Ask These Financial Aid Questions When Choosing A School

By Staff

When you’re doing the research to help you decide what college to attend, it’s also important to ask pointed questions about the true cost of attendance and the amount and types of financial aid offered. Getting aid is becoming more competitive, and more students are applying for federal aid than ever before. According to The College Board, in a recent report, families are still paying more out-of-pocket for college because Pell grants, tax credits and other forms of federal aid have declined.

[Read about the College Board’s findings on Affordable Schools Online]

Below is a list of questions to consider. The list was developed by Jim Eddy, former admissions director at Willamette University in Salem, and Julia Surtshin, a certified college counselor in Portland who coaches families on college searches, and reprinted in The Oregonian.

What tuition and fee increases are currently being projected for the next four years? What has been the history of tuition and fee increases during the past four to six years? This will help give you a sense of how much all four years of college will cost. You can also look up a school’s expense history online at the National Center for Educational Statistics’ College Navigator.

Will I need only to file a FAFSA to get financial aid? Or do you require the CSS Profile or other forms? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid doesn’t dig as deeply into your finances as the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. For instance, the FAFSA doesn’t look at home equity or retirement accounts when calculating aid eligibility. The CSS does.

Are you ‘Need Blind’ or ‘Need Aware’ when admitting students? Need Blind schools won’t look at financial need when admitting. Need Aware schools will because of limited aid money on hand.

What percentage of your financial aid packages come from grants versus loans? The answer will give you a sense of how much the school extends from its own coffers to students versus how much your family might have to borrow to go to the school. Community colleges and many public universities won’t have much institutional aid to offer.

What priorities do you use when it comes to awarding aid? They can differ from school to school and even from year to year. Many liberal arts schools are looking for males to balance out their female-dominated enrollment. Engineering schools, on the other hand, might be looking for women. Others will be looking to diversify the geographic makeup of their student body.

How do you treat outside scholarships when awarding financial aid? Most colleges will use outside scholarships to replace the portion of costs that students would otherwise have to pay or borrow. But that isn’t always the case. A school could simply use it to offset the money it offers, instead. Best to ask ahead of time.

What average debt amount do your students graduate with? About six in ten undergrads finished four-year nonprofit colleges in 2011-12 with $26,500 in debt, on average, according to The College Board.

What percentage of students take longer than four years to graduate and why? The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes graduation rates for schools. Private schools tend to have better four-year graduation rates than public schools.

Default rates at for-profit schools, by the way, are sky high. They attracted only 11 percent of 2009-10 college enrollment but 43 percent of fiscal-year 2011 federal loan defaults. Be wary of the value and price of any for-profit institutions, such as career, culinary, online or hair-design schools.

Do you meet demonstrated need or do you ‘gap’ students? Understanding the answer to this requires some background, so bear with me.

Each school has an Estimated Cost of Attendance – the total amount you’ll likely pay for a year’s worth of tuition, supplies, room and board, expenses and travel.

The FAFSA calculates your Expected Family Contribution or EFC – the amount of money the federal government thinks your family can afford to pay toward school. It might not accurately predict what a family can pay, but it’s the system we’ve got.

ECA – EFC = Demonstrated Need. That’s the amount the school must help you cover via federal loans, institutional grants and work-study. Most schools don’t meet all that Demonstrated Need.

And if the school can’t offer resources to help you make that up, that could be a problem for your family. Better to know that now than in April.

There are other questions: What is your average grant or scholarship award? How many hours per week do students work? Will my financial aid award stay the same all four years as long as I’m enrolled or do you start all over each year?