Financial Fit and the College Search

Smart students with smart parents don’t stop the search process once they’ve identified numerous schools of interest. Unless they are wealthy and the sky is the limit for college costs, they also examine institutions for their generosity and pattern of distributing financial aid. How is this examination of financial fit accomplished? Here is a simple 4-step process:

1 – Calculate whether you might qualify for need-based aid by using the College Board EFC (estimated family contribution) Calculator. The calculator requests information similar to what you report to the IRS, your income and deductions:

Your EFC is the amount of $$ colleges and the government believe your family should be able to pay for school.

2 – Now determine your “need” by subtracting your EFC from the total cost of attendance at the college. A quick way to see total cost is to use the College Data website. You can make this search super fast by typing in the name of the college in question in a search bar, followed by the words college data (e.g. University of Colorado college data). When I did this for CU I learned that for in-state students total cost is $29,429; for out of state students it is $51,197 (yikes!). Let’s say you are a Colorado resident, and your EFC was $23,095. Do the calculation, and you do have some degree of need:

$29,429 minus $23,095 = NEED of $6334

3 – The above step yielded need of over $6000, but lets say you had no need; then you might hope for a merit aid award if you have some credentials (like excellent grades and test scores) that the college wants to reward, as they would welcome an application from you. Once again, use college data to examine a college’s generosity with both distribution of need-based and/or merit aid. Click on the Money Matters tab within the College Data profile of the school in question and carefully examine the number of students who receive both kinds of aid — plus the average amounts awarded. These numbers can be used to compare one college to another in terms of generosity. You will quickly see that some schools are far more generous than others. Unless money is not an issue you will probably want to consider the generous colleges much more seriously. There is one final step that makes all of this more definite….

4 – Now go on the websites of a few of the schools and enter your IRS-type info on their Net Price Calculator. A fast way to locate a school’s calculator is to type the relevant info into a search bar (University of Colorado net price calculator). Schools have discretion as to how they address need and merit, so this will be your best estimate ahead of applying as to what you may be offered.

A final opinion: If more families engaged in this process and responded by applying only to the more generous schools, we might see some adjustments on the part of colleges in pricing and aid awards.  Happy hunting!!

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