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Private vs. Federal Student Loans for College: What’s the Difference?

Private vs. Federal Student Loans for College: What’s the Difference?

Many students require financial support through a third party to fund their education. The financial help might come from a scholarship, from you (thanks, Mom!) or student loans. 

Confused between private vs federal student loans for college? Worried you’ll make mistakes as you try to choose the best option for your child?

That’s understandable — it’s important to consider various factors and choose the best combination of those types of aid. Both options work differently and have limitations, risks and benefits. They also have specific criteria which you need to fulfill before getting approved for the loan. Before borrowing, make sure you have a complete understanding of the chosen student loan option and its terms.

Guess what!! We’re here to put a spotlight on this matter and explain each of the student loans and the difference between these two loan types. Understanding the difference will help you choose the perfect student financing option for your kids.

Let’s jump in.

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Private Student Loans

Private loans offer a higher borrowing limit compared to federal student loans. Your child can get private student loans from different sources such as credit unions, private banks or other financial companies.

Your child likely doesn’t have a decent credit history so may need a cosigner to get a private student loan. If you, as the parent, are the cosigner, you must offer a credit check to prove your creditworthiness. 

Kids may use a private student loan to pay for any expenses, including college tuition fees, room and board, textbooks, laptops or computers, transportation costs and living expenses.

Private student loans make up 7.87% of the total outstanding U.S. student loans, according to MeasureOne. Total outstanding private student loan debt: $131.81 billion.

Data courtesy studentaid.ed.gov

How Do Private Student Loans Work?

Private student loans work more like secured loans such as a mortgage or car loan. Every lender’s different, but here are some steps you might go through to get one:

Step 1: Shop around. 

Compare it all — interest rates, payment terms and fees — to find the most cost-effective loan that suits your needs. If you cosign when you borrow a private student loan, you’ll be responsible for making all the payments on behalf of your kids. It’s potentially risky, because if you can’t pay it back, your wages can be garnished to make the debt payments.

Step 2: Gather some information. 

You’ll need information like your address, Social Security number, school information, academic enrollment period, requested loan amount, employment information and more. 

Step 3: Fill out the application. 

Your lender may review a few things with you after you fill it out. 

Step 4: It’s in the lender’s hands. 

They’ll review your credit, additional information and documentation. Some lenders offer instant approval of your application.

Step 5: Choose your interest rate and repayment options. 

Involve your child in this process!

Step 6: Accept the loan terms. 

Don’t forget to sign electronically.

Step 7: Your lender will get verification from the college your child plans to attend. 

The school will certify your eligibility and enrollment and also verify the loan amount. 

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Types of Private Student Loans

You can choose from three types of private loans.

Private Undergraduate Student Loans

You, the parent or cosigner, must submit credit and income proof for review. That way, the lender determines your ability to repay the loan. The lender also decides your interest rate. 

Private Graduate Loans

Private graduate loans are for graduate students and have characteristics similar to other types of private student loans. Your graduate student might need you to cosign the loan due to a lack of sufficient credit. However, a graduate student with a decent credit history may also apply and qualify individually for a lower interest rate. 

Private Parent Student Loans

Many private lenders offer parent loans directly to the parents who want to help a student pay for their education expenses. In this case, the student is not legally obligated to repay a parent loan.

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans are governed and provided by the U.S. Department of Education. They have lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans for borrowers compared to private student loans. 

Most student loans — about 92 percent, according to a June 2020 report by MeasureOne, an academic data firm — are owned by the U.S. Department of Education.
Total federal student loan borrowers: 42.3 million.
Total outstanding federal student loan debt: $1.54 trillion.
Data courtesy studentaid.ed.gov

How Do Federal Student Loans Work?

A federal student loan is part of federal financial aid and is also called need-based financial aid. Confused? Check out What is need-based financial aid? for more information. Here’s how federal student loans work.

Step 1: To qualify for a federal student loan, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

The FAFSA requires you to fill out information regarding your student’s financial status, especially about income and investments. 

Step 2: Hurray! You’re done! 

Once you submit the FAFSA, it’s sent to the schools your child’s interested in (you must choose them from a list on the FAFSA. 

Step 3: Financial aid offices use something called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and cost of attendance (COA) to determine your final financial aid award. 

The cost of attendance includes tuition, other required fees, room and board, textbooks and other expenses. The financial aid award may include several combinations of federal financial help such as federal Pell grants, federal loans and paid work-study jobs.

Step 4: Make some choices. 

You and your child must review the details of each federal loan and accept which loans you’d like to utilize. For example, maybe you want to take a Direct Subsidized federal student loan but decide not to take a Direct Unsubsidized federal student loan (more on the differences between those two in a second).

Types of Federal Student Loans

You can categorize federal student loans into a few general types. Each of them has special characteristics, terms and qualification requirements. Let’s check them out.

Direct Subsidized Loans

Direct Subsidized loans are need-based, which means you must show need in order to qualify for them. 

The federal government pays the interest on Direct Subsidized loans as long as your child is enrolled in school, for the first six months after he/she graduates and during any deferment or forbearance period.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Direct Unsubsidized loans are for undergraduate, graduate and professional students. Your child must pay the interest on unsubsidized loans, even while in school — the federal government does not pay the interest.

Pros and cons of Direct Unsubsidized and Direct Subsidized loans:

Pros
  • No credit check
  • A low, fixed rate of interest
  • Few flexible repayment plans
  • Prepaying the loan has no penalty
Cons
  • Lower loan limits
  • Students are required to file a new FAFSA form every year to maintain eligibility
  • The loan has stricter limits on usage, unlike private loans

Direct PLUS Loans

If you’re the parent of a dependent undergraduate student, you can tap into a Direct PLUS loan. PLUS loans are normally used to pay off the cost of education that other financial aid or loans do not cover. You’ll undergo a credit check to verify credit history.

The federal government caps the borrowing limit for Direct PLUS student loans. The loan amount limit may vary considering the type of loan, schooling year of your kids and whether the students are still dependent.

Differences Between Private Student Loans and Federal Student Loans

It’s important to know the basic differences between private and federal loan types. Check some of the standout differences between private student loans and federal student loans.

Eligibility Criteria

Your child can qualify for federal student loans if he or she is a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen and if he or she is enrolled in an approved degree or certificate program.

Your student may require a cosigner to get private loans and may have to fulfill a lender’s credit and income requirements. Your student must also enroll in an approved degree or certificate program to get a private student loan.

Interest Rates

Federal student loans carry fixed interest rates. This means the interest rate is the same for the rest of your child’s loan term, no matter how much market interest rates increase or decrease.

Unlike a federal student loan, you can choose between a fixed or variable interest rate with a private student loan. Variable interest rates may increase or decrease based on market conditions.

Grace Period

Both federal and private student loans normally allow a grace period, which means no repayment is required until another six months after your student graduates. As a parent, it’s a good idea to read the fine print on the grace period before applying for a student loan.

Repayment Plans

Federal student loans may offer you multiple, flexible repayment plans, such as an income-driven repayment plan and extended repayment plan. These plans are offered to help borrowers if they face financial hardship to afford monthly student loan bills.

You might assume that private lenders only offer one student loan option with a set interest rate and repayment terms. But this is actually not the case. Several popular banks and private financing companies offer a variety of interest rates, as well as flexible repayment plans. However, private student loan companies are not required to offer flexibility and they do not offer loan forgiveness. Loan forgiveness can be an option with federal student loans to help you pay off your debts

Forbearance and Deferment Options

Federal student loans offer forbearance and deferment options — but what do those actually mean?

Forbearance and deferment both mean that you can postpone student loan payments when you can’t afford them. The biggest difference between the two is that forbearance always increases the amount your child owes, while deferment can be interest-free for certain types of federal loans.

Most private lenders only offer deferment programs if you’re in the military or enrolled in school. 

Deferment and forbearance are the same for private student loans — interest always accrues, and your child must pay the interest.

It’s a great idea to ask private student loan lenders whether they will let you pause payments if you or your son or daughter can’t afford to pay the loan payments for a while.

The Benefits of Private Student Loans and Federal Student Loans

Private and federal student loans both offer major benefits, and the main benefit is that they help your child go to college when you or your child can’t pay the gap between scholarships, grants and tuition, room, board and fees.

Benefits of Private Student Loans

A few quick benefits of private student loans:

  • They help cover the gaps in your child’s financial aid award and educational costs.
  • They aren’t need-based, unlike Direct Subsidized loans. 
  • Most private lenders offer both fixed and variable interest rate options and loan terms for different borrowers. 
  • Private student loan lenders allow your child to apply with a cosigner for a better interest rate and increase your chances for loan approval.
  • You may be able to release yourself as a cosigner from your child’s private loans. 
  • Your child shouldn’t have to pay penalties if he or she pays off the student loan ahead of time in the vast majority of cases.
  • They offer competitive interest rates for borrowers or cosigners who have a great credit score.
  • You can tap into various repayment options, including deferred repayment, where you make no scheduled loan payments while you’re in school and during your separation or grace period.

Benefits of Federal Student Loans

Finally, check out some of the reasons you may want to opt for a federal student loan:

  • You don’t have to provide your credit history to get a federal student loan. 
  • A fixed-rate federal student loan protects your child from increases in monthly payments if the market interest rate increases.
  • Federal student loans also allow your child to apply for forbearance or deferment. They offer more flexible repayment options.
  • Borrowers can consolidate multiple federal loans under the Department of Education’s Direct program through one payment per month, and an estimated 7.37 million federal student loan borrowers are on an income-driven repayment plan.
Repayment PlanPayment CapLoan Balance ForgivenessCurrent Number of Borrowers on Plan
Pay As You Earn (PAYE)10 percent of discretionary incomeAfter 20 years1.31 million
Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)10 percent of discretionary incomeAfter 20 years (25 years for loans taken out for graduate study)2.56 million
Income-Based Repayment (IBR)10 percent of discretionary income, or 15% if loan was taken out before July 1, 2014After 20 years (25 years for loans taken out before July 1, 2014)2.82 million
Income-Contingent Repayment (IBR)Lesser of 20 percent of discretionary income or the payment on a 12-year fixed-payment planAfter 25 years680,000

Data courtesy: studentaid.ed.gov

Get the Right Combo

As a parent, you support and guide your kids, and guiding them through the student loan process is no exception. Consider your options and choose the best one according to your needs and financial status. 

Good luck! 

Author Bio: Phil Bradford is a financial content writer and finance enthusiast with expert knowledge about personal finance. His passion for helping people who are stuck in financial problems has earned him recognition and honor in the industry. Besides writing, he loves to travel and read books. 

The Most Comprehensive Junior Year of High School Checklist Ever

The Most Comprehensive Junior Year of High School Checklist Ever

Junior year is here! Yiiiiiiiikes! Whether you want to bury your head like an ostrich or tackle it like a linebacker, the reality is here: Two years till college starts.

As a parent, the crazy busy-ness of high school may have gotten even busier because now the time crunch descends. Between AP classes, extracurricular activities and homework every night, junior year is one of the busiest years leading up to college because your student is trying to do all the things!

You may wonder exactly what junior year should look like in terms of prepping for college. It takes planning and prep work to make junior year go as smoothly as possible! Read more for your complete college prep list for high school juniors! I’ve compiled a few things to keep top of mind with this junior year of high school checklist.

Beginning of the Year: Speak with Your Child’s School Counselor 

You don’t need to call up the school counselor or college and career counselor every other week. However, it’s a great idea to speak with or meet the school counselor in person at the beginning of the year. He or she will allow you to ask questions about core subjects, already-scheduled courses and more. Make sure you talk about a healthy college prep standard for core subjects: 

  • Four years of English 
  • Three years of math (though four is better!)
  • Three years of science
  • Two or three years of social studies or history

Make sure your child’s college and career counselor knows what schools your child put on his list up until now (it’s okay if it changes later) so he takes courses that align well with that college’s requirements. 

Don’t leave it up to the school counselor, however. It requires sleuthing on your part, too. Get on the website of the colleges your child is interested in and find out the requirements for each. Then communicate that with the school counselor so you’re all on the same page.

All Year: Grades, Grades, Graaaades

Beef up those grades. Colleges and universities want to see them whether you agree they represent your child well or not. Has COVID-19 caused your child to fall behind just a little bit? (Is it possible to learn Shakespeare over Zoom without the opportunity to talk to a teacher face-to-face? Hm….)

Keep on top of the college preparation process both during high school junior year and if your child needs help, make sure that occurs.

All Year: Get Going on Extracurricular Activities

What does your child love to do? Or maybe even more importantly, what does he really not like doing? Sometimes knowing what we don’t like to do is more important than knowing what we enjoy. It can help later on when your child makes major life decisions.

If your child hasn’t gotten super involved in extracurricular activities in high school, it’s not too late to get involved. Also, don’t forget to encourage your child to look for leadership positions within those extracurricular activities. 

All Year: Talk About a College Savings Plan

Don’t have a college savings plan set up yet? No worries. You can always start one now! It’s not too late to put a plan in place even though your child’s a junior. 

If you’ve already been contributing to a college savings account, discuss with your student and other family members how you’ll continue to contribute to that account. Evaluate how far the money in the account will go to pay for college. How far will your child get on the amount of money you’ve saved? Do you need more or can you pay for some of it out of pocket? How creative can you get with paying for it out-of-pocket, through side hustles and more?

Finally, have the conversation about how much it’ll cost your child out of pocket.

All Year: Talk About Colleges

What kind of school is your child thinking about? A vocational-technical school? Community college? Four-year college or the military? What do you think fits your child best? If you just know your child will perform best in a private liberal arts college but all she wants to do is look at state universities, it might require some discussion and give and take on your part.

Talk about careers but don’t focus too much on those or majors — your child will likely change her major! 

Job Shadow

Let’s say your child really doesn’t know what kind of school to look into because he or she has no idea what he or she wants to do for a living. I normally don’t advocate for picking a school based on major, but let’s say your child is really interested in a trade, like welding. In this case, I advise job shadowing because it’s one of the best ways for your child to determine what type of school to choose. 

On the other hand, if your child knows she’s destined for a university — she’s had her mind made up that she’s going to a four-year school — don’t worry so much about the major. Pick the school based on its own merits and opportunities and the major will follow.

All Year: Collect Information

Gather college information through college fairs, college nights and any special alumni. (Did your next-door neighbor’s child go to the No. 1 school on your child’s list? Set up some time to chat!)

Make a list of schools your child would like to visit and keep that updated. Check out my free spreadsheet for the college search!

Note a number of things on the spreadsheet, including cost, merit scholarship requirements, size, location, distance from home and more.

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Fall: Help Your Child with that Resume!

Do you know a thing or two about putting together a resume? Stick to what you know, then get a professional to look at it if you’re not confident. One of the best things you can do is proofread the resume for silly mistakes like spelling errors. 

Case in point: When I was an admission counselor, I’ll never forget how one kid wrote “Delivered toilet trees to the community center” on his resume instead of “toiletries.”

Don’t let your kid be the “toilet tree” kid. 

Don’t forget to remind your child to add the following:

  • Any awards
  • Community service achievements
  • Academic accomplishments
  • Work details
  • Anything else your child participates in

Fall: Get Ready for the ACT or SAT — or Not

Does your child need to take the ACT or SAT? You and your child need to decide together whether it’s worth it to take it. 

In any normal year, your high school junior would study for the ACT or SAT with gusto. You’d encourage him to start studying for the SAT/ACT and SAT subject tests as soon as the calendar turned to September.

Your best bet is to get on an email chain or get on the phone with admission counselors to help you decide whether your child needs to take one of these tests. If you decide it’s important, start studying using practice exams.

Fall: Take AP Classes

AP classes are standardized exams designed to measure how well your child mastered the content and skills of a specific AP course. Your child takes an end-of-year paper-and-pencil exam to evaluate how well he did on the test.

The benefit? Most U.S. colleges grant credit, advanced placement or both for qualifying AP scores.

Ask about International Baccalaureate, CLEP or dual enrollment courses as well.

Fall: Take the PSAT

The PSAT/NMSQT is offered in the fall. How to get ready for test day: Ask your child’s school counselor when her class will take the PSAT/NMSQT and check out a free practice test. Make sure she eats a healthy breakfast the day of the exam!

Spring: Take the AP Exams 

Your child can take the AP Exams every year in May at many high schools and exam centers. Check with your school counselor to learn more.

Spring: Take the ACT or SAT — or Not

If your child elects to take the ACT or SAT or the college your child is looking into requests it, sign up for the ACT or SAT and have your child take one of those tests — not both. Shoot for anytime in the spring. There’s no reason you shouldn’t opt for April for the ACT or March for the SAT.

Spring: Plan the Senior Year Schedule

Talk with the school counselor about putting together a class schedule for senior year. Encourage your child not to take the easy way out — take classes that aren’t a cake walk during senior year, however tempting it is.

Spring: Plan Campus Visits

Here’s how I advise planning campus visits

  1. Use the website only to look up the phone number for the admission office at that school.
  2. Call the admission office and talk to the campus visit coordinator or someone in a similar role. The campus visit coordinator schedules your visits, particularly if they’re personal campus visits, which are one-on-one visits.
  3. Talk in detail about your options. Does your child prefer a group campus visit or a personal campus visit?
  4. Ask about specific requests, like meeting with a specific individual on campus. 
  5. Schedule the visit and go!

All Year: Apply for Scholarships

There’s no law that says your child must wait until he’s a senior to apply for scholarships. Now’s the time to hop online or have your child ask the school counselor if he can apply for community-based scholarships. 

I recommend using the Scholarship System to help your child get scholarships — it’s a comprehensive system to get judges to notice your child’s application.

The Scholarship System will give your family all the tools you need to find the perfect scholarships, create competitive applications, save tons of time on the process and actually get scholarships. Check it out! You can join for just $1!

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All Year: Work on Building Those Relationships

Everyone needs to work on all relationships — with school counselors, admission counselors at colleges, teachers at school (they’ll write your child’s letters of recommendation!) and everyone else you can think of. It’s good in general to build positive relationships, so do your best to make connections with those around you and encourage your child to do the same. 

Build these relationships without ulterior motives, too — “If I make friends with this scholarship official, maybe he’ll give me the scholarship…”

No, none of that! 

Make genuine connections and friendships without thinking about how you and your child will benefit from the relationship with employers, coaches, activity leaders or other adults. 

Be the Cheerleader

It doesn’t end after the last day of junior year — in some ways, you’re just getting started! Continue to learn more about financial aid, work on visiting more colleges over the summer and write down all deadlines for college applications, college scholarships and more. Encourage your child to apply to colleges the minute applications open — some open over the summer!

Give your child so much encouragement because your high schooler works so hard during this process (hopefully this junior year of high school checklist helps). It’s not easy, especially with so many deadlines, things to remember and different requirements for all colleges. 

5 Painless Ways to Save for Higher Education

5 Painless Ways to Save for Higher Education

I welcomed a guest post from Lisa Bigelow, an award-winning content creator and mom who learned way too late how to save for college. Check out her helpful tips below!

It seems like yesterday your little bundle was born. Then came first steps, school, a driver’s license. Before you know it, you’re scouring college brochures that come in the mail by the elephant load, grinding out college tours and applications and wondering how to pay for it all.

In 1995, the average cost of a full year of tuition plus room and board at a four-year university was $10,560, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fast forward to 2018 and that antiquated figure blooms to an astonishing $27,357 – a near-threefold increase.

It’s safe to say that the cost of college probably isn’t coming down anytime soon. Yet even with the total tab for four years of university exceeding $100,000, for many families, the intrinsic value of higher education is unquestioned. 

You know you should start saving now, but how much will you need?  

It’s difficult to estimate what college will cost when the big event is far in the future. So many factors affect the cost of attendance, including eligibility for need-based aid and in-state residency, plus the promise of merit awards or private scholarships. Unfortunately, when you start saving, you won’t have the answers to any of those questions. 

Nevertheless, families that plan ahead for college expenses aren’t likely to regret it. If you want to pay for four years of university education for your future collegian, here are five saving for college tips. 

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Step 1: Set a savings goal early. 

First things first: You need a goal. But how much? 

Luckily, the College Board — the same organization that administers the SAT — offers a free future cost estimator on its website. Here, you can enter the current cost of one year of school, either public or private, and the tool will calculate the estimated cost of attendance after factoring in your timeline, estimated inflation, and other considerations.

Not sure which value to enter? Consider entering a total of one year of tuition plus room and board at your state flagship university. You can always change it later.   

Step 2: Stack rewards.

Setting up a college savings plan is a great idea! Funding it, however, is a different story.

Automating contributions is helpful (and some might say critical), but don’t hesitate to think outside the box. For example, credit card rewards programs, browser add-ons and retailer programs like Upromise are fantastic ways to chip away at that big goal you set in Step One. Earn a reward, deposit it into the 529. It’s really that simple.

Step 3: Go low-tech.

Spare change stored in a water jug. Birthday and holiday gifts from Grandma deposited into your child’s 529. Yard sale proceeds put toward college tour travel costs: All great ways to capture value from otherwise overlooked — or worse yet, wasted — funds. 

At the end of every month, empty your wallet, jacket pockets and car of any change and bills you find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much it totals — especially when combined with earned rewards. How’s that for one of the easiest but simple saving for college tips?

Step 4: Pursue private scholarships.

You’ve probably heard the rumor that millions in scholarship dollars go unawarded every year, but don’t use that as an excuse not to save for college. There are countless private scholarships that award students on the cusp of high school graduation.

Merit-based scholarships typically award money for academic, athletic or creative talents. But other types of scholarships don’t even require an essay. Have your teen peruse available scholarships like the ones on Bold.org.  

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Step 5: Explore regional discounts.

Don’t overlook residency discounts, as they can be worth tens of thousands of dollars per year. Some states let you pay tuition years in advance, while others award special scholarships to students in otherwise out-of-state tuition zones. In New York State, in-state residents who meet income criteria are guaranteed free tuition at in-state colleges and universities.  

Bonus Tip: Weigh degree cost against future earnings.

Finally, when the time comes to make a selection, carefully evaluate the cost of your student’s degree path against likely future earnings. 

Is it worth it to pay $200,000 or more for private school tuition if a public school degree will get your student the same salary after graduation? If not, it may be wise to reconsider.

Author bio: Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator and mom who learned way too late how to save for college. In addition to CollegeMoneyTips.com, Lisa has contributed to OnEntrepreneur, Finovate, Finance Buzz, Life and Money by Citi, MagnifyMoney, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.

First Child Going to College? How to Handle the College Search

First Child Going to College? How to Handle the College Search

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I met with hundreds of college-bound students and their families as an admission counselor. 

One thing I always noticed about second-timers: Easier conversations. 

Usually.

When parents had a second child going off to the same college (we had an unprecedented number of sibling pairs at our college), conversations sometimes went like this: 

Me: “Did you get a good look at the residence halls?”

Student: “I stayed with my sister in her residence hall 34 times last year. We made a Jell-O tower the last time I stayed.” 

Me: “A Jell-O tower?”

Student: “Yep, that’s why she had to scrub the lounge. You know, because the whole thing exploded from the vinegar.”

Parent: Rolls eyes. “Let me get you a check for the deposit. Let me see, if I remember correctly, that’s $200, right?”

Me, still with a million questions about the residence hall lounge Jell-O/vinegar volcano, checking the time: “Do you guys have any questions? You’ve only been here for 15 minutes.”

Student: “No, I’m good.”

(I know, this conversation was borderline ridiculous.)

At any rate, when you’re going through the college search for the first time, it’s daunting. It’s like looking into the end of one of those pool noodles (you can’t quite see the light at the end). You may worry, have a million questions, convinced you’re not sure what you’re doing when your first child heads off to college. 

Here’s what you can do to lighten your mental load.

1. Ask a billion questions. 

Your child might think you’re there to slloooowly give her signs of a stroke when you’re on college visits. You pester the admission counselor, the dean of admission, the professors, the security personnel. You make best friends with Clara, the cleaning professional in the all-female residence hall and vow to get in on the jazz professor’s next gig — as the drummer.

You’re just doing your job as the first-time parent. If you have another child, you’ll barely utter a peep the second time around. 

Your second-born will say, “Mom, the admission counselor just asked if you have any questions. Can you take your sunglasses off and uh… look like you’re into this?”

Ha!

All jesting aside, check out my overly long list of questions if you’re not sure what to ask: 202 questions to ask on a college tour… (Too many? I’m so sorry.)

2. Visit campuses.

You know you need to visit campuses, but where should you go and when? A lot depends on your student. Some sophomores are nowhere near ready to visit colleges and others are. It depends on maturity level, drive, etc. Gauge your student’s readiness. Even if you’re ready for a full tour of New England colleges, your child may not give a toot. At all. 

Trust me — I’ve seen the kids who aren’t ready for college visits! They act just like you imagine they would. 

Once you figure out when, you need to determine where. “Where?” is a fun — and stressful — question because you have so many choices. Big? Small? Four years? Trade school? Parents’ alma mater? In state? Out of state? 

You don’t know until you start visiting. There are no rules here. Just pick a school your child’s interested in and go. Simple as that.

First child going to college? Get the guide!

3. Meet the people. 

Really get to know the people. Not just the students. Not just the admission staff. Everyone. While there’s no way you can meet all 10,000 people on campus, you should be able to get a feel of what the campus means to the people you do meet. Try to get people to say, “I wish campus offered X…” or “I love X about our campus.”

Find out whether students love the things that matter — the relationships they develop or the opportunities they’ve been given. If all they can talk about are the beautiful buildings, the rad parties they attend or other surface-level stuff, it might be a red flag.

4. Get organized. 

You may have no idea what you need to organize when you’ve got your first child going to college. Here’s a spreadsheet I put together — without the fluff you don’t need to know.

You can copy that spreadsheet and save it for yourself. It’s definitely nothing fancy but is super functional. It includes things like distance from home, tuition and fees and heart/gut test (feelings after the visit). Encourage your child to maintain this sheet.

5. Activate the heart/gut test after every visit.

As I alluded to in the previous point, you need to make sure your child “takes” the heart/gut test. The heart/gut test is not really actually a straightforward test. It’s actually a litmus test for how your child “feels” about the college search. You can ask a few questions to probe a little bit for how your child feels about a college. Ask:

  • How did you feel when you were on campus?
  • Can you see yourself going to college here?
  • How do you feel about the students/professors/admission staff, etc.?
  • What was your gut/heart initial reaction to this college?

As you can imagine, this is a little unnerving for some people. It takes out the facts — how many students get a job after graduation, successful alumni, internship stats — and puts feelings front and center.

But it’s so good when you get it right.

6. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk about money.

Talk about money until you get a scratchy throat. Of course you have lots of questions about money. How much will each school cost? How much merit aid does a college offer? What scholarships can my child receive from searches? (By the way, check out the Scholarship System for the best way to look for scholarships that I’ve found anywhere!)

Here’s what you want to find out from every college your child’s interested in:

  • The amount of merit aid he or she will receive from that college.
  • Whether your child can apply for other scholarships.

Don’t forget to talk about how much you can reasonably afford to help your child pay for college. You don’t want your child to have unrealistic expectations about what you’ll be able to help pay. (Imagine that your child thinks you’ll pay for the whole thing — but you can’t. It might be a nasty shock when your student tallies up the loans for her first year alone!)

7. Avoid talking too much about major.

Whaaa? 

Yes.

Here’s a quick fact: Three out of every four students enter college undecided or change their major at least once.  

You may already know that. But that still might not stop you from searching the internet for “best colleges for pre-optometry” or “best pre-med universities.” 

A true story about a past student of mine: Jessica began looking at colleges as a junior in high school. She knew she wanted to be a pre-med major. In fact, she was so determined to be a pediatrician that she even shadowed her own pediatrician. Jessica chose her college (in this case, a large state university) based on the university’s high percentage of undergraduates who got into medical school.

Guess what happened. Jessica started taking biology and chemistry classes and realized it wasn’t at all what she’d expected. In fact, she realized she didn’t even like the school she’d chosen at all. She ended up transferring and switched her major to marketing instead. 

About three quarters of all college students change their major plans at least once. Your student will most likely change his major (because he either discovers something new or learns that he’s not well-suited for his initial choice). So don’t go into the search on a mission to find the best school for the best [insert major].

It’s easy to ask college reps, “Can I major in X at your school?” 

It’s much more difficult to ask other, less-defined questions, like “What does it feel like to be a student on campus?” (See heart/gut test.)

8. Don’t spend too much time looking over your shoulder. 

If your next-door neighbor already applied to 36 colleges and your child thinks he’s good with two college applications, don’t compare. What’s right for neighbor Billy Bob may not be right for your child at all. 

If you’re struggling to file the FAFSA but your neighbor Mary filled it out in two seconds flat, relax. As long as you meet required deadlines for each college your child’s interested in, you’re doing great. And if you need help, get it.

9. Check college’s requirements — then follow the deadlines. 

All the different requirements and deadlines at schools can slowly drive you crazy if you let it happen. One school may have a November 1 application deadline. Another school has a scholarship interview deadline in February. Grab my spreadsheet and make sure you clearly denote each deadline. Put your head down, get your child on board and meet the deadlines of all the colleges on your list. Make sure you ask about: 

  • CSS Profile deadlines (usually only required at more competitive schools)
  • Application deadlines
  • Scholarship deadlines
  • Testing requirements for the ACT and SAT (many schools don’t require them now) — and find out whether your child needs to do the written essays or the SAT subject tests
  • Deadlines and requirements for letters of recommendation
  • Resume requirements 
  • Deadlines for final transcripts

10. Follow up.

Make sure colleges get your child’s transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters and other requirements. It’s a good idea to make sure your child’s file is complete well before deadlines approach. 

Don’t skip this step. There’s nothing worse than thinking everything’s ready to go, then realizing with horror that something didn’t get turned in on time.

Check a month before everything’s due if it’s feasible. That way, your child has plenty of time to submit transcripts or scramble for another recommendation if needed.

11. Consider revisiting.

Did your child not feel the heart/gut test magic the first time around? That’s normal. 

Sometimes your child just needs a second visit, particularly if it’s been a year or more since your family made the trek to a particular college.

Keep going till your child can see himself going to a particular school and can envision success there as well.

12. Talk about your insecurities.

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Isn’t it like that the first time you do something new, no matter what it is? Think about the first time you booted up the internet. The first time you drove a car. The first time you went off to college yourself. Learning about the college search is an involved process. Luckily, I’ve created a timeline and checklist that explains exactly what you’ll need to do at any step in the college search, called the Grab ‘n Go Timeline and Checklist for the College Search. Check it out!

First Child Going to College? You’ll Get There!

You really will get there. The entire process may feel as foreign as learning how to drive on snow when you’re from Florida (and maybe this will actually happen if your kid’s looking at colleges in, say, North Dakota!) but the good news is there’s no one way to complete the college search. 

Your Quick Guide on How to Look for Colleges in October

Your Quick Guide on How to Look for Colleges in October

This post may contain affiliate links. 

How do you help your child find the right college fit in October? 

The college search is a process. It’s not like your child can usually apply, visit, get accepted and plunk down a deposit all in the same month. (If you can do that, my hat’s off to you! — Ha!)

Again, it’s a twisty road with lots of checkpoints along the way. 

Senior parents, here’s what you need to know about how to look for colleges in October. (By the way, this is great information even for those parents who aren’t parents of seniors!)

1. File the FAFSA. 

The FAFSA opened on October 1 and now’s the time to fill it out. 

The FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges and universities use the FAFSA to consider your child for federal student aid. States and individual colleges and universities also use the FAFSA to award grants, scholarships and loans. 

File the FAFSA as soon as possible — for federal aid, you must submit the FAFSA by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2022.

Does that mean you get to veg out till June 29?

No!

Because colleges also carry deadlines. Check with the college(s) your child’s interested in attending to understand their exact application deadlines. 

2. Encourage your child to work on applications in advance — not at the last minute. 

Most colleges evaluate regular applications between January through March. However,  you’ll unearth a few different deadlines for specific admission types. 

For example, early action and early decision applications require students to submit their materials well before the new year. Application deadlines show up during the — you guessed it — fall months! You might see a few mid-October through November deadlines at colleges that have an early action or early decision process.

Check — and double check — the admission deadlines for each college your child plans to apply. Even if the college uses rolling admission, it’s best to apply early so you know where your child stands in terms of merit-based scholarships and other financial aid early on.

3. Check out various other deadlines for specific colleges. 

Your high schooler may not be done with just an application. You may uncover a few other dates to keep track of:

  • Additional deadlines for honors programs
  • More applications or deadlines for scholarships and financial aid

How to keep track of it all? Create an online calendar or spreadsheet to plan campus visits so you don’t — gasp! — miss key application dates for scholarships or financial aid.

4. Note ACT/SAT Adjustments

Does your student plan to take the ACT or SAT? Do a quick study on the latest testing information. Will the test be offered where your child normally planned to take it? What are the COVID-19 requirements? 

If testing is not available in your area or you don’t meet the safety requirements, know that many schools have gone test optional. 

Note: Even if your child’s a senior, it’s not too late to take one of these tests.

5. Start Narrowing Your College List

Your child can only go to one school, right? Time to start narrowing the list! Ask your child a few questions to get closer to a decision:

  • Do you want or need to be closer to home? (Colleges close by may not have popped up on your kiddo’s radar before!)
  • Do you think you prefer a small liberal arts college or a large university?
  • Would you prefer a large city, suburban area, rural community, etc.?
  • Do you think you want community college first?
  • Are you interested in going to a school that’s currently all online?
  • Are you comfortable with some loans?
  • How hard do you want to work for scholarships if schools don’t offer much merit-based aid?
  • What do you think you might major in during college?
  • What types of extracurricular activities would you like to participate in?

Next, divide schools into “safety,” “match” and “reach” schools based on the admission criteria at each school:

  • Safety: A safety school means that based on a school’s admission criteria, it’s likely that your child’s academic credentials are way above the average incoming freshman range. A lot of people call this school a “back-up.” It’s a good idea to make sure your child can proudly say, “I’m okay with attending my safety school” — just in case. 
  • Match: A match school is one that your child is likely to get into based on a particular school’s admission criteria. Your child is likely to be admitted because his or her academic credentials are well within the average incoming freshman’s range. In other words, it’s more likely that your child will attend this school. 
  • Reach: A reach school is not a guaranteed shoo-in. Encourage your child to choose a school that’s not a complete pipe dream (your child can’t apply to Harvard with a 2.5 grade point average, for example). 

Feel like you’re constantly bombarding your child with questions and all you get in return is “I don’t know!” or something along those lines? Remember, your child may not know the answer to some of these questions — this may be the first huge decision he’s ever made. 

Elicit help from a guidance counselor, admission counselor or another individual you trust to help guide him through this experience.

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6. Start Applying for Outside Scholarships

Outside scholarships include private scholarships and cash awards. Encourage your child to go for those $100 scholarships — they add up.

Totally ask the guidance counselor at your child’s school for insight. Here are a few other pointers: 

  1. Go to area high schools and collect programs dating back up to four years ago. You can find the names of scholarships on that list, Google them and then BAM! Your kid’s got lots of local scholarships at her disposal.
  2. Contact various civic organizations in town, like the Elks club or Kiwanis club. They usually give away lots of scholarships.
  3. What types of scholarships does your company offer? Do other family members work for companies that offer scholarships as well? 
  4. Ask your child about scholarship announcements at school. Ask for an email copy of these announcements, if possible, or ask where you can find them online.
  5. Check social media. Join Facebook groups or other social media groups that post scholarships. All it takes is a simple search!
  6. Look at scholarship search engines. Google “scholarships for writers,” for example. Use keywords to your advantage! 
  7. If your child doesn’t look like a match for a specific scholarship, reach out to the scholarship committee and ask if your child can apply anyway. Maybe he’s just missing one tiny requirement. 

I urge you to check out Scholarship System’s free webinar. Jocelyn of the Scholarship System is amazing — she’s turned getting scholarships into a complete system. She knows how to streamline the process so your child gets scholarship results.

7. Attend Virtual College Fairs

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, NACAC has canceled all Fall 2020 in-person fairs and pivoted to virtual programming. Find out details about 2020 Fall Virtual College Fairs. If you’re wondering how to look for colleges, this is a great place to start because your child can learn a lot about colleges from all over the U.S. from a comfy, squashy chair!

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8. Visit Schools

Visit, visit, visit. I can’t stress the importance visiting schools. How to schedule a college visit

  1. Talk over the type of visit your child wants. Talk to your child before you jump on the phone or set up a campus visit. What does your child want to get out of the visit? Does she want to meet with a faculty member or does that idea terrify her? Does she want what I call the “drive-by” experience — just tour and admission counselor? 
  2. Call the admission office of a college or university. I heavily suggest calling the campus visit coordinator at that college or university instead of signing up online. It’s always better to talk to a live person. A computer can’t hear you talking about your child’s interest in biology, but a campus visit coordinator can — and can offer a one-on-one meeting with a biology major or professor. 
  3. Understand your visit options. What are the options? Let’s say you want to visit on a specific date. Maybe the admission office isn’t doing personal campus visits that day — maybe there’s a group campus visit day. 
  4. Consider a personal campus visit. This is my very favorite type of visit option! I love personal campus visits because they allow you and your child to do a visit that fits your child’s exact interests. It’s personalized! You can visit with anyone in the college you need to (professor, coach, student, etc.) 
  5. Visit in person. I know it’s tempting to do a Zoom visit, but while Zoom is wonderful, it can’t take the place of an in-person visit.

Above All Else — Check In!

Take the temperature. How’s your child feeling about the process? It’s easy to become so absorbed in checking all the boxes and forget how your child feels. Start having those heart-to-heart chats!

5 Secrets to Winning Merit-Based Aid

5 Secrets to Winning Merit-Based Aid

I asked the founder of MeritMore to contribute to this post and I was super excited when Neeta Vallab responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” Check out her first-hand insights on merit-based aid. Here’s her story.

Two years ago, my daughter started her college admissions process. She had worked hard throughout high school, managing to have both good grades and a good social life. Our family was excited for her — our firstborn was going off to college! She was responsible for taking standardized tests, researching schools for her list, writing essays, getting recommendation letters and submitting applications.

She was responsible for the nitty-gritty parts of the process.

We were responsible for paying for college.

Sticker Price Shock

Early on, we learned that we are a “donut-hole” family — we make too much to qualify for need-based aid but not enough to pay sticker price. Even with our 529 plan, the cost of schools on our daughter’s shortlist was staggering. A public four-year college is as much as $22,000 per year.

A private four-year college would set us back a whopping $50,000 or more per year, and that’s just for tuition. We’d have to tack on another $20,000 for housing. It’s no surprise that 69 percent of students took out student loans in 2019.

How were we going to pay for college without taking on outsized loan debt?

Merit aid was our answer.

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What is Merit Aid?

Merit aid: Why is it a big deal? Why should parents want their children to get merit-based aid?

The largest pool of “non-loan” and “non-need based” money available is merit aid. Colleges use merit aid scholarships to entice students who can boost the college’s applicant stats, which in turn improves their national rankings. Over $8 billion in merit aid is distributed annually by colleges.

Putting strong merit aid schools on your child’s shortlist is a great strategy for middle-class families to reduce college expenses and decrease the need for taking out loans. You don’t have to pay back merit aid. In most cases, grants are renewable if a certain GPA is maintained. Most importantly, merit aid scholarships are also awarded to students who qualify for need-based financial aid. 

How Does Merit-Based Aid Work?

Merit aid scholarships are usually awarded to students in the top 25 percent of a college’s most recently admitted freshman class. These scholarships are mostly extended to students who show academic excellence, but merit aid is also awarded to students who are significantly accomplished in music, art or athletics. There is no separate application process for merit aid and awards are typically announced in your admission letter.

Do All Colleges Offer Merit-Based Aid?

Ivy League schools and other top-tier schools like Stanford and MIT, among others, won’t offer merit aid to their students. Small liberal arts schools are typically the most generous with merit aid awards and state institutions generally have the least merit aid to award. Since many schools offer merit aid, you don’t have to have perfect standardized test scores or straight A’s to get it. Each school will have a different top 25 percent statistic and different criteria for awarding merit grants.

How Do You Find Merit-Based Aid?

You’ll have to go directly to the website of each college you’re interested in to find its common data set. Once you find it, you can apply each school’s top quartile data for your standardized test scores, but not for your GPA.

A merit aid search tool called MeritMore takes your GPA (and standardized test scores if you have them) to generate a list of your strongest merit aid matches (schools where you’re in the top quartile), as well as good schools for you to consider (schools where your quantitatively above average). You can then compare average merit aid amounts for the schools on the list and, if you need to, restrict your applications to the schools that will most likely give you significant merit aid.  

Secret 1: Make sure your child has strong merit aid schools on his or her list.

The best way to get merit aid is to put strong merit aid schools on your list early on in the admissions process. It’s painful for both parent and student to realize that even though you’ve been accepted, you can’t afford to go. 

Secret 2: Prioritize financially fit schools over name-brand colleges.

Dream schools can quickly turn into financial nightmares. Make sure your shortlist is populated with generous merit aid colleges, especially if you need funds for more than just out-of-pocket expenses.

Secret 3: Fill out the FAFSA.

Even if you don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, filling out the FAFSA is a must. Many schools need a completed FAFSA for to get full consideration for merit aid. Remember, merit aid can be awarded on top of need-based financial aid.  

Secret 4: Stay open-minded.

Many generous merit aid schools may not be on your radar. Be willing to thoughtfully consider strong merit aid schools that meet most, if not all, of your child’s criteria. When you search for merit aid using MeritMore, you could discover your “perfect fit” college in the list of your merit matches. 

Secret 5: Compare your merit offers and prepare to negotiate.

Your merit aid award will likely be included in your admission letter. If you’re accepted to multiple schools, compare your offers and don’t hesitate to call your top choice if the merit aid offer is lower than merit aid offers you received from other schools.

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Help Your Child Get Merit-Based Aid

After recovering from sticker price shock, we sat down with our daughter and candidly discussed our financial picture relative to the schools she was applying to. We realized that several schools on her list gave very little merit aid. Even if she was accepted, we would be on the hook for paying almost sticker price. Finding and applying to generous merit aid schools was the best strategy for a middle-class family like ours to make college more affordable.

My daughter added two schools that were likely to offer her a significant merit aid award to her shortlist and deleted two schools that historically awarded much smaller amounts. Her final shortlist was balanced both in terms of acceptance probability and financial fitness.

About Neeta Vallab

Neeta Vallab is a digital platform expert and a New York City public school parent. Frustrated with the lack of tools and data available for parents with college-bound students, she founded MeritMore, a free online tool to help parents find merit aid and navigate the admissions process.

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