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Choose the Right College Before Tackling the Financial Aid Form

An article the other day in the New York Times highlights the pain of applying for financial aid.  Entitled “The Big Test Before College,” the article raises the issue of whether the intimidating form actually does what it is supposed to do:  measure a family’s financial need.

While we all love to hate these “means tests,” it’s hard to conceive of a way to simplify this process too much.  Furthermore, one must remember that the FAFSA is later interpreted by individual colleges as they decide how much aid to give to families.

The FAFSA (or its eventual replacement) will churn out the “Estimated Family Contribution” (EFC).  But colleges–especially private ones–will always have the power to decide whether to meet full financial need, and with what financial instruments (grants, loans, work study, arm, leg, promise of first born, etc.).

Thus choosing a college carefully before applying is essential.  Too many families encourage their children to apply to whatever college they like, with the promise, “don’t worry, honey, we’ll figure out how to pay for it somehow.” The result is anxiety, disappointment, and a complete surrender of control to the college admissions and financial aid offices.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  With some careful planning, honest appraisal of financial priorities, and open communication within a family, students and parents can find the colleges that will be more likely to meet their financial need, and ensure that the student receives an excellent undergraduate education.

Mark Montgomery
College Consultant

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