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Why is ​FAFSA Important?

Why is ​FAFSA Important?

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Oooh, friends, the FAFSA opens October 1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), used to calculate something called the expected family contribution (EFC), measures a family’s financial strength and eligibility for financial aid.

Once, Mr. Donelson, my student Chris’ dad, swaggered into my office and said, “We don’t file the FAFSA. I make too much money.” 

Not one to meekly say, “Okay, it’s your choice,” I took a wild gamble, knowing full well my boss would have a coronary. I said, “Sir, how close are you to retirement?” (It was a gamble because I wasn’t sure if he was actually close to retirement or not.)

“A year, tops.” (Whew.)

“How many kids do you have in college right now?” (I already knew that answer.)

“After Chris, we’ll have four in college all at the same time,” he said proudly.

“Did you know the FAFSA takes those factors, like time to retirement and kids in college, into consideration?” I asked politely.

“Hmmm,” he responded. 

He filed the FAFSA and I’m happy to tell you that his son received federal aid, including work-study. He worked in our admission office as a tour guide and was a total rock star

Why is the FAFSA important? I’m so glad you asked.

1. You’ll find hidden secrets. 

Actually, these secrets — not so hidden. But you won’t know unless you file. Everyone should file the FAFSA! Even if you can fill an Olympic-sized pool with all of your $100 bills, you should file the FAFSA. As I shared with Mr. Donelson, there’s more that goes into the expected family contribution, or EFC, than just parent income. 

Your family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) chips into the formula. Also rolled into it: Family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year. 

2. Your child can qualify for federal aid. 

Your child will not get federal aid if you don’t file the FAFSA. Completing this form is the only way to receive state and federal financial aid.

The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. This includes low-cost loans, grants and work-study.

3. You might have to do it for your child to qualify for other aid.

Put federal student aid to the side for a sec. The FAFSA may also determine your student’s eligibility for other forms of financial aid through the state, the college and, sometimes, private scholarships.

By the way, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the Scholarship System’s free webinar. It is excellent at helping you navigate scholarships!

4. Your child can get work-study.

I mentioned this already but I think it deserves a second mention. Federal work-study is a way you can earn money while your child works a part-time on-campus job. (You may be able to get off-campus jobs as well.) Not every school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, so ask whether colleges your child wants to attend participate. 

Colleges offer a specific amount of funds to each eligible student. Students receive money based on the hours they work, very similar to other hourly jobs.

5. You might have to do it anyway.

Depending on where your child goes to school, completing the FAFSA is a prerequisite for high school graduation. Check with your student’s guidance counselor for more information.

6. Most students qualify for federal loans.

Never, ever, ever, ever EVER take out private student loans before federal loans. Private loans have high interest rates and lack the consumer protections that federal student loans include. 

The Institute for College Access and Success reports that 47 percent of private loan borrowers could have used more affordable federal loans. By completing the FAFSA form, you can make sure your student takes advantage of the best student loan options.

7. You don’t have to accept all aid.

Completing the FAFSA does not obligate your child to accept student loans or any other form of financial aid. So, for example, let’s say your child gets: 

  • Scholarships
  • Federal student loans
  • State grants
  • Federal work-study

You and your child can decide you want the scholarships and grants (free money) but don’t want the federal student loans (must be repaid).

Many families think they have to take everything the student gets awarded — but that’s just not true!

8. Your child may leave money on the table.

Take a wild guess at the percentage of high school graduates who completed the FAFSA in 2014. 

Only 44 percent. 

All that money — unused! It means billions of dollars left on the table.

9. Situations change.

What happens if you experience a change in income? You’ll be glad you filed.

Situations change. Unfortunately, jobs get lost, people pass away, etc. Your financial situations can change. Remember, you can always appeal for more aid every year. 

Just because your student doesn’t receive financial aid one year doesn’t mean that he or she can’t get it another year.

10. It’s free. 

Note the “Free” in “Free Application for Federal Student Aid.” It costs exactly no money to apply, and more importantly, you don’t have to pay anything to find out whether your child is eligible for federal aid. 

11. It’s easy. 

It’s no longer the behemoth it once was. (I remember my dad spending hours hunched over the paper version when I was in college.) Now, it takes just 55 minutes to fill it out. That’s less than the time it takes to order and eat a pizza. That’s less than an entire Netflix episode. 

12. You can gather just a few materials to fill it out.

What materials should I gather in advance before starting the FAFSA? 

  • Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) account
  • Social Security Number for both parents and students.
    • Both parents and students need this information for the FAFSA form.
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one). 
  • Your 2019 tax records for the 2021–22 FAFSA form. You report your 2019 income information on this year’s form.
  • Records of untaxed income, such as child support, interest income, and veterans’ non-education benefits. 
  • Your assets (money) from savings and checking account balances, investments and real estate, though you don’t include your primary residence. 
  • List of the school(s) on your child’s list. Add any college your child’s considering, even if you haven’t applied or been accepted yet. You can list up to 10 schools at a time on the FAFSA.

13. It (could) ensure your child goes to college.  

Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA proceed directly to college, versus only 55 percent who don’t complete the FAFSA, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN)

14. You can fill it out early — then relax.

Fill it out as soon as possible!  Even if you don’t know which school you plan to attend. You can always add various schools’ FAFSA code to your already-filled out FAFSA as the year progresses. So, let’s say you file the FAFSA on October 1. You add three schools that you want the FAFSA to be sent to, then you become interested in another school in November. You can log back in and have it sent to that school as well.  

It’s also okay to add a school to the FAFSA that you decide later on that you won’t apply for. 

15. It helps schools that also require the CSS profile to understand your full financial picture.

What’s the diff between the FAFSA and CSS Profile? The FAFSA awards families with federal grants, scholarships and student loans, while the CSS helps schools award non-federal institutional aid.

Filling out the CSS Profile does not take the place of the FAFSA. Rather, it is an additional application for non-federal financial aid. 

Schools that require the CSS typically meet 90 to 100 percent of family need and package their financial aid with institutional grant money.

The CSS has some significant differences from the FAFSA, in particular the way it calculates certain assets. 

Examples:

  • The FAFSA considers cash gifts as a part of parents’ total assets. 
  • FAFSA looks strictly at numbers such as income and family size, so families must discuss personal situations and hardships directly with schools. 
  • The CSS counts cash gifts as parental income, which decreases a dependent student’s eligibility for aid.
  • The CSS takes a closer look at family finances than the FAFSA does. 
  • The CSS evaluates a family’s medical bills and school costs for younger children, among other factors, to determine a family’s expected contribution. 
  • For some students, this could mean more financial aid opportunities are available through the CSS.

You Want the Best Shot Possible

The FAFSA is important, even if you’re not sure what will come of it. File it anyway. You don’t want to be wondering “what could have been.” 

The FAFSA gives your child the best possible chance of receiving federal aid. Don’t leave money on the table. Like Mr. Donelson, it might make you wonder why you ever doubted it in the first place. 

Happy FAFSA filing!

What to Do When Your Parents Want to Establish College Funds for Grandchildren

What to Do When Your Parents Want to Establish College Funds for Grandchildren

I’m in awe of the things my parents say to my kids: “Sure, you can do/have/play with/buy that! And here’s an ice cream cone. And $50. Oh, and a kitten.” 

Whaaaaa…?

I find myself wondering, “Where was that generosity when I was a kid?”

Then I remember: Oh, yeah, at my grandparents’ house.

Your parents (your kids’ grandparents) may want to help you save for college. 

Bravo for them! The only thing is, they may have very specific ideas on how they want to do it — which might not be the most advantageous to your child or the best option, tax-wise.

Let’s go through a few ways grandparents can help!

How Grandparents Can Help Save for College

Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.

1: Start a conversation.

The first step: Always start with a family conversation.

I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.) 

Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:

  • Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously. 
  • You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
  • You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college. 
  • Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.

2: Discuss specific vehicles. 

Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.

Talk About 529 Plans 

What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)

Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:

  • Tuition
  • Room
  • Board
  • Fees
  • Other educational expenses

Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.

Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion. 

Consider UGMAs or UTMAs

Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws. 

The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone. 

Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.

Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)

Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.

Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.

Talk about Coverdell ESAs

A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.

Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.

Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.

Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.

3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.

“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.” 

You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!” 

Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.

4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.

The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period. 

Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes: 

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
  • Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.

A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses. 

Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.

5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away. 

Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?

As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.

If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.

A Sweet Gesture

Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.

The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.

Take Advantage of College Savings Month in September!

Take Advantage of College Savings Month in September!

September is College Savings Month! Saving for college can seem like one of those long, arduous tasks that never ends… like figuring out what to make for dinner for the rest of your life, perpetual laundry, etc.

I know there are a couple of fears out there when it comes to saving for college. They’re super real, and it would be silly not to address them.

Some common fears stop us from saving for college. Let’s address these so you can jump right in and start saving.

1. The Fear of Believing You Won’t Save Enough

Are you worried that you’ll never be able to save enough? Do your eyes get wider and wider every year as college costs rise? Worries about not being able to save enough may be enough to stop you before you even get going. 

Here’s the deal. You may not be able to save enough money to pay for every penny of your child’s college education — I get how it can get you down before you even start.

However, here are some quick reminders:

  1. Your child may qualify for merit-based scholarships. 
  2. You can take advantage of a tuition installment plan. (Don’t forget how much purchasing power your monthly income has!)
  3. The sticker price is just a starting point. I don’t know a single student who paid the full sticker price to attend our institution when I worked in admission. 
  4. Price transparency may continue over time. A handful of schools have started to reduce their costs using something called a tuition reset. It attempts to offer more transparency in the college cost landscape. Check out an article I wrote about tuition resets for the “Journal of College Admission” and what they mean.
  5. Colleges may be getting more creative in the pandemic’s wake. For example, check out Unity College’s new Distance Education and Hybrid Learning plan, where students can choose to take only one or two courses per term to be full-time and can choose online, in-person or a combination of both. 
  6. Federal financial aid is usually easy to get. 

Bottom line, try to save as much as you can, even if it’s just a little bit.

2. The Fear of Getting it Wrong

It’s hard to start something new. It’s even tougher when you think you might get it all wrong. So what do we sometimes do? That’s right — never even start. 

How do you get over the fear of doing something big in your life?

That’s right — you just take a deep breath and do it. 

For the longest time, I was afraid of planting a garden. I wasn’t sure how to do it, despite the fact that I grew up helping my parents pick green beans. My parents always planted a vegetable garden (they still do!) — full of delicious zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, sweet corn and more. You know, though, when you’re a kid, you don’t really pay attention to allll the details — how to plant the seeds, when to plant them, how to make the rows and more. Plus, I was worried about whether or not I’d have time to keep up with the weeds. 

But one spring, I said, “Enough is enough. We’re going to have a garden!” My husband and I took the plunge, tried it, and we’ve had a garden for two years now. No more excuses!

Did we fail? Yeah — our tomatoes didn’t grow the first year. I think we ended up with only six pea pods. But we got better the next year! Our tomatoes are flourishing right now and we have more than we could ever eat. We’ve had to give oodles away to the neighbors!

Even if you don’t get quite started the way you want on your college savings plan, you can pivot. The point is, get started and go from there. 

Fortunately, many college savings plans (like 529s) you can enter your risk tolerance, child’s age and your investment gets more conservative naturally. In most cases, it’s impossible to mess it up!

3. The Fear of Thinking You’re Behind

Has your best friend been saving for college for 18 years — before her child was even born? And you haven’t been able to save that much all?

Your child is more likely to go to college if you’ve saved just a little bit. Even with savings of less than $500, a child is 25% more likely to enroll in college and 64% more likely to graduate compared to a student with no savings, according to a study from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL).

4. Thinking You Don’t Have Enough on Hand to Save

Worried about not having extra cash to plump up a college savings account? What if, instead of agonizing over this, think of it as the fun part. How creative can you get?

Can you manipulate your budget? 

Sit down and divide your expenses into “needs” and “wants.” “Needs” should only include those necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and school supplies. 

Anything else that isn’t an essential expense should be put into your “want” category. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and nice clothes that aren’t required for a job.

Can you make more money?

What if you made some spare cash every month and vowed to dedicate this to college savings? Do you have a specific talent or skillset? 

What is the best thing that you can charge $10 for? Do that, then do it 10 more times! Can you make crochet hats? Can you sell your PR skills? Make birthday cakes? Babysit? Serve as a sales consultant? Figure out what it is that you can do so well that someone else will pay you money to do it.

My friend Angela makes these gorgeous signs for her company, Touch of Twine Design. They are so beautiful. They’re white with a beautiful script font — and can say anything. Her customers order inspirational quotes, poem snippets, Bible verses — whatever they want. The money she makes goes into a college account for her two boys. 

Another couple I know scavenged pallets on the side of the road, at work at a manufacturing facility and more to make furniture, sold it online and made a lot of money.

The sky’s the limit. What talent can you offer the world?

5. Not Knowing How to Save

It’s a case of too many options, isn’t it? You can invest in regular savings accounts, CDs, 529 plans, UTMA/UGMAs, Roth IRAs, custodial accounts, and on and on.

 Can you invest in stocks for college? Sure! Just like you can invest in regular mutual funds, bonds and more investing options we’ve listed.

Is this your only option? Of course not!

Stocks

A stock is an investment in a specific company. You buy one share of a company’s earnings and assets when you buy a stock. Companies sell shares of stock in their businesses to raise cash. You can sell stocks when they increase in value and this method can also result in high returns. 

Bonds

You lend money to a company or government when you buy a bond. Your bond purchase allows the bond issuer to borrow your money and pay you back with interest.

Bonds offer lower returns but do come with the risk that the bond issuer could default on its payments. (However, bonds are typically very safe investments.) Government bonds are the safest investment because they’re backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government. 

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are bundles of stocks, bonds and other investments. You can purchase a large number of these types of investments in one transaction. You pay a professional manager to invest your money. It’s typically more expensive to buy mutual funds than stocks or bonds because you pay a middleman to manage that money.

Index Funds

An index fund is a type of mutual fund — but there’s a difference. An index fund passively tracks an index. This means you don’t pay a money manager to pick and choose investments for you. For example, all S&P 500 index funds follow the performance of the S&P 500 by holding company stock within that index.

Exchange-Traded Funds

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are also a type of index fund because they also track an index. Like index funds, they are not actively managed and less expensive than mutual funds.

The difference between index funds and ETFs is that ETFs trade on an exchange like a stock — you can buy or sell throughout the trading day as the price fluctuates. Mutual funds and index funds, on the other hand, are priced once at the end of each trading day.

Certificates of Deposit (CDs)

When you buy a certificate of deposit (CD), you give your financial institution money for a specific time period. When that time period is over, you get the amount you originally invested, plus a prespecified amount of interest. The longer the loan period, the higher your interest rate. Note that you’ll have to pay penalties if you take your money out sooner.

How do you invest in any one of these types of investments?

  • Go to an insured financial institution like a bank or credit union for a CD or government bond. 
  • You can go to a financial advisor for a mutual fund. 
  • You can find mutual funds, index funds or ETFs through a discount broker like Robinhood or a large broker like Vanguard.

Just remember, investing in a 529 plan offers more tax benefits for approved educational expenses — but a 529 plan isn’t your only option.

6. Fear of Future College Costs

Ahhhh… This is a tough one. Use a college calculator like the College Board’s College Cost Calculator to determine how much it may cost to send your child to college for four years. I plugged in some numbers and it informed me that in 11 years, it’ll cost me over $311,000 to send my child to college.

I understand the the numbers look scary. However, I still come back to this: 

  1. Merit-based scholarships take care of a chunk of the costs.
  2. A tuition installment plan can help with month-to-month costs.
  3. The sticker price is just a starting point and in no way says that you’ll pay the full price.
  4. You can use creativity to save. (What’s that talent, again?)

Take Advantage of College Savings Month!

If you’re ready to save for college, now’s the time! You have so many options at your fingertips, so take advantage of it.

Don’t forget to get the start-of-school checklist for the college search!

Go for “Fit” Instead of College Selectivity: Here’s Why!

Go for “Fit” Instead of College Selectivity: Here’s Why!

Move over, Yale and Harvard. 

Not everyone needs to (or should) shop for a top-name school. You can still find lots of high-quality colleges and universities among the elites. 

Gems glisten everywhere. Don’t discount the liberal arts college down the street because it may be able to offer a connection that you can’t find anywhere else.

A Stanford study says “fit” is more important than rankings. I really do believe too many students and families rely on college rankings published by well-known organizations to define quality. The higher the ranking doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your child. The study found that the “metrics used in these rankings are weighted arbitrarily and are not accurate indicators of a college’s quality or positive outcomes for students.”

Do I even need to write any more?

Quick Story

I chatted with Laurie Kopp Weingarten, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling, and she told me a great story. 

“Several years ago I had a straight-A student with strong test scores and interesting extracurricular activities who was a bit lacking in self-confidence. She felt strongly that she should attend a college where she would be the ‘big fish in a little pond’ instead of the ‘little fish in a big pond.’ It was very important to her that she choose an institution where she would be at the top and be recognized as a superstar.

She set her sights on a public university with a 70% acceptance rate. She did apply to other colleges, including those that are much more selective, and was actually accepted into every school she applied to. However, she stuck with her plan to attend the public university. 

She SOARED there. She was at the top of her class, where she won all sorts of awards. She is well-known at the school, and they’ve asked her to assume all sorts of leadership roles. She has made mini-promotional films for the school, and now, as a recent alumna, they’ve asked her back to speak multiple times. 

In this case, she didn’t feel up to attending a highly selective university where the competition would be fierce. Instead, she decided to choose a school that isn’t overly competitive and where she would stand out. It paid off with lots of internships and job offers, and it built her confidence.”

Yessss! This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Best Reasons to Look for a Non-Selective or Moderately Selective College

Most people think the only reason your child would want to look for a non-selective college is because you couldn’t hack it due to poor academic achievement. Not so. There are lots of great reasons to opt for a less-selective institution.  

1. Your Child May Be More Likely to Get In

Obviously, the fact that your child can get in is one of the reasons to apply to non-selective colleges. 

How do you find out whether a college is selective or not? Take a look at its admission requirements. Most colleges list their admission requirements, which may look something like this: 

  • Graduate from an accredited high school or equivalent by the time of enrollment.
  • Rank in the upper half of your high school graduating class.
  • Have ACT or SAT-I scores high enough to predict probable success. Note: ACT and SAT test scores may not be required if you’re applying for admission right now. Many colleges do not want to place undue hardships on students who cannot take the ACT or SAT due to closed testing locations.
  • English: Four years, including literature
  • Math: Two or more years, including algebra, advanced algebra and geometry
  • Social studies: Three or more years, including American and European history
  • Sciences: Two or more years of lab science
  • Foreign language: Two or more years

That may be the extent of a college’s requirements! You can also call an admission counselor for more information about specific college selectivity.

2. Your Child Will Still Take Rigorous Classes

Make no mistake — it’s a challenge to get through organic chemistry at just about any college or university. Lower selectivity institutions definitely offer rigorous coursework. 

Just because your child’s valedictorian of her high school class or achieved a 34 ACT doesn’t mean that she won’t feel challenged at a lower selectivity institution. 

  • Some less selective colleges let academically talented students work with faculty on research projects as well. 
  • Students at lower selectivity institutions may also receive more personalized attention from staff. 
  • Some lower selectivity institutions smaller classroom size with hands-on teaching may be more conducive to learning than a large lecture hall format. 
  • You may get to know classmates and faculty closely and form lasting personal or professional relationships. 
  • You child may get more opportunities to work on projects, connect to internships through faculty and gain valuable job experience.

3. Your Family May Experience More Personalization During the Admission Process

Less selective schools must work a little harder for their students. That means you and your child reap the benefits. In other words, highly selective colleges and universities don’t have to work nearly as hard to recruit students — they naturally come to them. That means that less selective institutions must do the hard work of calling, emailing, texting and even engaging students on social media. 

You’re more likely to get one-on-one attention from an admission counselor who must carefully work through an application list. As an admission counselor, it was my job to personalize the admission process as much as possible. I would try to learn: 

  • Students’ goals
  • Other schools on their list
  • Their favorite things (we once sent a box of Wheaties to a student because we knew it was his favorite cereal!)
  • Connections they’d already made with others at the college
  • About their families and friends
  • Anything else I could think of!

We made the college search process a personalized experience — and that might just happen if you’re looking into a less selective institution.

4. The College Application Process is Less Strenuous

Chances are, your child won’t have to worry about a complicated application process if he or she is looking at a less selective institution. Here’s a quick overview.

Regular Admission

Regular admission means your child can apply to as many colleges as possible. An application submission deadline varies between institutions. Regular admission deadlines typically fall in early January and admission offers get sent out in late March or early April. Your student has until May 1 to either accept or decline admission offers. (Your child may not encounter this type of admission, either.)

Rolling Admission

When I was an admission counselor, our college used rolling admission. Rolling admission means a college releases admission decisions regularly instead of sending them all out on one target date. 

An admission committee will only review your child’s application as soon as all required information is in. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly. (Students learned of an admission decision within two weeks at our college!)

Rolling admission decisions are non-binding. This means that your child will not be required to attend that school and will not need to make a decision until May 1, which is National Candidate Reply Day. 

Open Admission 

Open admission means a college accepts any high school graduate (no matter what those grades look like) until all spaces in the incoming class are filled. Two-year community colleges immediately come to mind — most community colleges have a two-year open admission policy. Note that a college with a general open admission policy may have certain admission requirements for specific programs.

Your child probably won’t encounter these types of admission at lower selectivity institutions:

  • Early Action (EA), which means your student has the option to submit an application before the regular deadline. Early action plans are not binding, which means that your child is not required to attend. 
  • Early Decision (ED) means your child can submit an application to his or her first-choice college before the regular deadline and get an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding, which means your child must attend that institution. 
  • Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action means your child is not required to attend if accepted. However, if using this method, your child may not apply to any other school during the early action period only. 

5. Lower Costs 

You’ll typically find lower selectivity institutions in areas that also include lower costs of living (not big urban areas). The savings on rent and tuition might be worth it. 

Your child may be able to get an academic scholarship. Many colleges give half or full-tuition academic scholarships to students who have a very good high school GPA, ACT or SAT scores and class rank. The most selective colleges will not award your child a merit scholarship. 

“We had a student who wanted to study business. Although she was accepted at multiple selective programs, she chose to study at Bentley University (45-50% acceptance rate), where they placed her into the honors program, provided her with a large scholarship, and of course, she received all the perks that came along with the honors program. She loved feeling like she was the top of the class!” says Kopp Weingarten. 

Kopp Weingarten also said, “We also had a student who chose a large public university in the Midwest where she could use her AP credits to get advanced standing, basically entering as a sophomore. She graduated in three years, saved tons of money and was accepted into a top-tier Ph.D. program.”

6. College Selectivity is Not a Reliable Indicator of Learning, Job Satisfaction or Well-Being

The Stanford study found no significant relationship between a school’s selectivity and student learning, future job satisfaction or well-being. Furthermore, the study found only modest financial benefits of attending more selective colleges — and that applied to first-generation and other underserved students. 

Individual student characteristics (background, major, ambition) may make more of a difference in terms of post-college outcomes than the institutions themselves. 

7. Learning Engagement is Most Important 

Students’ learning among a campus community may offer the key to positive outcomes after college, according to the Stanford study. For instance: 

  • Students participate in service learning and thrive when they apply what they learn in the classroom to real life settings.
  • Students are successful when mentors at the college encourage them to pursue personal goals.
  • Those who are successful after college engage in multi-semester projects.

8. Grades May Be Higher

Your child may be more likely to graduate with honors at a less selective institution.

“When students apply to medical school, the two most important aspects of their applications are their GPA and their MCATs,” says Kopp Weingarten. “We had a student who felt it might be difficult to maintain a high GPA at a highly competitive college where everyone was aiming for ‘A’ grades. He chose to attend a college where he felt he could keep his GPA high due to the lower competition at the school. Due to the fact that he was at the top of their admit pile, he received a huge scholarship and only paid about $10,000 a year for a private college. It worked out for him because he graduated with a near-perfect GPA and was accepted into medical school. He then had the money he saved to put toward paying for medical school.”

Great example.

Think Carefully About College Selectivity

The main drawback of graduating from a less selective college is brand recognition. However, there are other things to think about, such as whether your child actually ends up graduating. Plus, if your child plans to go to graduate school, nobody cares where he or she goes for an undergraduate education.

Colleges with higher selectivity are also much more likely to graduate students than those with lower selectivity. However, once your child does graduate, there’s little difference in life outcomes, as the Stanford study suggests.

“Sometimes, the most highly selective schools can open the door for a candidate (job or graduate school). But what really matters is how well the student performs at the school they are at. The school doesn’t make the student successful — it’s up to the student to do that on their own,” says Kopp Weingarten.

Tip: Check the financial solvency of institutions your child is interested in (particularly those small private colleges that were already in trouble before the pandemic). Some have already closed. Attending a lower selectivity public school is less of a risk because if those institutions close, students will still be a part of the state system. 

How to Get In-State Tuition When You Live Out of State

How to Get In-State Tuition When You Live Out of State

Have you ever compared the tuition cost differences between in-state and out-of-state schools?

Did you gasp out loud when you saw out-of-state costs?

Yep, yep. It’s often thousands of dollars more expensive to go to an out-of-state university compared to an in-state university. In fact, the average tuition and fees at a public, in-state school is $10,116 and the average tuition and fees at a public, out-of-state school was $22,577 for the 2019-2020 school year, according to U.S. News and World Report.

It often makes students’ decisions easy. If your child’s comfortable with the idea of going to the flagship university in your state, he might think, “It’s cheaper, it’s close to home. Sign me right up.”

Should you migrate to your in-state university? Well, that depends! Don’t discount your neighboring states — and know a few things before you jump on the local state university bandwagon. Here’s what to know and how to get in-state tuition when you live out of state.

What is In-State Tuition?

There’s a reason you pay less for your own state’s public institutions. One word: Taxes. Your child can attend these public institutions at a lower cost than people who live out of state due to this lowered cost for in-state residents.

States fund public community colleges, university systems and vocational education institutions. This support makes up 14 percent of state spending up to $167 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What is Out-of-State Tuition?

So, what’s out-of-state tuition? Students from other states pay out-of-state tuition.

Here’s a good example of in-state versus out-of-state tuition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:


North Carolina ResidentsOut-of-State Residents
Tuition and Fees$9,018$36,000
Housing and Meals$11,526$11,526
Direct Costs$20,544$47,526
Books and Supplies$972$972
Travel and Personal$2,694$3,472
Loan Fees$56$56
Indirect Costs$3,722$4,500
Total Cost of Attendance$24,266$52,026

There’s a big difference, right? Before you write off ever letting your child cross state lines, keep reading!

How to Get In-State Tuition if You Live Out of State

It’s totally possible to pay in-state tuition if you live out of state — and it might not even be that complicated! Here’s how you can help your child make it happen.

Establish Residency

Establishing residency is one of the most straightforward ways to get in-state tuition. 

Residency requirements vary by state and university. Living in the state for a certain amount of time is one common way to establish residency. 

  • Live in the state: Many states require your child to live in the state for at least one year to be able to establish residency. For example, if you’re looking across the U.S. at colleges in Oklahoma, Washington or Florida, they all require that you’ve lived for 12 consecutive months in that state. Your child can prove residency with an apartment lease, utility bills or vehicle registration form, for example. Note: Right now, some students are currently studying in a different state from where their institution is located due to COVID-19. However, this temporary location change shouldn’t affect residency requirements.
  • Consider whether you should switch to a different parent’s address. Your child may qualify for residency in both states, depending on where the majority of financial support comes from.
  • Your student must prove intent. This simply means your child must prove that he or she would like to live there long-term. A driver’s license is another great way to show that commitment, or a written and notarized documentation from an employer that your child has been employed for a specified period of time.
  • Your child must show proof of financial independence. Check with the school about these requirements. Your child may need to show employer proof as above or show proof that he pays taxes in that state.

Regional Markets and Reciprocity Agreements

Many universities offer regional markets and reciprocity agreements. This means that colleges or universities offer students in different states in-state or reduced tuition. These programs typically get reserved for students who live in the same region. Here are a few examples.

Southern Region 

The Southern Regional Education Board Academic Common Market agreement offers tuition discounts for academic programs for students who live in: 

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

The Regional Contract Program lets students obtain professional health degrees at out-of-state institutions by paying in-state tuition at public institutions or reducing tuition at private institutions.

Midwestern Region 

Midwest Student Exchange is a reciprocity agreement for students who live in:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • Wisconsin 

Western Region 

The Western Undergraduate Exchange offers tuition discounts for students who live in: 

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

Your child can also enroll in graduate programs outside of their home state at resident tuition rates and the Professional Student Exchange Program lets health care majors to enroll in select out-of-state professional programs.

New England 

Students who live in the following states can take advantage of the New England Regional Student Program

  • Connecticut
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont 

Students can pay discounted tuition rates when they enroll in a major not available at public institutions in their home state.

District of Columbia

The D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant offers up to $10,000 per year to bridge the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for students who live in Washington, D.C., to attend public institutions in other states, with a maximum amount of $50,000.

Consider Liberal Arts Colleges

I always smiled when someone asked, “What’s the out-of-state cost at your school?” 

Why? Because I had great news for families. The cost wasn’t any different for out-of-state students because I worked at a liberal arts college

Liberal arts colleges charge the same price no matter where you’re from, and here’s why: Unlike public colleges and universities, private institutions don’t get funding from state governments. Therefore, private colleges and universities charge one tuition rate for all students, whether your child resides in the same state as the institution is located or not. 

For example, if a liberal arts college is in Florida but your child lives in Minnesota, you’ll pay the same price whether you live in Florida or Minnesota.   

Tuition Adjustments and Scholarships for Out-of-State Students

Our college used to offer an out-of-state scholarship for students who attended an out-of-state college in an effort to boost our out-of-state numbers. Offers like that may be achievement-based or merit-based, depending on differing schools’ requirements. Your best bet is to ask questions if your student’s looking into an out-of-state institution. Email or call an admission counselor at that school for more information.

It’s Possible to Get In-State Tuition!

Do your research. Just in case you didn’t read the last paragraph, I’m going to repeat it again: Email or call an admission counselor at each college your student’s considering. it’ll make you feel more prepared to make some decisions about the college search, or it’ll at least give you a start in the right direction!

Here’s How to Understand Room and Board — Quickly!

Here’s How to Understand Room and Board — Quickly!

When you skim through lists of college costs, your eye often lands on room and board. What is room and board, anyway? To make it really simple, It’s the fancy way for colleges to say “sleep and food.” (I’ll break this out a little bit more in a sec.)

Here are a few quick facts from Urban Institute: 

  • Almost 60 percent of full-time students enrolled in private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities live in college housing. 
  • Only 36 percent of public four-year college students live in college housing.
  • One-quarter of full-time undergraduate students live at home with their parents.

I remember that families I worked with were often confused about the divisions between room and board and tuition: “Are scholarships subtracted from the full cost? Just tuition? Where does room and board fall into the mix?”

Let’s find out — and put all of it into a COVID-19 context.

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What is Room and Board?

Let’s distill it into its simplest form! It goes back to those basic needs — a place to plop your head on a pillow somewhere that’s clean and dry and a robust meal three times a day (or more). 

Room

As I said before, “room” is the price paid for a bed in between those cinder block walls! Colleges typically offer space in a residence hall room for your student and one roommate. However, it’s possible to opt for a single or even a triple room.

On-campus living is sometimes mandatory for students. This can be a great thing because it offers a way to contribute to a robust campus community. Required on-campus living is also an ideal way to adapt to campus life. (It means no waking up at 5 a.m. to make it to the bus stop for an 8 a.m. class or trying to find a parking spot near the science building.) Basic furniture, such as a loftable bed, desk, shelves, dresser and closet space are usually provided, though the exact furniture your child will have at his or her disposal depends on the college or university and what it offers. (In my opinion, there’s nothing more fun than living in a residence hall during your first year, learning how to study till 3 a.m., playing games in the lounge and more.)

Board

“Board” is the amount paid for food at the college of your child’s choice. It usually refers to food and beverages your child can get at on-campus cafeterias. Many schools offer several types of meal plans, which means that while your child won’t have a whole lot of choice over what’s served at school on a daily basis, access to food is definitely ongoing. Fortunately, a lot of cafeterias are buffet style, so that means lots of options at every meal. Dining halls are often super respectful of various dietary needs as well. 

College dining halls often do fun things for students, too, such as themed meals and pre-holiday dinners. My alma mater has a tradition called the Breakfast of Champions, in which staff members (including faculty members!) serve students hearty breakfast food at 10 p.m. the night before finals begin. It’s such a great tradition and the whole school shows up.

Many colleges plan to make room and board accommodations for students this year, including required masks, social distancing requirements and more. Check with the admission office at various schools to understand its room and board COVID-19 plan. In the meantime, let’s review how much room and board costs.

How Much Does Room and Board Cost?

Most colleges and universities break down the cost on their website so it looks something like this: 

College or University X
Tuition and Fees$22,478
Room and Board$10,010
Books$1,200
TOTAL$33,688

Room and board costs are different at every school. I’m going to show you some averages from the College Board, but remember, that doesn’t mean that a private nonprofit four-year college will always be more expensive than an out-of-state institution.  

The College Board averages for public two-year institutions in 2019-2020 were:

  • $8,990 for public two-year colleges in-district
  • $11,510 for public four-year colleges in-state
  • $11,510 for public four-year colleges out of state
  • $12,990 for private nonprofit four-year colleges 
What is room and board? Check out the College Board's quick overview.

Again, it’s all a matter of doing some research — and keeping track. (Honestly, isn’t that the hardest part — keeping track of all the information you research?) Here’s a visit spreadsheet I created that you can save, rename and keep for yourself to input all the information. 

Room and board can seem a lot more expensive than living off campus — or is it? Let’s explore that further in the next section.

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Is it Cheaper to Live Off Campus?

In most states, average on-campus housing prices are less than the average rent paid by 18-to-24-year-olds, according to the Urban Institute.

Location also matters. Naturally, urban areas are more expensive to rent in than rural areas. In addition, it may be more expensive to live near a college campus instead of a neighborhood off the beaten path. Here are some common apartment rental fees your child is likely to pay, in addition to utilities like electricity, water, garbage, sewer, internet, cable and more:  

  • Application fee
  • Security deposit
  • Pet fee
  • Administrative fees

If your child rents with several roommates, living off-campus may be more affordable, especially if your child splits these expenses with roommates. Buying food at the grocery store (while a big time drain) can also be a lot cheaper than paying for board, especially if you have a low-maintenance eater. 

The only way to figure it all out is to round up some numbers. Call a few known apartment buildings in the area and find out how much it costs to rent them. Find out what utilities cost flush out a number that makes sense.

How to Make Room and Board More Affordable

There are most definitely ways to make room and board more affordable — including not messing with room and board at all! Here are some ways to shrink (or eliminate) the costs: 

  • Learn about all your meal plan options. Your child may be able to get away with smaller meal plan (like a 14-meal-a-week plan instead of a 20-meal-a-week plan) — especially if a buffet-style breakfast isn’t really your student’s thing. A packet of instant oatmeal every morning may suffice. 
  • Check into more affordable housing options on campus. Many colleges charge exactly the same amount for all residence halls, but others may charge more for apartment-style living or the newest, spiffiest dorm on campus. Ask about comparable costs.
  • Choose to have roommates. A single room is usually more expensive than a two- or three-person residence hall room. Is someone from your child’s high school planning to attend that same college? Check with the admission office to find out how to request roommates and to find out how much you’ll save by choosing a double or triple occupancy room.
  • Live at home. During COVID-19, your child may not be interested in living in a residence hall room at all. If your home is close to campus, it may be a natural fit for your child to think about living at home and reducing exposure to the virus.
  • Live off campus. Living off campus with roommates can be one way to limit exposure to COVID-19, particularly if some classes are online. Living with just two roommates is a lot different than sharing a bathroom with a whole floor of germy college students. 

How to Pay for Room and Board

Here are a few ways you can pay for room and board: out of pocket or through scholarships, grants and student loans.

Cash

Paying for room and board in full is always an acceptable option. Note that you won’t pay a separate amount for just room and board. You’ll pay for all out-of-pocket costs when you get your bill. Learn more about paying for college with a tuition installment plan.  

Scholarships and Outside Scholarships

Many outside scholarships — scholarships that aren’t from the institution — cover all qualified expenses, including room and board. On the other hand, some scholarships only cover tuition and fees, books, and course- or degree-related costs (like supplies required for specific classes). They may not cover room and board. Most of the time, however, outside scholarship use is generally left up to how your child wants to use it — unless the scholarship committee works with the college directly.

Something to note: Any scholarship your student uses to pay for tuition, fees and course materials, including required textbooks, supplies and equipment, are tax-free. On the other hand, whatever your child spends on living expenses, such as room and board, is taxable.

Grants

Your child’s college can apply grant money toward tuition, fees, and (if you live on campus) room and board. Any money left over is given back to your child to pay for other expenses.

Student Loans

Student loans can also cover the costs of room and board. Look into student loans carefully and make sure your child understands which options are best. Here’s a quick rundown.

Federal Student Loans

The U.S. Department of Education loans these federal loans to college-bound students:

  • Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans
  • Direct PLUS loans: This includes Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students.

Federal student loans are more flexible than private student loans for several reasons:

  • No credit checks involved, with the exception of the Direct PLUS loan, which does require a credit check.
  • Income-driven repayment plans are an option, which means repayment is based on how much your student makes once he or she graduates from college. 
  • Repayment plans can change as needed.
  • Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.

Private Student Loans

A local bank, credit union or national bank are three primary options.

These loans can fill in the need gap after your student has exhausted these options, in order: Scholarships, grants, parent/student savings and federal student loans. Here are some fast facts about private student loans:

  • You’ll hear about two types of interest rates: fixed and variable interest rates. Fixed interest rates are just like they sound — they don’t change, so your monthly payments stay the same. Variable interest rates go up and down. 
  • You or your student can make interest-only or fixed payments while you’re in school. 
  • Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you, the parent, or another relative. Students can qualify for a private loan without a co-signer, though that’s difficult to achieve. No matter who applies for the loan, you will need a good credit score and will need to show proof of income.

Ultimately, it’s important to break down all the costs and figure out which room and board coverage options work best for your family. 

Coronavirus Impact on Room and Board for College

COVID-19 had a major impact on room and board this past spring. As soon as colleges announced they’d move to online learning, students began asking about cash refunds prorated to the day administrators directed students to move out of residence halls.

If the same thing happens again, online learning could require college and universities to return room and board fees again. It remains to be seen what will happen at this time.

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