Comparing Financial Aid Packages
Sandy Jimenez has been a College Access Counselor at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center since 2000. In 2006, she helped design the first iteration of the Options Institute’s Foundation Course for College Access and Success Counselors. She has worked individually with over 500 students and trained thousands of professionals. Most recently, Sandy has joined NYC College Line as a Senior Adviser, where you can reach her through the Ask an Adviser feature.
The Waiting Game
As the days get longer and we get closer to spring time, I’m starting to feel a little relaxed. The deadlines have passed for the most part. My students have started to smile again and it’s getting a little quiet in my inbox. Everyone is playing the Waiting Game.
I don’t have as many students as many of my other colleagues out there. But my caseload this year was full of characters. I had a few kids with the out of this world GPAs. No judgment—I know they’re not better than anyone but it is a breath of fresh air to make a list of recommended colleges for a student with a high GPA and high SAT scores. Even among these few kids I had one who needed a lot of hand holding. I had another one who I hardly saw and next thing I knew she needed 30 fee waivers for the Profile. Really? I had a young lady who couldn’t decide what college to go to so she simply never decided! She missed a ton of deadlines until I gave her a reality check and she got a few apps in. I had a young mom. I have a neurotic young man who made me nervous about filling out the FAFSA—me, a 15 year vet who’s probably filed the FAFSA close to a thousand times. It took us close to two hours to fill it out! I love them all and I hate to pigeon-hole anyone (I am a believer in treating everyone as individuals and yadda yadda) but I know that my waiting and celebrating (acceptances, that is) mode will soon switch to full-on attorney mode, as packages start to trickle in.
Every college acceptance should be followed closely by a financial aid package. The “package” is actually a letter listing the total cost of attending the college as well as all the resources the college either offers the student (like grants, loans, or work study) or expects the student can contribute (like the Expected Family Contribution or EFC). So far this year, I’ve started seeing financial aid packages from SUNY schools like Plattsburgh for my students who were not accepted through opportunity programs and from private colleges for my early decision kids. So far, the packages have been relatively harmless, although I am highly troubled by a student who got a package with an $8,000 gap and barely even blinked. I thought she was financially EOP-eligible but this family seems to have some sort of dream college goggles or some money in a mattress. I think or rather hope the latter.
As an adviser, one of my tasks is to get my students to wait for these packages before making their final decision of where to go for college. It can be a real and understandable struggle. After a lot of work followed by a lot of waiting, students can be ready to declare victory in the college acceptance game. It is hard to convince an enthusiastic victor-to-be to wait for the delayed gratification of a good deal.
My strategy is to pull out my arsenal of stories. It’s one of the pluses of being around this long. One of my favorite cautionary tales is the girl who didn’t apply to CUNY and put all her eggs in one private school, which burned her. I had told her so, so she sort of deserved it? That’s not the moral! The moral is that you have to make sure you have a financial plan before you sign on for a college. The star of this tale signed on for a school that had required a parent plus loan. Her dad was turned down. So she turned to the alternative loan with her brother as a co-signer. They got turned down to. Long story, only slightly shorter: the student ended up having to take a semester off because she wasn’t able to afford her dream school. Then she ended up going to good ol’ wonderful CUNY anyway. Bada Bing Bada Boom! (Tiny tangent: this young lady went on to graduate from City College. She took inspiration from her experiences and went on to become a school counselor. Yeah!)
What you need to understand
Another important task is to help students to understand these packages, once they get them. It is important to look over each package in order to decide which one is the best deal. In order to really get what a package is telling you, here are the things you need to know:
- Total Cost of Attendance: Tuition is one part of the cost of attending college. There are a lot of other direct costs such as fees, room, and board. There are also indirect costs such as books and travel, which a student must plan for in order to succeed in college. The total cost of attendance is made up of the direct and indirect costs. Before you can judge a package, you must first get an idea of what the college costs.
- Expected Family Contribution (EFC): This is the amount a student and his or her family is expected to pay for college for one year. The federal government uses the information families enter on the FAFSA in order to calculate this number. Most colleges will use the FAFSA-calculated EFC. Others calculate an institutional EFC. The EFC determines the amount of need-based aid students get. Also, as the name implies, the student and his or her family will be expected to pay at least this amount towards his or her education.
- Gap: This is defined as the total cost of attendance minus EFC and minus total financial aid. This is the amount of money that is not already covered by some kind of financial resource. One task for the adviser is to work with the student in order to figure out how they might cover this gap. Will they use a payment plan? Take out a larger loan?
- Net cost: This is the total cost of attendance minus free money or grant aid. This is the amount of money the student will have to come up with at some point to cover their college education. It includes loans, work study, EFC, and GAP. This can be a clarifying number. Multiply it by four and get a big picture view of how much the student will have to cover. Look at one year and break that “full package” wide open!
Making a plan
Now, the next struggle is to convince the student that whatever discoveries you’ve made in the package are significant and should weigh heavily in their decision making process. Comparing gap and net cost at several schools can expose the best financial deal.
I make a project of dissecting the package. I sit with the student and write the information we find. If possible, I involve parents. This is one of my favorite sheets: http://nyccollegeline.org/resources/financial-aid-packages-comparison-worksheet-options. I make sure they know what all of the types of aid are and what questions they should ask. We also talk about loans and try to figure out what amount is reasonable by using loan calculators. If need be, I’ll pull out the tale of the middle aged student I had who was in default on her loans. Or the one about the student in the future and what it might look like to pay $600 every month on a philosopher’s salary. Sometimes I get my point across and succeed at convincing the family. Sometimes I don’t. At least they have all the information they need. Jeff Makris post “March Madness” does a great job in pointing out some of the emotional ups and downs that may follow after comparison.
Meeting Students Individually
It may be difficult to meet with each individual student, but maybe you can reach the masses by doing family workshops conveying the main points to look for in packages. You can use advisory to do lessons about packages. You can use sample packages from old students and help your students decide which one is better. If you use volunteers to help your families fill out the FAFSA, why can’t you use volunteers to help your students read their packages?
How do you talk about financial aid packages with your students?