The college application process is overwhelming for most parents and students. There is so much information to gather and decipher, along with decisions to make and options to consider. As you delve deeper into the college prep, it seems colleges have the upper hand. They set the price, make the decision to accept or reject your student, and ultimately make or break your student’s future.
But as you become more knowledgeable about the process and start doing your research, you will find that ultimately you and your student are in control. Together you choose the college, decide what you will be willing to pay, and make the final choice after the college admissions offers arrive.
To help you get the upper hand in the process, here are five secrets colleges don’t want you to know:
1. The financial aid award letter may not be an award letter.
An award conjures the picture of a prize. Receiving a financial aid award letter from a college brings with it great anticipation of merit aid, grants and scholarships. This is indeed a true award letter; but not all award letters are created equal. Many colleges pad these awards with student and parent loans, one-time grants, and often fail to meet a family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution). A wise consumer will evaluate each letter from the colleges that are offering admission and compare them to determine which is the best award.
2. You can negotiate the price.
The sticker price you see on a college’s website is rarely the price you will pay. When evaluating what you will pay for college, take that into consideration. You can see the percentage of merit aid a college offers, which drastically reduces their sticker price, by visiting CollegeData.com. Colleges use merit aid to attract good students. If your student is at the top of the applicant pool, the odds of receiving aid are great and this will greatly reduce your cost.
Once your student receives offers of admission and awards from multiple colleges, you can use these awards to negotiate a better price or more aid. Colleges compete with one another for the best students so don’t be afraid to ask for a discount or more aid. Don’t be afraid to negotiate if your financial aid offer stinks.
3. It’s possible to graduate in three or four years.
Did you know, the average college student takes more than four years to graduate? The norm nationwide is now six years. Colleges love these students: more years in attendance translates into more tuition. At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students graduate within four years. For every additional year your student remains in college, that’s one more year of college tuition you will be paying and one less year your student will be in the workforce.
To stay on track and graduate in as few years as possible, it’s important to research graduation rates, college majors and future careers. Planning ahead will help your student focus, remain on a designated path until graduation and alleviate the need to change majors midstream and lose credits. If your student graduates in three or four years, not only will he be out of school sooner, but you will save thousands of dollars on tuition, room and board.
4. You can earn credits without ever going to college.
Imagine entering college as a sophomore and having 12 or more credits under your belt. It’s entirely possible to shave thousands of dollars off your tuition by taking AP exams, CLEP exams or taking dual credit courses during high school before entering college. Be sure to check with your student’s college to determine which courses and exams will be accepted and transferrable.
Most parents and students do not even realize this is an option. In addition to testing out of these basic courses, your student might consider community college during the summer before college. These classes cost much less than tuition at a four-year college and are usually transferrable.
5. The degree is more important than the college.
While colleges boast of name recognition and rankings, the degree is more important than which college your student attends. Small liberal arts colleges offer excellent educations, more merit aid and can be cost effective in the long run. State universities can save you money over expensive Ivy league colleges.
When deciding which college your student will attend, remember that no degree is worth incurring mounds of parent or student debt. A college education is valuable, but not when you and your student are forced to go into debt. Be wise about how much debt you choose to take out and be sure that it will be possible and feasible to repay.
Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” reminds us:
“What we desperately need to do in this country is change the focus of the discussion from where you go to college to how you use college. In what directions do you need to grow? In what ways does your frame of reference need broadening? If kids were coached to worry about that, and not about the college name splashed across the sweatshirts they’re wearing, they’d be better for it. All of us would.”
In the end, it rarely matters where you attended college. Years down the road, an Ivy league education is no more valuable than one from a local college or state university. In a 2014 Gallop poll, 84 percent of employers agree the amount of knowledge in the field a job candidate has is most important. Only 9 percent felt that where applicants got their degrees was important.