Friday, February 1, 2013

Should you be filing a FAFSA?

It’s the new year and for parents of high school seniors and college-aged kids, it signifies the arrival of this year’s FAFSA. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is the tool that helps determine a family’s eligibility for federal grants, loans and work study as mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Essentially, the completion of the FAFSA allows the government to use your tax returns to determine what your Expected Family Contribution to your child’s education should be and what type of aid you may qualify for. So how does this process work? First, using your 2012 tax return, complete the FAFSA application on line. This should take about 15-30 minutes. Once you submit it, you will immediately receive your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is the amount of money, based on your reported income and finances, that you are EXPECTED to contribute to your child’s education. The EFC does take into account multiple kids in college, although they must each fill out a FAFSA. Your household income determines the EFC, but for multiple kids, that number will be divided amongst each kid and their individual FAFSA will reflect a lower number than a family with the same income and variables with only one student in college. In determining your out of pocket expense for college, the concept of an EFC is fairly simple to understand once you realize what it really means. Assume the FAFSA declares that your EFC is 15k. This means that you are expected to come up with the first $15k of your child’s college expenses. In NC, that means you are footing the entire tuition bill, however, depending on which UNC you are attending, you may have additional expenses up to 22k to cover. Completing the FAFSA lets the college know that you are looking for help covering that last 7k. How the college chooses to handle this is up to them. However, for state institutions, you can generally expect to be offered some type of loan to cover that additional cost. So how does this work for private colleges? Assume your child applied to a school like Davidson or Duke, both of whom claim to meet 100% of financial need. With estimated sticker prices above 50K, the EFC, in this case 15k, is deducted from the 50k, leaving a balance of 35k. Assuming the schools follow through with their claims, your child would then have the remaining balance covered by some combination of grants, loans or work study. In NC, UNC Chapel Hill is the only state school that guarantees 100% of your need be met. Depending on your circumstance, and their coffers, you can be offered anything including loans, grants and work study. With the rising cost a both public and private college education, it is advisable for families whose income are under 250k to complete the FAFSA. It’s important to note that even if you don’t expect to qualify for money, the FAFSA is also required to obtain Stafford Loans - low interest loans backed by the Department of Education. While the financial aid process can often appear overwhelming, the notion of EFC is fairly clear and will give you a good idea of what you can expect in aid. So before you declare that you child must attend a community college or particular in-state college, take the time to explore your options. You may find the price of a private college to be as attainable as the state schools.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In defense of counselors and independents

An article appeared to today in the NY Times regarding high school counselors. This is my response:

An experienced public school teacher and administrator, I am saddened to see yet another member of the system being flogged in front of the public. Having supervised many a guidance counselor, I understand first hand that their job, just like the rest of us in public education, is often an impossible job.

While there are those guidance counselors that are fortunate enough to work in very small high schools with low student ratios, the vast majority are not so lucky. Most counselors would love to spend their day guiding and advising students regarding the opportunities that await them in higher education. Unfortunately, mandates from NCLB and other initiatives dictate that their day is spent on anything but advising students. Instead, they are forced to attend truancy meetings, attendance committees, drop-out prevention meetings, oversee testing and scheduling, and obtain training in everything from suicide, child abuse and pregnancy prevention. The list goes on and on.

The ugly truth, however, is yes, most counselors don't have time for college advising -but they are by no means useless. Simple math will tell you that it is impossible for most of them to spend an adequate amount of time with individual students helping them discover their talents and goals, much less choosing a college that fits them and preparing an application that showcases their strengths. There's just not enough time in their day to provide everything that is demanded of them. Furthermore, most counselors never get the chance to visit a college campus; certainly not a campus beyond their state. For those that are able to tour campuses, many of them have to use their personal time or funds.

It is true that many students have begun to seek assistance from independent college consultants; but not because their counselor was useless. Most counselors are incredibly caring and work inordinate amounts of hours above and beyond the school day. They are often the person that child in need is relying on to see them through another day. But they just can't be all things to all people, and unfortunately our nations push to insure that all students perform at the same level, regardless of ability, has made their focus on everything but the college admissions process.

Many independent college consultants were indeed those "useless" high school counselors. Many are former educators. What these consultants have in common is their understanding that the high school counselor is often inundated with dozens of other "priority" issues. They do not have the luxury of spending their entire day focused solely on the college admissions process. They don't have the opportunity to spend a third of their year traveling to see new campuses across the country and familiarizing themselves with each schools admissions process. They don't get to spend 10 to 20 hours per year, and sometimes more, getting to know an individual student, as well as their parent. They certainly don't have the time to sit down with an individual student and do interest inventories, major explorations, and college searches, much less oversee the application and essay process.

Unfortunately, today's admissions process requires that students be guided through the process of seeking a college that fits them. The exorbitant cost of higher education makes it imperative that students choose their school carefully. Understanding their academic strengths and interests needs to be cultivated at the high school level, before they spend money on college tuition. All of this takes time- individual time that the high school day and the counselor’s caseload doesn't allow.

Just as counselors are branded as useless, independent are seen as money-grubbing. The truth of the matter is that their services are bridging that gap between counselors and students. Most independents devote a portion of their practice to pro-bono work. Lists of those counselors are easily accessible and can be found on the Higher Education Consultants Association website (http://hecaonline.org) or Kaarme.com.

There have been flaws in the system for years. And for years we've come up with ways to remedy it. It’s time we stopped publicly flogging every member of the public school system. Just as test prep companies and tutors have stepped in to assist teachers that don’t have enough time in their day, independent college consultants have stepped in to assist counselors. Not every child needs a tutor, test prep, or a college consultant, but it's nice to know they are there if you need them.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wealthy students will have a better acceptance rate in 2010

In response to the US News article on January 15, 2010, it is sad, but true, that students who can afford to pay for college will have better acceptance rates in 2010. While colleges are a non-profit, they are still a business and have bills to pay. While it is unfortunate for students who have financial need, it makes sense to seek out qualified candidates that can pay, especially when there is a huge candidate pool of qualified wealthy students.

In response to a previous comment regarding how a college could know...Unfortunately, college applications are full of questions that reveal things about a student that parents don't even realize. The biggest indicator is the glaring question of "will you be applying for financial aid". This tells a lot about an applicant. Also, every school submits their profile when they submit a student's transcript. This too allows admissions officers to see where a student is from. Attending a wealthy school, regardless of your personal net worth, is also an indicator of ability to pay. Schools also ask for parent degree level and job title, yet another clue. Finally, a student's extra-curricular activities also indicates parent's monetary potential. A student who is involved in expensive or private activities reveals information to the admissions committee.

Understandably there will always be exceptions to one's perceived wealth, but these are just a few of the common indicators that enable school's to project who can pay, who would be willing to take out a loan, and who can't. There was a time when only the wealthy could afford the best colleges. Over the past decade, those who were financially needy have enjoyed seeing the tables turned and were actually sought after by colleges wanting to show their "diversity" and willingness to show a "blind" eye to need. It seems the tables turned again.

In education, things always come full-circle. Hopefully our economy will recover and school's will once again be able to give generous aid to those deserving students. In the meantime, students should continue to apply to the schools they feel would be a fit for them academically and socially, and know that if they only apply to schools they truly want to attend, they will be happy and successful regardless of whether they got a full ride to an expensive university or chose to stay at the affordable school in their home state.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Step 2 of the College Search

As discussed earlier, the process of beginning the college search entails more than looking in your backyard and picking a school based on your favorite team. In Part 1, the search process began with looking at the size of the school. Having determined the size of school that will meet your needs, it's then time to look at the next factor.

Step 2: Setting

Just as looking at size entails a great deal of thought, the category of setting is also important. Like many students across the nation, those of us in the Triangle, and all of North Carolina, are fortunate to have a plethora of excellent schools to search from. However, determining which school to look at requires consideration into its setting.

With thousands of schools to choose from across the nation, the choice of setting can range from remote to urban. The setting of the school does NOT indicate the size or caliber of a school. Dartmouth is located in a remote area of New Hampshire; the commute from the closest airport is an hour and a half. On the opposite spectrum, U Penn is located smack in the middle of the city of Philadelphia. While both Ivy League schools, their settings are on the opposite spectrum.

When thinking about the setting, give careful thought to a few questions. Will you need a car to get around once you are at school? Are you comfortable living in the city, or do you prefer a small rural area? Are your finances such that you can afford to fly back and forth to school, and once you do fly in, will you be able to get to campus? Do you want to be surrounded by a city where there is nightlife or part-time job opportunities, as well as internship opportunities, or are you looking for a setting that is free from distractions and focuses solely on the college experience?

Other considerations regarding setting refer to the campus life itself. Are you interested in a school that has constant activities every day, such as sports, arts, debates, etc? Or do you prefer a campus that is quieter, where the weekends are spent studying and enjoying the campus surroundings, or even entails going home? Think about how you currently like to spend your time outside of class and on the weekend and look for a school that will provide you that type of setting.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Step 1 of the College Search

Now that the holidays are over and students are in their second semester of classes, it's time for high school juniors to really focus on the college search. But before you start getting out the maps and making reservations though, it's important to make sure that your college search contains a list of schools that are truly a fit.

Living in an area that is home to some of the nation's best universities, it can be difficult to look beyond your back door, especially when those schools happen to be amongst the best values in college educations nationwide. However, it is crucial to a student's academic success to do your homework and really look at what you want in a college education, before you jump straight to choosing a college based on its perceived ranking.

Step 1: Size
In determining what size school you want to attend, it's important to understand the difference between a college and university. A college typically focuses on undergraduate education, awarding only a bachelors or a four-year degree. A university, however, serves both undergraduates and awards graduate and professional degrees. A college tends to be smaller in population, such as Davidson College, while universities vary in size from small, such as Wake Forest and Duke, to very large, such as NC State.

Size, though, is not just about student population and acreage. Your physical environment plays a key role in your academic success. Think about what environment would be the most conducive to your learning. If you attended a small school with a graduating class of 30, will you be happy in a school of 30,000? Do you learn well in lecture classes, or do you prefer an intimate setting? Are you able to learn in a course where you may only be known by a number, or do you need that one-on-one connection with your professor? Do you want to be taught only by professors, or are you comfortable in a class that may be taught by a Teaching Assistant?

Size is also a key component to your social life. Are you comfortable in large masses of people you don't know, or do you need that daily connection with familiar faces? Are you looking for a school that offers an innumerable amount of activities or do you prefer being part of a close knit group and having less options, but knowing everyone that is in the group? Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond and get to know everyone at school, or are you looking for an adventure and want to blend in with the crowd and meet thousands of new people?

These are critical questions to ask when determining the size of the schools you are putting on your list. Too many students wind up transferring out of their first choice school because they didn't take the time to look at what their life would be like. So, make sure you ask yourself the following questions: is it too big, too small, or just right!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Duke University to get a head start on participating in the Federal Direct Student Loan Program

Duke University recently announced that they will begin participating in the Federal Direct Student Loan Program next fall. One of the few private universities that practices a need-blind admissions policy, Duke has a history of continually striving to increase financial aid to its students.

The Federal Direct Student Loan Program is funded by the US Department of Education. It provides loans for education after high school, including the well-known Stafford and PLUS loans. Currently, Duke participates in the FFEL (Federal Family Education Loan) program. Student Aid on the Web makes the following distinction between the two programs:

"Under the Direct Loan Program, the funds for your loan come directly from the federal government. Funds for your FFEL will come from a bank, credit union, or other lender that participates in the program. Eligibility rules and loan amounts are identical under both programs, but repayment plans differ somewhat."

Duke's motivation in switching programs stems from their commitment to satisfying 100% of student need. They anticipate the FDSL program reducing the time families spend on shopping around for private lenders, as well as reducing the paperwork at the office of financial aid. The FDSL program also guarantees that loans will never be sold and offers flexible repayment plans after graduation.

The Federal Direct Student Loan Program has been endorsed by President Obama. Under his new budget, all new loan originations will be under the Direct Loan program by July of 2010. This change is part of Obama's attempt to reform the student loan program and eliminate the subsidys that are paid to the private lenders under the FFEL program.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday break is a great time to finish college applications

Most schools in the Triangle are officially out for a two week holiday break. For most students, that means it's time to have fun and not study. For many high school seniors, however, it's the perfect time to finish those college applications.

While most college deadlines for early decision and early admissions have passed, the majority of students will be aiming for those regular college admissions dates. Those dates commonly occur from January 1st until as late as the middle of March. In addition, some schools may still have time to submit applications in order to be considered for Merit Aid. Early January is usually the latest schools allow for those submissions, so check with your counselor or the admissions department at the school you are applying to.

Students applying to school in North Carolina can log into CFNC.org to locate the dates for the specific schools they are interested in. Click on the Search CFNC & Campus Sites button and choose the school you are interested. Next, type in the keyword admissions and go to the schools sites. You should be able to find all the information you are looking for.

Here is a list of the deadlines for some of the more popular choices in the local area:
• Wake Forest - January 1
• Duke - January 2
• UNC Chapel Hill - January 15
• NC State - February 1
• Meredith College - February 15
• UNC Greensboro - March 1
• ECU - March 15

You can also view this article on my Examiner.com page.