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How to Find Your Best Financial Fit College

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When it comes to choosing where to go to college, a lot of factors come into play. For most, none is more influential than affordability.

From determining EFC to financial aid eligibility to how much a student can realistically pay back after college, the process can feel overwhelming.

In order to lend some clarity to students and their parents in the midst of college applications and admissions, I recently chatted with Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit. Edmit was founded to create greater price and value transparency in higher education, reducing debt and improving outcomes for students and their families.

Sabrina was excited to join me for my #CollegeCash Twitter chat to share her advice for finding your best financial fit college.

Check out what she has to say below…

There are a lot of financial aid options out there – can you explain the difference between them all?

First is “need-based aid,” which is awarded to students based on financial need and their inability to afford the sticker price.

Second is “merit-based aid”. This type of aid is awarded on the basis of other characteristics, and are designed to incentivize you to choose the school.

The most common reason you’d get merit aid is if your grades, test scores, or extracurriculars are above the college’s standard. But there are many factors – sometimes it’s more like a standard discount.

Both types of aid come in a variety of packages and can be called different things. Look for the language used: “grants,” “aid,” and “scholarships” do not need to be paid back. They are free money.

Loans are sometimes listed in financial aid award letters. They may be provided by the federal government or by a bank. But no matter the type of loan, they must be paid back in full, with some amount of interest.

What is the first step to determining which colleges are affordable?

Affordability means something different to every student and family considering college. The best, first measure of affordability is knowing your family’s expected family contribution, or EFC, which is the amount you will pay out of pocket, after grants and loans.

The EFC that colleges use to judge your financial need is based on the FAFSA or CSS Profile. But you may have a different number in mind for what you can contribute.

Second, consider your future post-graduate income, based on what you want to study, the field of work you want to pursue and the place you want to live. Also think about how much debt you’re willing to shoulder.

Finally, consider your living needs such as whether you live on or off campus, transportation, job options, and even the potential for study-abroad or other activities. Build a comprehensive budget that will give you a realistic idea of what you can afford.

When it comes to affordability, is there something to be said for private versus public schools?

Both the sticker price and the average net price of public colleges are cheaper than private – meaning that, even considering financial aid, public college students frequently pay less. That can even be true for out-of-state public colleges.

BUT, top private universities often have more to spend in financial aid than public colleges. So, if you have high financial need, or are an exceptional applicant, you may be able to find a more affordable option at private schools.

Edmit can provide you with personal estimates and data on what other students like you have paid at the institutions you’re considering.

It’s a known fact that higher test scores can positively impact financial aid awards. But do schools give preference to the ACT versus the SAT?

It’s a common myth that elite schools look more favorably on the SAT versus the ACT. In reality, all colleges and universities that require standardized testing accept both the SAT and ACT.

Regardless of which standardized test a student takes, exceptional scores can qualify students for greater financial aid awards or targeted scholarships.

A recent analysis from Edmit and The Princeton Review did find that sometimes the requirements for merit scholarships at public institutions can preference the SAT.

Once students and parents know their budget, what data should they be looking at to determine a college’s true price?

There are many great tools to determine a college’s true price. College websites are required to host calculators for the net price, or the cost a student will pay out-of-pocket after financial aid is deducted.

But, net price calculators are based on a formula and don’t share what students like them actually paid. Often they don’t include merit aid. Edmit shows students what aid students like them received at an institution, as well as common non-tuition expenses.

Having a clear picture of the true cost and the likely financial aid award will help a student assess the real value and fit of the institution.

Why should students and parents consider working with a financial aid counselor?

If a family is available to afford this extra support, they can be a valuable resource to help a student advocate for a financial aid package that meets their needs. It’s a complicated process!

However, for families who are unable to afford private financial aid counselors, sites like ours can assist students (and counselors!) by providing more information on financial aid awards (and services to help appeal for more aid from the college of their choice).  

How can financial aid counselors help students determine the return on investment (ROI) of their college decision?

Determining whether your college degree will be worth the investment is an important question. Students should consider the net price, or the difference between the tuition, fees, room and board minus any aid they will receive.

Second, in order to understand your ROI, consider the debt you will incur to obtain your degree. Loans, which have to be paid back, accrue interest over the payment term.

Third, consider how long it will take you to graduate. It is important to research the institution’s graduation rate, which can be found by visiting the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool.

Finally, understand your earning potential in the field you are choosing to study. Research majors by their salary-earning potential and look at average earnings by college. The resulting figures should give you a sense of the ROI of that degree, and major.

What do parents and students need to know about deciphering their financial aid awards letter?

Students typically receive a financial aid award letter from the colleges to which they are accepted by mid-April each year. The award letter will let you know how much financial aid the federal government and/or the institution is offering.

Financial aid award letters can be confusing because they are not standardized. Letters may read differently from a variety of institutions.

When looking at the letter, for every line item, ask yourself, “Is this free money?” Loans and work study are not free – they cost you your time or interest. Compare apples to apples.

Think about changes year to year. The school tuition can change. Jobs and the time you have to work can change. And what will it take to maintain your scholarships, e.g. showing your financial need annually or maintaining a certain GPA?

If a PLUS loan is included in your letter, this does not automatically mean that you qualify. There is a separate application process.

Always ask questions if something is not clear. Get in touch with the financial aid office of that college or a financial aid expert. You have the right to understand every component!

When you receive your financial aid packages, what are effective ways to compare them to choose the right financial fit school for you?

Comparing the net price of multiple schools remains one of the best ways to compare institutions The net price will help a student distinguish among colleges based on the generosity of their financial aid packages.

If you can, compare your award with what others like you have received to ensure you are getting a fair package.

In addition to net price, compare the other non-tuition expenses associated with college: room and board, books, etc.

Colleges with a lower cost of attendance and higher financial aid awards (especially grants) will have a lower net price.

If you could leave college bound students one last piece of advice when it comes to choosing a school that’s the right financial fit, what would it be?

Financial fit is as important as other types of fit! Make sure you feel comfortable that you are paying the right price for the right school, with outcomes (debt level, employment rates, graduation rates) that will meet your goals.

Join the conversation every Thursday for the #CollegeCash Twitter chat at 5 pm PT/8 pm ET.

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