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COMMENTARY: College Search Should Include How Much Financial Aid is Available


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“We know we’re looking at some expensive schools, but is there any way we can reduce the college bill?”

It’s a common question. With college costs at all time highs, and the stories about the burden of student debt, families are rightfully concerned about college costs. Families often ask me if there is a way to lower their costs by a substantial amount. Luckily, there is. It takes work. And it takes a different view of the entire college search and application process.

For most families, the college process goes something like this: go on tours, work with the guidance counselor, apply to some colleges, get the acceptances, and then figure out a way to pay the bill.

That approach focuses on the wrong question — “where can my child get accepted?” With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. ranging from cosmetology schools to the Ivy League, that is the wrong question. After all, even if your child barely graduates from high school, they can be admitted somewhere.

The right question, then, is “what school will offer my student the most aid?” And if you want to really lower the cost of college, that question has to be addressed during the college search process, not after.

When applying to college, your student is ranked against all of the other applicants that year. Generally, the higher your student ranks, the better chance of not only getting admitted, but also of receiving merit scholarships. It’s not very different than athletic recruiting. The better your kid is at a sport, the more likely coaches will offer money. And it’s not just where your student ranks for the school overall, it is also by major or area of study. The bottom line — the more the school wants your student, for whatever reason, the more money you’ll receive.

It is easy to find a particular school’s information regarding average GPA and SAT/ACT ranges to see how your student compares. When you go on tours and attend open houses, you can ask for these figures for a particular major or program.

As examples, a popular competitive private school in the area awards merit scholarships to the top 10 percent of all applicants. To be in the top 25 percent, the SAT required was 1520 last year out of 1600 maximum. Thus, to be in the top 10 percent, one would have needed an almost perfect score. A large public school awards merit scholarships to the top 5 percent of all applicants while having a top 25 percent SAT score of 1390, or well outside the range to get merit money. Of course, test scores are not the only factor, but where would your student have ranked based on these figures?

My point is simply this — the private school referenced above costs over $70k per year. Families apply and then hope for some scholarships to lower the cost, and most families are ultimately disappointed. While I would never discourage students from applying to any school, families have to keep in mind their realistic chances for scholarships to not be disappointed later.

This research, questions and discussions should be occuring while you are in the search process, not afterwards. You may decide not to apply to a particular school after seeing the admissions figures.

So when that family asked me if there was any way to reduce their college costs, I looked at them and said “Sure!” Then I asked them, “where does your student rank relative to the other applicants?”

That may mean their student has to apply to schools not originally on their target list. Or it may force them to consider schools that they’ve never even heard of. Which then goes back to my point  — figure this out during the search process, not afterwards.

So is it possible to reduce the college bill? Absolutely.

Jack Wang is CEO/Financial Wealth Strategist of Longhorn Financial LLC. His practice focuses primarily on helping regular families with college financial aid planning as well as retirement income planning, with a particular focus on helping business owners/self-employed. The practice serves clients throughout the country. He, along with his wife and children, live in Westford. You can follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/longhornfin or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/thejackwang/. You can also visit his website at www.longhornfin.com