Junior year is when the rush of excitement and pressure to commence the college search begins. Late nights spent on College Confidential, college tours and a barrage of unsolicited college advice from elders — while all stressful and hectic — reiterate the possibility of getting into your dream or reach school and taking your life into your own hands. You hear about FAFSA and CSS profiles, and how college is “so expensive,” but the general advice is to focus on getting into college first, then to worry about finances. I still believe this to be true, but I think the conversation of preparing hopeful upperclassmen high schoolers of the possibility of getting into their reach school, but being unable to afford it needs to be discussed further.
Imagine this: You have toured many colleges and found what you think is your perfect fit college. You love the campus, location, academic and social environment. They have a program that is an exact combination of your interests and academic goals. You’ve messaged current students and alumni and they all boast of the supportive classmates and world renowned professors. Depending on the acceptance rate, you may be confident that you will get in, or you may know that you have a slim chance at acceptance.
Fast forward a few months, past the all consuming college applications. Today is the day you find out if you’ll be accepted to your dream school. You open your email and hit the refresh button obsessively until you see an email alerting you of a status update. You log into the application portal and click “View Status.” Digital confetti falls down your screen! Congratulations! You’ve been accepted! Your heart races and you quickly inform your friends and family. You did it.
In the next week a large envelope filled with brochures and pamphlets covered with smiling students chasing their dreams will be delivered to your house. Likely, a financial aid summary will be included. You open it, not thinking too deeply about money because you got into your dream school. Inside the envelope you find out that you did not receive enough money to attend. How could this be? You spent your whole high school career working to ensure that you would get accepted to a college that you are proud to attend. You did that, but now you have to decide what price to put on the education that you so desire. Is it worth it to be anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 in debt for an undergraduate education? Will you be able to get over it and accept a great financial aid offer from a school you’re not necessarily excited about?
This is a decision that many high school seniors have to face, and a dilemma they were probably ill prepared for. Going into the college application process, I understood the importance of cost as a factor, but once I got into one of my reach schools and received a less than ideal financial aid package, it became clear that I was not easily willing to give up on the chance to attend my school of choice. Luckily, I was able to sort out finances to make the cost of attending possible (with very minimal debt), but this does not always happen. So to current juniors: I know this is not a fun topic, but prepare yourself to have to put a price on your dream education. Find out all the resources available to you and discuss a cost cutoff before the big envelope arrives.
Now, I have a few tips.
File FAFSA as soon as you can. I am not sure how much this actually matters, but according to them, some scholarships are on a first come first serve basis, and why risk it?
Start the scholarship process early. Most seniors can agree that it seems that getting money to go to college is harder than getting into college. Scholarships are competitive. Apply to as many as you can.
Research colleges’ endowments; this may reveal how much money they have to offer. I have frequently heard low-income students state that they will attend the University of Oregon or Oregon State University because it is all that they can afford. While these are great schools that come at a very reasonable cost for in-state students, it is important to know that you can get money to out-of-state colleges. For example, Ivy League schools give exceptional financial aid because they have extremely large endowments. Most follow the general 10 percent rule, where you pay 10 percent of your income towards your education, and if your household makes less than $65,000, you can likely attend at zero cost. Obviously these schools are insanely difficult to get into, but if it is something you are interested in, it is worth applying (especially if you apply for application fee waivers). Other schools besides Ivy Leagues have also maximized their scholarship offers to allow students with high need or high merit to attend.
Know the difference between merit-based and need-based scholarships. Many mid to high acceptance rate schools give out generous merit awards, but not great need-based ones, as they feel they meet most of the need through their merit offer. Merit scholarships are generally guaranteed for all four years of college, contingent on maintaining a certain GPA. Need-based scholarships can change every year (usually if you have a situation change), making the cost of your education uncertain. You may be awarded one, both or none depending on your application, financial situation, the school’s endowment and selectivity.
Lastly, know that you can appeal your financial aid offer. Almost all schools allow you to appeal your financial aid offer, asking for more money so that you can attend. While FAFSA churns out an “Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)”, this is merely a suggestion for colleges, which generally calculate a higher number that your family is expected to pay. By appealing, you are stating that in order to attend, you need a greater financial aid package. The best success stories are in the case of circumstance change since filing FAFSA (loss of employment, family death, etc.), but there are cases when no circumstance change has occurred and students are still awarded more money. If you have tried all other options and you are not ready to back down on your top choice school due to finances, try appealing.
For many seniors, this newfound knowledge that can only come from the college admission process has come to late, but there is still time for juniors and even underclassmen to absorb this information and utilize it to their best ability.