise advice, just make sure your research covers a good selection of reach, match, and safety schools.
Advanced Placement classes and exams are a great way to boost a student’s GPA and to receive college credits before even graduating high school. Check a college’s policy, though, on accepting AP credit, because some schools will award credit for a score of a 3 while most schools require a 4 or 5 (out of 5). Even if your child’s high school doesn’t offer AP courses, he or she can study books such as Cracking the AP U.S. History Exam, or one of The Princeton Review’s other 16 AP exam books, and take the test independently. With some hard work, a student can tally up enough strong AP scores to place out of intro-level course and save some tuition dollars in the process.
A college degree has value that lasts a lifetime; however, there’s no perfect formula for calculating that real-world value. Different schools specialize in different majors, and you want to make sure that a degree will lead to good career prospects in that field. Researching the quality of a college’s academic programs will help you make sure that the school best fits your student’s academic needs and interests. Also, investigate the strength of each school’s career services and alumni network.
Lots of colleges and universities are putting an emphasis on environmentally friendly majors in order to accommodate the growing market of companies who are paying more attention to the greener needs of consumers. Make sure to research a school’s sustainability practices and curriculum.
A safety school is one where your teen’s academic credentials stand above the school’s range for the average freshman and a school that your son or daughter will be willing to attend. A financial safety school is a school that will accept your application and that you can afford even if your financial aid package is less than stellar. You definitely want a plan B just in case you get an acceptance from a first-choice school that just didn’t offer quite enough financial aid.
FAQ: How many schools should I apply to?
There is no rule that dictates how many colleges to apply to. If you’re willing to pay the application fees, you can have your son or daughter apply to dozens, but that’s a poor strategy. Take the time to research and whittle down the initial list. At the very least, though, have your college-bound student apply to one school slightly above his or her academic credentials (called a reach school), two schools that are a close match, and one safety school.
Overall Feel and Extracurriculars
Various factors about a college can change its overall atmosphere. There are many considerations to include in your research, such as the social scene and political vibe on campus. Is it a large school with a vibrant Greek community, or is it a small college with a strong religious affiliation? Extracurriculars probably aren’t the most important aspect, but they should not be overlooked in your research. Clubs, intramural sports, and service organizations all add an important dimension to the college experience.
College visits can give you wonderful insight into the reality of what life is like on campus. A school’s location can definitely change the overall feel; there are tremendous differences between suburban, urban, and rural campuses, and climate can also impact how much a student enjoys the whole college experience.
School Tour Tips
Spring break of junior year is the most common time for families and college-bound students to start visiting campuses. When visiting colleges, make sure you take plenty of notes, talk to students, take the official tour, venture out on your own, and sit in on a class or two. One last piece of advice: Save the favorite schools for last. As you compare more and more schools, you learn how to best judge a campus. You’ll figure out the right questions to ask and the best on-campus and off-campus spots to gauge student life.
For more information on extracurriculars, financial aid, scoring higher on standardized tests, and researching colleges and grad schools go to PrincetonReview.com.
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