At this time of year most high school seniors should be about to finalize their college choice, and high school juniors should be narrowing their college wish list. This is when financial aid information could become the determining factor for tipping the scales in favor of one college option. Now, more than ever, it is important to truly understand how much your student and your family will have to pay out of pocket to attend a particular college.
That includes your student’s living expenses, travel costs, and other incidentals which can really add up to a substantial amount of money. And, you definitely must have a feel for whether students typically graduate, how long financial aid lasts, and post-college income earning potential. The information process begins after you file the FAFSA in October, and receive your Student Aid Report, or SAR. Colleges which accept your student will then provide you with a financial aid offer which outlines how they are prepared to help you financially.
Based on this information, you should be able to make an educated guess of college costs. If the college’s website does not provide sufficient insights, you can turn to the financial aid office for further information. This applies to those who are about to decide on a college, as well as juniors who are still finalizing their college list. Points to make sure you absolutely understand from the financial aid office include:
• Length of study compared with availability of financial aid: Try to get a clear picture of exactly how long it takes most students in your area of study to graduate from this particular college. Be honest with your self-assessment of how long it will take your student to complete the required curriculum. Then ask whether the financial aid package offered will be available for the entire time of study. Some grants or scholarships might be available for only one year, or might not cover more than four years. Assistance availability could definitely be a deciding factor for your family, especially if your student’s academic abilities are not the strongest. Understand what the academic requirements are to maintain a specific scholarship, and ask what happens if your student cannot meet the given criteria.
• Additional costs for this major: Some areas of study accrue additional costs, which may not be included in the standard cost calculation. If your student is required to travel for any reason associated with the area of study, find out if that is an additional amount that your family will have to pay. Students in arts majors are sometimes required to participate in shows or recitals, which may require additional money. Lab costs or special learning opportunities might quickly eat up your cash reserves. Study abroad opportunities can also rack up additional costs for travel and housing that you did not include in your financial planning.
• Amount of student loans versus repayment capability: Be very sure you completely grasp how much of your financial aid package comes in the form of student loans. Both student and parents might be asked to take on financial obligations that they really are not prepared to shoulder. Parents with other children who will be attending college, or older parents nearing retirement, might find that their ability to repay PLUS loans is far lower than what they thought. The student must calculate the total cost burden for student loans over the entire time of attendance, and then compare monthly repayment obligations with realistic earning capabilities. Ask the financial aid office how many students in your major get a job in that field, what initial salaries are, and where the jobs are located. Even students in medical or business fields might find that they struggle initially to get on their feet until they are able to start earning additional money.
It might not seem like fun to think about the cost of attending college, when there are so many other exciting possibilities. But, time spent now gathering good information from the financial aid office can have a great impact on the college you choose, and the money you have after graduation.