Alleviating the Stresses of an Expensive College Tuition

By: Claire Bendig, Recent Graduate of Chapman University

Tuition loans can be a cause of student stress, especially with enough interest accrued to require repayment well into the future. Difficult to evade, only determined hard work will eventually pay them off.

As a college graduate myself, we enter a world of endless responsibilities, unsure of what to do. The debt that is carried over from an undergraduate degree is astronomical. education-2385117_1920According to Student Loan Hero, a blog that guides indebted students, “Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 44 million borrowers. In fact, the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.”

There are ways to alleviate the stresses of an expensive tuition. FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a government form that qualifies students for aid based on their particular financial situation.  The problem for many is the tedious application process. It has more than 100 questions, including inquiries about parents’ assets, taxes and net worth.

In March 2016, a group of seven students went to Washington, D.C., to help pass a bill to streamline the FAFSA process. Patrick McDermott was among those who attended. As a student working with college freshmen in dealing with these issues, he says, “The FAFSA process could be made a lot easier by not only implementing the IRS direct transfer as is done now, but by streamlining the amount of information required in determining the monetary awards.” (The IRS Data Retrieval Tool has since faced security issues, causing it to be shut down for now)

Even though the application can be overwhelming for students to fill out, it is well worth the effort to gain access to guaranteed school funding.

Credit unions can help students with financial debt as well (along with other perks like reduced transaction fees, online banking, debit and low-interest rate credit cards). Organizations such as Credit Union Student Choice lay out credit union options for students and mentor them on how loans work and ways to evade interest penalties. When joining a credit union, if the student has a co-signer, they can get a lower interest rate.

In line with their mission to help others, credit union loans will often allow the co-signer to be without obligations if the student has been consistent with payments for the past 12 months. Toni Jaroszewicz, Detroit Branch Manager of Lake Trust Credit Union says, “We offer credit counseling and work with our young folks to help get them on the right track to pay down debt and implement plans that will lead them to financial success.”

Counseling is the educational foundation that is needed to better understand the expectations of the college graduate, and because of the member-status of account holders, credit unions are willing to provide more financial guidance than they are likely to find at banks. My peers and I have graduation fears because so much is unknown. By expanding practical education, we can enter the professional world more confident in our abilities to succeed.

Claire Bendig is a contributor to the Millennial Voice column for CO-OP Financial Services, a financial technology company for 3,500 credit unions and their 60 million members. She is a recent graduate of Chapman University in Orange, California, with an Emphasis in Creative and Technical Writing.

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Paying for college with early admissions

Have you looked into getting admitted to a preferred school much earlier than standard admissions deadlines?  Then you’re probably considering an “early decision” or “early action” where the student chooses to attend a specific college much earlier than standard admissions deadlines.

early-bird
Early Bird admissions and financial aid

Know the difference: Early decision (ED) refers to a binding decision to attend a specific school.  Students taking early decision commit to one specific school as early as the fall semester of senior year, foregoing admission to any other institution.  Early Action (EA) is a non-binding admissions process where students are notified very early of their acceptance but may choose to attend a different school.

Early decision: How’s it paid for? Going forward with an early decision requires organization and a clear path to covering the balance.  Traditionally, the biggest challenge associated with early decision was affordability, since the choice was made without comparing actual financial aid offers from other schools.  Gaining early admission with the means to pay the bill outright regardless of financial aid and scholarships works for some, but not all families. If the financial aid offered with an early decision application is too low, families have the option to appeal the decision and ultimately reject if proven unaffordable.  Going through early decision only to end up not attending is an avoidable stress through realistic college planning, so unless the school is an absolute “must attend” situation, it may not be worth applying this way.  It’s expected that students only submit one early decision application to one school, but may also submit standard applications to other schools by agreeing to withdraw those applications if accepted for the early decision school.  There is a wide gap from early admissions beginning in November to when standard admissions deposits are due in May, so be aware of deadlines to know when a final decision is required.

Early action: What are my options? Early action admissions allow students the benefit of immediately applying to several schools instead of just one.  This allows for families to compare financial aid offers without being bound to just one institution. Early action has become much more common to help students zero in on their final college choice after recognizing all their best options. Early action does require a pro-active approach to make sure each school has all admissions and financial aid information available allowing for clear comparisons between offers.

Financial aid applications are early too: The FAFSA (and CSS Profile) has been available since October 1, 2016 for college students beginning their freshman year in Fall 2017.  This is 3 months earlier than the traditional January 1st FAFSA date, allowing more time for schools to begin sorting through many financial aid requests and early admission applications.  Since this is the first time FAFSA is being made available so early, most schools are still following  regular deadlines like in March, April and May.  But for families handling early admissions, this earlier date hopefully provides more breathing room to compare options.

Merit based vs need based funding: Remember the differences between college funding. Grants are need based financial aid awards provided by federal, state and school programs considering  income and asset information on the FAFSA and/or CSS Profile.  Merit based scholarships are awarded to students considering high test scores, grades, sports, community service and other student qualities and achievements.  When making a final choice about early admissions, make sure the financial aid award letter accounts for both need based and merit based funding eligibility.  You want a complete financial picture when comparing school options, which is why all your financial aid documentation needs to be filed as early as possible.

 

What to look for on a college visit

Visiting colleges is fun, but with all the excitement, it’s easy to miss some important lasting details that can make (or break) a campus experience.

Know the costs before you go: Make comparing campuses easy by knowing the tuition, room, board and expenses before the visit. This way you can enjoy the experience while being practical about the value provided and how it can be paid for.

Try the food: Meal plans have a variety of options to match student needs and schedule.  Stop by the cafeteria or other food vendors on campus to look for….

  • Quality: Is the food worth the cost of the meal plan?  Is there enough fresh food available to keep students healthy and energized?
  • Access: Where is the cafeteria and what’s the time schedule?  Are there multiple food locations open at different hours serving different food?

Talk to the students:  Ask about their experience and why they chose the school.  What do they like best, or are there some things they want to see improved?  Hearing it directly from current students can provide great insight to make a decision.

What’s the campus like? A campus can change rapidly depending on the day of the week. Big events and sports will take over space, especially during football season.  Other schools may be very busy during the week and very quiet on weekends.  Compare schools considering their percentage of resident and commuter students to recognize differences in campus life.

Class drop-ins: If possible, stop into a class room to listen and learn.  Be on the look out for teachers in majors you are interested in.  Ask questions about their respective programs and gauge your own interest in pursuing more knowledge.  How would you handle class in this environment?

Facilities: A campus is made up of many buildings and locations. Gyms, class rooms, labs and parking are just some of the things in plain view, but while on tour look for details like how spacious or crowded it was and the ability to navigate between buildings.  Ideally, you are looking for very safe, clean and well managed locations.  Most importantly, how’s the internet connection?

October 1 FAFSA: Getting ahead on college funding

For the first time, the FAFSA will be available beginning October 1.  This is a big move from the traditional January 1st date for FAFSA availability, and will change the timeline for financial aid processing with implications for admissions.  If you’re planning college admissions in Fall 2017, it’s already time to get started!

Prior-Prior Year Taxes (PPY): A move that will help streamline the process is the use of Prior-Prior Year Taxes to complete family financial information on the FAFSA. The 2017-2018 FAFSA will require info from the 2015 year tax returns.  Those returns have long since been completed by most families, and may be available for digital transfer from the IRS via their Data Retrieval Tool.  This means the financial details of your tax return can automatically populate the FAFSA, saving you time from data entry.  Also, using Prior-Prior Year taxes negates the need to make estimations on the FAFSA when tax returns were incomplete.  In the past, when FAFSA filers were required to use only the Prior year tax returns, they were encouraged to file the FAFSA on January 1st, before their actual tax returns were completed.  Now that tax returns from the Prior-Prior year are used, there’s no need to estimate.

Expect similar admissions deadlines: Most colleges are maintaining their same admissions deadlines. May 1 will still be the major deadline for enrollment decisions.  Early Decisions will be the exception from school to school.  The big impact early FAFSA makes is that there will be more time for schools to process new incoming financial information, and families can get a better idea of their financial aid eligibility earlier in the process.

Pay attention to institutional funding deadlines:  Institutional funding is money reserved by the college and awarded based on their own internal criteria and methodology.  Eligibility requirements and deadlines can vary from school to school.  Make sure to identify any deadlines for institutional funding to stay ahead of the curve. The simplest way to achieve this is by making sure all financial aid forms are completed and submitted in advance of any deadlines.

Remember the CSS profile:  The FAFSA obviously gets a lot of attention, but the CSS / Financial Aid Profile is also required for about 400 select colleges when applying for financial aid.  It goes more in depth than the FAFSA and is also available beginning October 1.

Dealing with uncertainty on the state level: Many states provide need based grant programs to students with low income based on data provided on the FAFSA.  While the federal FAFSA is available beginning October 1, not every state will have their grant budgets for the 2017-2018 years ready yet.  Be aware of any financial aid awards relying on estimates for state based funding as they may be subject to change based on final state budget legislature.

Families focus on key criteria for college choice; Here’s how

With the new FAFSA arriving October 1, families are getting ready to make earlier decisions about college. This is positive, as it gives schools more lead time to manage incoming admissions and financial aid requests, providing more space for families to make a final choice.  But how are families deciding? College selection can be very emotional, but it’s rooted in logical factors that lead to a final decision.  Here are some criteria points.

Cost: We all know college costs are high but may be offset by merit based scholarships and/or need based financial aid.  But even with some “free” money, a college can remain financially out of reach for middle class families making just enough to pay their bills, but not enough to cover an entire semester balance.  Student lending has often filled this funding gap, but families are getting much more pragmatic about debt, using loan calculators early and often so they will know what they owe in advance.  College savings also plays a key factor to broaden school choice and affordability.

It’s a basket of several funding resources that help cover the bill, but this is where confusion can set in.  It’s easy to miss steps with so many variables, like starting early with college savings, applying for enough scholarships to qualify for at least one and maintaining strong credit to qualify for low rates on student loans (Parent Plus is an option for families with limited credit, but locks in at 6.31% with 4.276% origination fees)  To help manage all of these variables, Invite Education’s Family Financial Center accounts for financial aid estimations and savings goals on each potential college choice.  Using cost calculators and savings estimators simplifies the process, making it easier to compare choices.

Major / Career Goals: The economy is always changing, and while college degrees are valuable, some end up working in a different field than they may have figured just a few short years ago. But there are simple ways to forecast your career trajectory based on skills and aptitude that should reflect in choice of major.  Psychology, for example, is a very common major but also one of the lowest paying after graduation.  Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, are often cited as creating graduates with high salaries, but global competition keeps the market constantly shifting.  Majoring in pre-med but failing to carry on to medical school is a large investment without a big return.  It’s recognized that there is no perfect hand-off from college success to career success. Instead, look at the big picture. Consider how certain majors or classes can accentuate talents, and how the knowledge can be adapted to new opportunities.  Even Steve Jobs commented that during his brief time in college, he was able to learn the importance of calligraphy and directly applied it to the font-types in personal computers. He learned how to adapt his knowledge to create something new after learning some fundamentals in the classroom.  This maybe the greatest gift an education can give you, but it’s not so obvious when first getting started.

School reputation / Network: An important reason why students want to attend schools like Harvard and Stanford is the reputation for producing students from particular areas of study.  Additionally, alumni networks can open up further opportunities after graduation.  For many, this is enough justification for a high price tag associated with some institutions.  Take a look at the track record for alumni to get an idea of potential opportunities.

  • Biggest majors: Look at the production of specific majors at certain colleges to learn more about their programs.  Compare this to data from the Bureau of Labor statistics to see how certain majors mesh with career opportunities that are expanding today.
  • Industries where alumni are most common: Prospective schools may provide info on careers of graduates demonstrating concentrations in fields like education, finance, technology or any number of areas.

Location: Choice of environment plays a crucial role for potential internships and concentrations of industry.  There are many different school locations to consider ranging from urban to suburban to rural.  Each offers their own unique advantages that may (or may not) match up to your overall goals for an educational experience. For some, a bustling city is the perfect place.  For others, a campus nestled near nature and low population density is all they need.  This choice comes down to student personality, but college does provide an opportunity for some students to break from their comfort zones to experience an environment unlike their home or high school.  Just remember, a long distance from home means more time spent traveling to get back and forth when necessary.

Is the Gap Year a good idea for my child?

Before the announcement of Malia Obama’s choice to take a “Gap Year” between high school and her first year at Harvard, many families have been internally wrestling with the idea.  Is it the right thing for my child?  Will they be able to get admitted later?  Will they lose track and end up not attending/graduating?  These are the types of questions that leave parents worried, while children wonder how best to shape their own education.  If you are trying to figure out if a gap year is a good idea, let’s consider pros and cons to balance a decision.

Pros

An Academic breather: Staying totally focused on academics can be a high-stress process.  For some students, a gap year provides the space necessary to transition out of a high school routine and into more real life opportunities.  Students can adjust their stress and refocus on their interests without the distractions of a high school environment.

Volunteering: A gap year may be a great opportunity to carry on with fulfilling volunteer work in your community.  This can even extend into opportunities to travel to new places as part of the process.  There are organizations that help connect students with volunteer opportunities around the world specifically for their gap year.  Some students find great satisfaction providing such service and may learn more about their own goals and motivations as a result.

Get On the job training:  Gaining employment is another great option for students fresh out of high school.  Some will thrive in a work environment where they can learn new skills on the job, interact with people professionally, grow a resume and even make valuable new contacts.  Most of the time, gap year students can expect service related jobs like working at restaurants, helping children, teaching english or even work as a ski instructor if so able.  It’s probably a good idea to flex financial literacy and make sure to save money earned from these jobs to help pay for education

Cons

Risk of Admission: Some students believe gap year can improve their chances to be admitted to their top choice school, but this may not be the case.  Students may need some concrete academically oriented accomplishments during gap year to stay on track for admission to elite schools.  There are always exceptions,but one cannot assume a gap year will improve their chances to be admitted if it was not possible just after high school graduation.

Failure to progress: It turns out that some students do not thrive in the gap year and end up wasting their time.  It’s critical that no matter what a student does during gap year, they grow and develop positive habits as a result.  For some, gap year becomes more like an unstructured series of events and parties where little positive gains are made.  Approach the entire process with a big-picture mentality and be conciensious about what real benefits are gained through the experiences.

Financial issues:  Without a solid plan, taking a gap year could be a financial flop.  Students need to carefully consider how they can afford to pursue their interests while they cover their living expenses.  Providing volunteer work is great, but life does cost money so students need to project their budgets in advance to stay afloat.  Parents need to communicate with their children regarding financial expectations during gap year.  This way, clear boundaries are established so students can take financial control of their lives.

 

 

 

Making the most of a college visit

A visit to a college campus, though not essential, is one of the best ways to figure out if a college is the right fit for you. Visits can range from a one hour tour to a formal presentation to an overnight stay. Most visits include an information session and a tour. Ultimately a college visit is all about discovering your priorities in a university and figuring out if this is the place where you want to spend the next four years of your life. The college visit works best when it’s viewed as a tool to help you make that decision.

Make a plan. Like most aspects of the college process, you’ll get more out of the experience and feel calmer about the process if you plan ahead. There is a lot of information out there, and it can be tough to keep track of it. By taking good notes, making a timeline of when you can visit certain colleges, and staying on top of it all, you’ll be making the process much easier for yourself.

Research schools online. Before you make any travel plans, get on the internet and do some research. Have an idea of what you’re looking for. No one expects you to have a complete list, but take a look at different schools and figure out what you like and don’t like. Do you want to be in a big city or in a rural college down? There is a big difference between the two. If you know you want a school that’s bigger than 10,000 students, you can cross smaller schools off your list immediately. If you’re not sure what you want to study but think you’re interested in biochemistry, look for schools with a good biochemistry program and ignore the schools that don’t offer that program at all. Some students will already know what they want and that’s great. At this stage you are just researching potential colleges to visit, figuring out what your priorities are.

Visit local schools first. Try visiting a school nearby to get accustomed to the college tour process before trying to visit a campus on the other side of the country. This also helps you measure differences and make comparisons between colleges better. It’s likely you know students at a local campus, so contact friends that attend and make time for an impromptu campus visit to meet other students. You’ll save money and have a better idea of what schools you might want to travel to visit.

Arrange a visit ahead of time. Check colleges’ websites to see if you need to register beforehand. School vacation weeks especially are a busy time for high schoolers to visit colleges, so contact the college as soon as you know you’ll be visiting so that you can reserve your spot on a tour. Ask them about the different tours they offer and see if there are any opportunities to meet with a professor or eat in the dining hall.

Take great notes. Every college has a lot to offer, but after many tours it may all seem like a blur.  Taking notes and even taking pictures of the campus can help reinforce key differentiating points amongst the school tours that make a campus unique. Was College ABC the ones with the really nice dorms or was that College XYZ? Take note of anything that catches your eye, good or bad. This will help you keep track of your thoughts later on. If you write down similar things about each school, you can use these notes to compare them and help you make a decision.

Ask questions. Get in the habit of asking more questions, as it encourages greater engagement on campus tours. Make a list of standard questions you could ask on any tour, so that you can easily compare all the schools when it’s time to make a decision. This will be personal for every student, but after figuring out what’s most important, you can bring clarity to the college search process.

Visit while school is in session. If you can make it happen, visit the school while the students are there. It will give you a feel for what it would be like to attend. Visiting in the summer shows you what the buildings look like, but not the student body. Feel free to ask students what they like and dislike about the college; most will be happy to give you answers. If you have an idea of what you’d like to study, visit the building where major classes are held. It’s worth asking in advance if you can meet with a professor for a quick chat.

Go to an accepted students weekend. Most colleges host informational sessions on spring weekends for students who have been accepted to the school. This is a good time to get more in-depth info, whether you’ve been to the school before or not. By this point you should be narrowing down your list and getting a better idea of which school is going to be the right fit for you. Some students will already know where they want to attend and they’ll only to go one accepted students weekend, or they won’t attend at all. If there’s a school you’re uncertain about but remain interested in, this is a good time to revisit it to get some answers.

Break away from the tour. Guided tours are a great tool for seeing the campus and getting the most up to date information about the school. But by nature, they show the best possible parts of a school. After the tour, it can be nice to walk around independently and see areas of campus that weren’t shown on the tour. This could give you more information to make an informed decision.