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Can I afford college?

Little known fact about me that may become less known now that I have decided to share it--I received mostly grants from a school that met 100% financial need, but did not offer merit aid. Hmm...that may be a little confusing.

What it basically means is that my family was poor and the college I went to was great for a student like me because it gave money based on my family's economic situation. I didn't score high enough on my SATs to be awarded merit-scholarships at my state school.

I open with this story, because it's really important to understand what situation your family is in as you select schools to put on your list as the goal is to have options once you receive your college admissions results. Without options, sometimes college cannot become a reality. In fact, I've seen and heard about it way too many times, which is why we're going to cover some important tips when it comes to affording college.

1. Understand the difference between merit and financial aid.

A former colleague once asked me for help as they wanted to be able to help their child get a full ride to an Ivy based on their academic achievements. Around April, I see the same types of headlines hit the media--ones where students turn down acceptances into top-tier schools, to accept full rides at their state institutions. In most of these situations, it because top-tier schools only offer financial aid (everyone's brilliant, so it'd be hard to offer merit) and depending on the family's situation, they may have to pay full price - $70k and up to attend these elite schools, if they didn't receive any financial aid. In contrast, a free ride at their state-school for achieving a high GPA and test scores, can be a good option, especially if a student wants to pursue graduate studies. Merit is based on a student's achievements and financial aid is based on the family's financial situation. Which does your family fall under? Some schools offer both.

2) Do I qualify for financial aid?

In order to understand the first question, you may need to first estimate how much money you are expected to pay for college. While you will fill out the FAFSA and potentially a CSS Profile as part of the financial aid process for schools, you can calculate the estimated amount you will pay by simply using the Expected Family Contribution calculator available on the financial aid page of the college's website. While they are only an estimate, they should serve as an idea for what kind of aid you may qualify for or if you won't qualify for any. If you do not qualify for enough financial aid, you may want to consider looking at schools that offer generous merit aid.

3) College costs rise about 2 to 5% each year.

When I started college, cost of attendance was about $39k a year. By the time I graduated four years later, it had risen to $46k a year. While there are some schools like George Washington University that offer tuition freezes for four years, you should budget for the price increase each year. There are even some schools that are cutting tuition, like Drew University, but its extremely rare.

4) What other options do I have?

If merit aid and financial aid are not enough for college, perhaps look at starting your first year or two at a community college where you can get credit and also knock out your liberal arts requirements before transferring to a school of your choice. While I know there is a stigma associated with this option, keep in mind that your degree says the school you graduated from. It's a better option than loans--think about it, would you rather be drowning in debt or off to owning your first car or house with the money you saved?

Lastly I'd like to leave you with some resources depending on which bucket you fall under.

Top Schools for Financial Aid

Top Schools for Merit Aid


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