Financial Aid

Things I say all the time

We’ve all got those words, phrases, and sentences that we use all the time. I over-use the word “apparently,” and some quick searches through this blog make me realize I apparently also over-use the phrase “all the time.” But behind the words and sentences that we repeat often are the ideas and worldviews that drive us. So this week I thought I’d explain the thoughts and motives behind some of the sentences I use most in my job as someone who writes about college admissions and advises students on their own admissions paths.

“The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student.” When people ask me “what do I need to do to get into a good college?” they usually hate my answer: be a good high school student. High school is like Basic Training for college, in all sorts of ways. If you’re being a good high school student, you’re doing well on assessments and making good grades. That part is obvious. But a good high school student is doing all sorts of other things as well. You’re learning to manage your time and keep track of short- and long-term assignments. You’re learning how to form and keep strong relationships, personal and professional. You’re learning to manage expectations: getting good grades doesn’t just depend on your knowledge, but also how you’re able to determine what each teacher wants and adjust how you perform, even when other teachers want other things. You’re learning that independence and responsibility don’t magically appear on a certain birthday or after a certain coming-of-age event, but they’re things that you build slowly and actively over time. You’re learning that there’s a certain balance to what you put into your community and what you get out of it. You’re learning that failure isn’t only inevitable, it’s necessary. If you’re learning all those things and doing a good job of them, then you’re ready for college and will find a good one for you.

There are no tips or tricks. There is no path to being a successful student, being a successful student is the path. Working to be a truly good high school student is a lot of work, and it’s enough work to get you into a good college.

“You don’t know what a college is going to cost you until after you apply and are accepted.” Universities will provide all sorts of data. They’ll tell you the list price for tuition and fees. They’ll tell you the average percentage of need they meet. They’ll tell you the value of the average first-year student financial aid package. They’ll tell you the name and amount of their major recurring scholarships. They’ll tell you what they estimate your net price may be. What they will not tell you is how much their school will cost you. That depends on many factors, both related to you and the other applicants they get in a given year, and there is no final financial aid statement until you apply and are accepted. Unless you know you can pay cash for the full sticker price, never assume a school is affordable. But until you get a package offer that is definitely too low for you, never assume a school is unaffordable. College is the Schrodinger’s Cat of affordability: until you observe the aid award, it is both too expensive and not too expensive. Is this frustrating? Yes. Is this just the way things work, and so you have to apply to a variety of schools at a variety of price points just in case? Yes.

“Most parents I talk to tell me that they’re in that bubble where they make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but they don’t make enough to actually afford to send their kid to college. Every one of them so far has sent their kid to college.” Make of that what you will.

“My target audience is high school students, so my site is called Apply with Sanity. If my target audience were parents it would be called Chill the F*** Out.” We know that a lot of the pressure high school students face to get into “elite” colleges doesn’t come from “society,” “the media,” or “the labor market.” It comes from parents. Take as a recent example John Vandmoer, the former Stanford sailing coach who was just sentenced for his role in the Varsity Blues scandal. Two of the three bribes he accepted (for what it’s worth, the money went to the sailing program, not himself) were from the parents of students who didn’t go to Stanford. The parents were so sure that Stanford was the right place that they illegally paid bribes to get their kids in. The kids had other ideas and ended up at other schools. For most of the parents involved in that scandal, not letting their kids know that there was cheating going on was really important to them. They had their own admissions process independent of their children’s. That’s not the way any of this is supposed to work. I’ve never been part of an illegal conspiracy, but I’ve seen the same thing happen on a much smaller (and legal) scale. The parents push for the big-name schools and high-profile majors. The students have other ideas. If you’re a parent who needs to chill the f*** out, I know it’s not easy. I’m a parent, too. Begin with Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise and Adult.

“Well no, they don’t just donate a library.” This is by far the most common response I’ve heard about the Varsity Blues scandal. “Why didn’t they just donate a library like other rich people do to bribe their way into college?” Despite what seems to be common knowledge, it doesn’t really work this way for many people. (“Why don’t they just donate a library?” always reminds me of Kramer’s “they just write it off.”) I won’t say it never happens—I’m not that naive. But it’s rare. Harvard University, for example, has 76 libraries. Harvard is also 382 years old. That’s approximately one library per five years. Assuming that all libraries are just bribes holding books, and assuming 2,000 new Harvard freshmen a year, that means that 0.01% of Harvard students are admitted because of a donated library.

Yale averages a library for every 21 years. Stanford averages one library every 6.65 years. You get my point. If it were common for people to “just donate a library,” there would be a lot more university libraries.

But the people who say this don’t just mean literal libraries. They mean large donations that help get children into hard-to-get-into colleges. But the thing is, that’s also more rare than we seem to believe. Universities don’t disclose too many details of their donations, so I don’t have exact numbers. But if you were to get exact numbers of what percentage of donations to colleges over $500,000 come from people who have a child or grandchild in high school, the percentage would be low. Not zero, but low. Wealth has a huge and troubling influence on who gets accepted to which colleges, but it’s rarely in the form of donation/bribes. So if we want to tackle the huge and troubling influence wealth has on admissions, we have to look past the idea of bribes.

“I’m not too interested in your major.” About a third of college students change their major. Ten percent of them change more than once. So it’s not a great idea to base too much of your decision on a major. You need to find a school that will help you in your intended major…and also help you if you don’t finish in your intended major. Also, the more specific you are about your intended major, the less confident I am that you will follow that plan. If you were to say “I’m really good at math, and I want to do something that uses mathematic problem solving,” I’d think you know yourself. If, however, you were to say “I’m going to double major in Applied Mathematics and Geophysics with a minor in Electrical Engineering so I can get an internship with the Jet Propulsion Lab and then work for RAND, but at their Boston location not the California headquarters” I’d think you have no idea what the future holds. Remember, you’re choosing your direction, not your destination.

“You can’t fake demonstrated interest.” You can probably tell when someone is just being nice to you because they want something. Most people can. And everyone who works in college admissions is a person. So they can tell. When you email the admissions department to ask a question you could have easily Googled, they can tell. When you leave their emails unopened for months, and then open them all on the same day, a week before the application is due, they can tell. When you call to schedule a tour and ask if there’s a sign-in—so you can get credit for being there—they can tell.

In fact, the far bigger problem I’ve had with students and clients is not demonstrating interest. You think this college is your top choice. Have you gone online to put your email address on their mailing list? No. Do you know who the admissions rep is for this area? No. Do you know what special programs they have that aren’t available elsewhere? No. Are you sure this is your top choice?

“I hate to safety school, but….” I really don’t like the idea of “safety school.” When you designate a school as a “safety,” you’re telling yourself that you’re probably a little too good for that place, but you’ll go there if you have to. That’s a horrible way to begin a relationship. On the other hand, you want to do your best not to end up having no fat envelopes. I end up saying, fairly often, “So I hate to say safety school, but let’s find at least a few places that fit your mission statement that we’re pretty sure you’re going to be accepted to. That will give you some options.” More and more, I’m saying very firmly: “everyone should apply to at least one in-state public university. If for no other reason, you want to be able to have a base line for cost comparisons, since they tend to the be the least expensive.”

“Nobody’s happy with their scores.” No client tells me about their SAT scores and is happy with them. 1230? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1330? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1430? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1530? “It’s okay, I guess.” All of my clients, so far, have been in at least the 80th percentile. None of them were proud. Nobody’s happy with their scores. Make of that what you will.

“Run before the bell.”

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

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Photo by Zoe Herring.

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The Glossary: the basics

The Glossary: the basics

I want to go over the basic terminology necessary to understand college applications. So many of us—college consultants, high school counselors, teachers, parents, university admissions departments—take it for granted that our students are completely aware of all the terms and lingo, even though the terms are rarely actually taught. If you’re trying to be a first-generation college student, came to this country recently and are new to the system, and/or go to a high school that doesn’t emphasize college preparedness, then some (or a lot) if this may be understandably new.

Asking for more financial aid

Asking for more financial aid

Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with acceptances come financial aid packages. (Remember: you never know how much a university is going to cost you until you apply and get accepted.)

The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything. The most-quoted number I could find was about 20,000 per year, or 0.3% of applicants, though that number is possibly outdated. The NCAA says about 2% of high school athletes get college scholarships.

The good news is that around 88% of students do get some sort of discount. If you get an aid offer that isn’t a full ride, you probably want more. You may need more, but needing and wanting can be different. How do you ask for more money?

The Glossary: gapping

The Glossary: gapping

Gapping is an informal financial aid term. It has to do with colleges offering less financial aid than they believe you need. After you fill out your FAFSA form (and possibly your CSS Profile), you will get a dollar amount called your E.F.C., or Expected Family Contribution. This is how much the government formula says your family should be expected to pay for college. The cost of a university, minus the EFC, is your need. If a university offers you less than your need in financial aid, then there is a gap. They’ve gapped you. You’ve been gapped. This is what gapping is all about.

Schools can, and should, teach college affordability

Schools can, and should, teach college affordability

So basically: high school students don’t know what college tuition costs in their area; they realize they don’t know; many assume it’s unaffordable; many give up on college because of their (often inaccurate) estimates of cost.

These findings make a lot of sense. The actual cost of college is complicated, because it’s different for each person at each university. It’s completely reasonable not to look into college if you’re pretty sure you can’t afford it. And really, why would we expect 9th graders to know how much a college education costs?

Thinking about scholarships, part two

Thinking about scholarships, part two

Last week I wrote about scholarships and a few big-picture guidelines to use when searching for funding. Think like a donor to understand why the big money is probably going to be at the college itself. Look to the organizations you already belong to. Understand how much you need and what you’re willing and able to do. This week I’d like to give three specific examples of what I’m talking about to see how this works.

Should you apply Early Decision?

Should you apply Early Decision?

As I’ve been talking to clients and other 12th-grade students lately, Early Decision keeps coming up. Whether or not to apply E.D. is a difficult choice for a lot of people. While I’m generally more “pro-E.D.” than a lot of other advisors, that enthusiasm is tempered with a number of reservations. So let’s go over some of the reasons to apply Early Decision, and also some of the reasons not to. (Remember, E.D. is the “binding” early application process. You can read more about it, including why schools even offer E.D., here.)

The Glossary: undermatched

The Glossary: undermatched

Undermatched is the term for students who go to a college that is less selective and elite than what they could get accepted to. If you could get into one of the 20 most selective colleges but don't apply to any of them, then you are undermatched. If you probably would not get accepted to any of those (and most of us can't), but could still be accepted to one of the 200 most selective colleges but don't apply, then you're still undermatched. It has to do with the difference between where you could be accepted to versus where you actually apply.

Some fun financial exercises

Some fun financial exercises

Everyone knows that college is expensive. There are plenty of universities whose full published price is higher than the median family income in America. The numbers can be so big that they're hard to imagine and even harder to make realistic decisions about. So here's an exercise I do with most of my consulting clients. You can do this at home with your family.

The Glossary: need blind

The Glossary: need blind

There are currently around 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. that claim to offer need-blind admissions. Need blind sounds really great, but what exactly does it mean?

Need blind means that the school's admissions staff don't take your financial situation into account when they consider whether to accept or deny you. Your ability to pay isn't a factor. It does not mean that they don't know anything about your financial situation.

Asking for more money

Asking for more money

Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with those come financial aid packages. The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything....When you get your aid offer, you're very likely to want it to be more. You're also pretty likely to need it to be more, though wanting and needing are different. How do you ask for more money?

The Glossary: merit aid and need-based aid

The Glossary: merit aid and need-based aid

College is expensive. Very expensive. Which is why most students receive some form of financial aid to help them pay for it. There's all kinds of terminology for all kinds of different financial aid, but let's first look at two broad categories.

Merit aid. This type of aid isn't based on financial need. It's a school's way of trying to entice you to enroll by lowering the cost for you.

Getting the support you need in college

Getting the support you need in college

More and more high school programs are focused on getting students through college, not just to college. About 10 years ago, some of the major charter school networks made college graduation a goal.  Posse has been around since the late 1980s. College Possible has been doing their thing since 2000. What wisdom can you gain from these success-through-college programs even if you're not a part of them?

This one's for Houston

This one's for Houston

But maybe you're out of the most direct danger and wondering what this means for your financial aid. Maybe, on top of the distress of 20 trillion or so gallons of water being poured on our area and entire neighborhoods being destroyed, you've realized that what's going to help your family get through this is spending your college savings on something other than college.