#CollegeAnswered Q&A – October 21, 2015

Check out our first #CollegeAnswered Q&A session!

Source: Flickr user concordnc.

In the first installment of our #CollegeAnswered Q&A series, I’ll be answering questions on a range of topics related to financial aid, college costs, and identifying college options.

All of these questions were submitted by students and parents either via CollegeRaptor.com, Facebook, Twitter, or email.

If you have a question you’d like me to answer, you can submit yours here.

Question 1 – Colleges that meet full financial need

Some colleges say that they will meet all financial need, meaning, I believe, that the parents will not have to take out a 2nd mortgage or a bunch of parent PLUS loans to cover their kids’ college costs.

I once saw a list of these colleges; there were about 60-65 of them. One was Northwestern University. NU is my alma mater and I can attest that they WILL meet the unmet need with grants for anyone who qualifies to be admitted. What are the other school that claim to do this, and do they really?

– Janet (via CR.com)

Answer 1

Happily, there is a robust list of schools that pledge to meet 100% of a student’s need. I simply googled “colleges that meet full need” and I got back numerous hits. There is, however, more that you need to know when evaluating this pledge:  

  1. A college that meets full need doesn’t necessarily do so just with gift aid (grants and scholarships). While the schools with the largest endowments (e.g., Ivies and some others that are very highly selective) will often meet the full need without loans, many colleges (including those with large endowments) will still give you “self-help aid” in the form of work-study. Other schools that meet the full need will include some loans in order to do so. Either way, having your full need met is great, but remember that many schools will include loans.
  1. When a school says they will meet full need, you need to understand how they define “need”.  There are 2 ways in which a school can determine need. The first is by using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But, most schools that pledge to meet full need, because they are giving away so much of their own institutional grant funds, will ask you for information that goes beyond what is asked on the FAFSA.  These schools will ask you to complete either the CSS Profile or an institutional aid application.  These forms will ask for more detailed financial info than is on the FAFSA. Your “need” as calculated by these forms is often (though not always) lower than that calculated by the FAFSA.
  1. It is sometimes the case that families cannot afford the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) as calculated by either the FAFSA or the CSS Profile. In these cases, loans (such as the Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) Loan) can be helpful in meeting the EFC.

Question 2 – Attending an out-of-state college

Aside from attending a unique or prestigious program not offered in your home state, what is the incentive for an average or slightly-above-average student to attend an out-of-state college? I don’t see the point in paying the higher tuition rates.

– Jay (via Facebook)

Answer 2

There is a lot of merit in attending an in-state institution. The quality is often quite good and the sticker price, if not right, can be better than many alternatives.

The key here, however, is in knowing what you would actually have to pay (your net price, versus the published “sticker” price). If your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $6,000, for example, and a school meets your full need, or close to it, you could potentially pay less at the “more expensive” private or out-of-state public than you would at an in-state school (I’m assuming you’re paying room and board in this scenario).

Before you write off out-of-state schools, use College Raptor’s net price calculator to determine what you would be expected to pay at different colleges.

If you know your EFC will be significant, then you may be right that you’re better off at an in-state institution, financially speaking. It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if your EFC is low, state schools in other states aren’t generally a significant source of their own institutional grant funds, and thus, they may not be able to meet your need. But, it really just depends on your specific circumstance. Using College Raptor’s net price calculator tool will give you an excellent idea of what your financial aid packages would look like at a variety of institutions.

Question 3 – Scholarships for transfer students

My son is a freshman in college and he is thinking about switching schools. He was awarded a few merit scholarships and private scholarship. Since he does not have any official grades, if he switches schools, what would you recommend the best path to get new merit scholarships and possibly a few private scholarships?

– Marcos (via CR.com)

Answer 3

Thank you for your question.  There are 3 places I would look for scholarships:

  1. Check scholarship search databases like Fastweb, scholarships.com, CollegeBoard.com, and others. Unless the scholarship specifies that it is for first-time freshmen, he may still find some for which he is eligible.
  2. The high school/local “phone book” – there are likely companies, religious organizations and other non-profits that may offer scholarships to local students. Again, you’ll have to check to see if the scholarships are awarded only to first-time freshmen, but if it doesn’t specify that, these may still be an option.
  3. In your case, you may find that the college he will attend or would like to attend is the best repository for scholarship and grant funding. Many colleges offer scholarships and grants for incoming students, even if they are transfer students.

Full disclosure, however, it does tend to be easier to get scholarship money as a first-time freshman than as a transfer student, particularly one with no academic track record (grades) at college. That being said, this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.

Another word of advice:

I have met many students over my 20+ years in this field who take AT LEAST one full semester to adjust to college.

Sometimes it’s well into their second semester before they begin to feel at home at their college. While I don’t know his reasons for wanting to transfer, I would suggest that he keep this option open. But, also continue to put his best foot forward at the campus he’s currently attending. It may be too early to make a determination. TV and the media tend to give us this romantic notion of life at college. However, for many, this is simply not the case. I would encourage him to keep ALL options open.

Question 4 – Financial aid for families where a parent loses their job

My parent who makes 2x as much as the other will [lose] their job at the end of the year.

If they have not found another or get one with a lower salary, how do we submit for financial aid? Does the new salary count or the old one?

– Senior, Class of 2016 (via CR.com)

Answer 4

Great question and one I’m so glad you asked.  When you file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you must give them ONLY what they ask for even though it may not accurately reflect your family’s financial situation. So, you’ll have to use your parent’s old salary (from the prior year).

Then, however, you can express the real situation in writing to all of the schools to which you are applying.

This MUST be done in writing (federal regulations necessitate it) and it should be done via a detailed letter indicating the exact situation.

So, for example, you will want to let them know:

  • Which parent was affected
  • The date of the change in employment status
  • How much they earned in 2015 through the date of termination/layoff
  • How much they expect to earn in 2016. This is a difficult question because they may not yet have anything else lined up. Answer the question the best you can as of the date you complete the form. If all you know of at that time is that your parent will receive Unemployment Compensation, then indicate the amount of that for as many weeks as you know they will get it.  Do you know the pay for the new job? It indicates what you expect your parent to earn pro-rated for the number of weeks they’ll work at that job in 2016
  • If your parent receives a severance package, you will want to detail that as well

You will want any letter of explanation/special circumstances to be detailed with dates and dollar amounts. Send it to every financial aid office to the colleges where you are applying.  

You want to request that they make a “professional judgment change” based on your family’s unique circumstances that are not accurately portrayed on the FAFSA (or CSS Profile).

NOTE: You should plan to make follow up phone calls to each of the colleges in question. Financial Aid offices are very busy places, and you want to, very politely, make sure your situation gets the attention it deserves.

Question 5 – Applying Early Decision/Early Action when money matters

If one applies Early Decision, is it possible to then back out if the financial package from the institution is weak?

– Lisa (via CR.com)

Answer 5

This is a question that has generated significant discussion over the years.

As luck would have it, I finished writing an article on this very subject just before you asked your question. The short answer to your questions is, “probably”, but I have written a more complete answer here.

Have a question you’d like me to answer? Submit your question for our #CollegeAnswered Q&A.

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