How to Figure How Much College Financial Aid Awaits You – Despite a Congressional Snafu

By Sam Rosensohn

It took crazy college tuition bills to drive Deep Throat out of the weeds. Mark Felt’s grandson couldn’t pay for college so the man who helped to change the course of American history struck a deal with Vanity Fair to help defray the aching cost of college.

The rising cost of college and the headache-making formulas that determine how much money a student is entitled to are changing the course of the nation, and are also squeezing a lot of good friends’ retirement plans.

Congress by its own admission has passed a set of flawed laws that currently determine student eligibility for federal aid and in turn state financial aid. “This is not what we intended,” Joe Paul Case, the financial aid director at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, who helped develop the formula that the government now uses for the bulk of the nation’s students, told The New York Times. “There is certainly more duress than we had in mind.”

Due to the hapless new federal formula, many families whose incomes have shrunk over the last year will have to pay more for college tuition.

The new federal method reminded Jon Boeckenstedt, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management at DePaul University in Chicago, of the old joke about Microsoft tech support supplying information that is completely accurate but essentially worthless.

A helicopter is flying to Seattle and hits a pea-soup-thick fog bank. The pilot    flies blindly until he sees the top of an office building. He hovers next to it until he gets the attention of a woman sitting at a desk.

“Where am I?” he yells.

“You’re in a helicopter,” yells the woman.

The pilot pulls off sharply and makes a beeline through the blinding fog for the airport.

“That was amazing,” a passenger said as the helicopter landed. “How did you know from her answer where you were?”

“Easy,” the pilot said, “her answer, while correct, was useless. So I knew I was at Mircosoft.”

So if the formula is defective, and the aid directions are useless, and you want to get a sense of what you’re going to pay for your kid’s education, what to do?
According to Boeckenstedt, who’s worked in college admissions for 23 years, and who was good enough to answer a slew of questions as he tried to work his way to his daughter’s baseball game the other day, there are a few initial steps that you can take to get your bearings.

First, speak to friends and colleagues to get a sense of how the process works.  Frequently, the best and cheapest way to learn is from the mistakes of others.  Ask, what would they do differently if they had to do it over again?  What did they learn?

Second, work closely with a high school guidance counselor.  Almost every community has financial aid nights, conducted by college or university financial aid professionals, where information – including how to fill out financial aid forms – is distributed free of charge

Third, work with the financial aid office of the college(s) you’re considering, and start no later than October senior year, Boeckenstedt said. This will help to assure that you meet important deadlines.

I’d also suggest you click on the websites of the colleges that your son or daughter is interested in applying to and then glance at what the financial aid office has posted. You may find a financial aid estimator.

The Roanoke College Financial Aid Office explains that its financial aid program helps families to determine how much financial aid they may receive. “Our goal is to do our best so that no deserving student is denied a quality Roanoke College education because of a lack of funds.”

The site offers information about financial aid calculators, scholarships, state and federal grants, loan locator, loan educator, Virginia tuition assistance program, dates and deadlines, tax benefits, student and parent loan information, payment plan information, and financial aid links.

Roanoke has a link on its site that connects to a financial aid estimator, but if you just want to play with an estimator go to www.finaid.org or www.act.org/fane/ to get a general sense of what college is going to cost.

Most colleges will offer a wealth of information about the financial instruments that are available to you and repayment schedules. Most repayment schedules begin six months after graduation, and for additional assistance, some families choose a Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS).  There’s a ton of stuff there, but start looking now, long before your darling young one sends in the first application this fall.

We’ll take a quick look at one more financial information center today, because most of us can only take this stuff in small doses. Go to the college that you’re interested in and click on the financial aid office and find the frequently asked questions.

At Boston University’s site I read answers to the following questions: What financial aid will Boston University make available to freshmen for 2004/2005? What would be an average award for a recipient of university grant? What alternative sources of assistance are available to students who are denied university financial aid or who need additional funds? How do I apply for merit awards?

The average BU grant for a 2003/2004 freshman recipient with financial need was approximately $17,700. The average total grant for a BU grant recipient, including federal, state and private funds, was approximately $19,670. Award offers for 2004/2005 recipients went up to $42,300.

So as you can see, the Web is a starting point. From there, you pick up the phone and speak with someone in the financial aid office to get a clear sense of what college is going to cost you. Now’s a good time to make that call, since this is the time of year when financial officers get a chance to come up for air and some fun in the sun.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com