The college application process is difficult enough, but the struggle is only half over once students send off their essays. Most families are then left to navigate financial hurtles—investigating scholarships, grants, and financial aid to find a combination that will allow them to afford the cost of attendance.
Luckily, admissions experts like Mandee Heller Adler—CEO of International College Counselors and author of From Public School to the Ivy League—are available to offer up answers to pressing college financial questions. Here, she shares advice for both prospective college students and their parents on ways to finance that degree.
Smarty Cents: What are the most common misconceptions you find among students and their parents when it comes to preparing financially for college?
Mandee Heller Adler: With regards to preparing financially for college, sometimes parents keep delaying the process. They may be waiting until they’re in a better financial situation to save money or be waiting until a big break like a risky investment or inheritance, but that break doesn’t come. This leaves them with little to no savings. Other times, we see parents thinking the student will do really well academically or athletically and will get a scholarship, but the student isn’t in that top minority to get the scholarship, or their school of choice doesn’t offer scholarships. On the flip side, another misconception is that a family makes too much money, so they don’t even apply for aid. We recommend that everyone apply for financial aid, as they may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
SC: Considering factors like cost of attendance and available financial aid, which type of institutions usually offer the most “bang for your buck”—private or public universities?
MHA: While private schools appear to be more expensive than public schools, many offer significant amounts of need-based and merit-based aid. Families may actually find the private school to be less expensive than the public school that can’t provide the aid. No school wants to lose quality students, if the college can afford it. Families should be open to all the possibilities each college offers. They also need to be realistic. Discounts are typically based on a combination of academic merit and financial need. Students with strong high school grades and standardized test scores and high financial need most often receive the best financial aid support. On the other hand, some states offer state-funded scholarships for students who perform well academically. Students should aim to meet these goals to get the maximum allocation.
SC: What factors play most heavily into merit-based financial aid?
MHA: Merit-based financial aid is awarded by colleges without regard for financial need. Students who receive this type of aid typically have outstanding academic achievements in high school, special talents such as fine arts (music, theatre, dance, etc.), athletic skills, or FIRST competition experience (FIRST Robotics, FIRST Tech, or FIRST Lego). Your best—and most accurate—bet is to search each college’s financial aid site.
SC: Which college prep courses and counseling programs tend to show the greatest return on investment, in terms of time and money spent?
MHA: An expert college advisor like the ones at International College Counselors can give a student the individualized attention to properly tackle the college admission process. From help with choosing colleges, going on interviews, editing essays and applications, refining extracurricular activities and more, an expert private college advisor gives students the tools they need to find and get into the college of their dreams.
Secondly, I recommend tutoring. The importance of grades for colleges cannot be ignored. The GPA is the single most important part of a college application. Not only that, colleges want to see a challenging high school curriculum. If a student needs help in subjects, spend some money on tutoring. Finally, I recommend test prep. Next to grades, test scores are one of the most important factors in college admissions. Look into test prep courses with a SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Test, and/or AP tutor who can help boost a student’s confidence and increase the test scores. Getting good grades and test scores may pay off in the form of scholarships.
SC: Can you share some effective resources that may help students learn about lesser-known scholarships or grants?
MHA: The key to finding scholarships and grants is to start searching now and to keep searching each month. There are millions of different scholarships worth billions of dollars, and some of them are available for kids as young as six. One tip for finding lesser-known scholarships and grants is to start small. Local scholarships are easier to get than ones that draw a national applicant pool.
Students should contact their guidance office or check their high school website to find local civic groups, local businesses, parents’ employers, or local religious organizations that may offer scholarships. Students also need to look for scholarships and grants that fit the student. There is money reserved for students who have certain religious affiliations, ethnicities, memberships, hobbies, medical conditions, disabilities, special interests, or planning a particular field of study. Use websites, an internet search engine, and hashtags with key words and the words “scholarship” or “grant” to find these resources.
SC: If you could offer college-bound students and their families one essential piece of financial advice, what would it be?
MHA: Apply for financial aid. All students should fill the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) out regardless of their household income. All students should apply for scholarships. Financial aid doesn’t come to students; students have to go out and get them. The more time a student puts into looking for financial aid, the more choices and opportunities they’ll have.
For more from Mandee Heller Adler or to buy From Public School to the Ivy League, visit the International College Counselors website.