Many students know that the path to college starts the minute they enter high school, putting together the classes, grades, activities and test scores that will get them into their dream college. But the path to affording college should start just as early, with high school counselors playing a vital in guiding families to take steps that could help them cut costs.
The rising cost of college makes it more important than ever to start conversations early about paying for college. On average, a family will pay $101,160 for four years at an in-state university and $203,600 for a private college, according to CollegeData.com. And that’s just for one child. Add in a second or third child and the cost can easily become a family’s largest investment in their lifetime.
Counselors can play a pivotal role in helping to bring those costs down for families. Unfortunately, according to a survey conducted by the College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), many feel unprepared to do so.
Bringing in an expert early on to talk to students and their families about what they can do to cut college costs is one way counselors can help. Those programs can, and should, start as early as freshman year in high school. Counselors also can talk to families about some simple steps that can make a big difference for them down the road.
For parents, early planning can lead to a larger financial aid package. Since financial aid is based on a family’s Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, a family that takes steps to lower their EFC long before the time comes to fill out the FAFSA can reap big savings. For example, a small business owners can lower their EFC by holding assets in their business, rather than in personal accounts. An expert can offer other suggestions a small business owner can take to lower their EFC significantly by the time they have to fill out the FAFSA.
Counselors can also encourage students to build a strategic list of schools that looks beyond academics and school environment to include how the school determines a family’s EFC. Some schools, for example, factor in home equity when determining a student’s EFC, while others do not. With a little research, students can learn which schools use a formula that gives them the lowest EFC.
When talking about scholarships, counselors can change the focus from private scholarships to scholarship money given by the universities or colleges a student is interested in attending. Applying to private scholarships, which typically amount to awards of less than $2,000, may not be the best strategy for time-strapped students. Instead, they might want to focus on raising their test scores. Just raising an ACT test score by two points can result in a school awarding as much as $10,000 more in scholarship money. Some schools are very transparent, noting what GPAs and test scores trigger specific scholarship awards. Having a number to shoot for may make it easier for students to work harder in a class they’re struggling with or encourage them to retake the ACT of SAT to raise their score.
When it finally comes time to fill out the FAFSA, families can still take steps to boost their financial aid package and receive it in a timely fashion. Counselors can help by encouraging them to take these steps:
· Complete and submit all the required forms on time. Some schools require forms in addition to the FAFSA, such as the CSS Profile. Know ahead of time what’s required and what the deadlines are.
· Use the IRS data retrieval system to expedite the process and pay careful attention to correct spelling and wording. Doing so can result in students receiving their award letters sooner and avoid extra verification by schools, which can lead to delays.
· If applying to a state school, list it first on the FAFSA. This will let students see state eligible grant money on award letters—something that might not happen if they list the school second or third.
Finally, students and their families should remember that no award is final. A change in financial circumstance, such as a parent losing a job or unexpected medical expenses, are both valid reasons to appeal. So, too, is when one school offers a larger financial aid package than another similarly-ranked school. Just remind families to first investigate whether a school has a specific appeals process before proceeding with an appeal. And encourage them to call in an expert if they’re unsure about how to navigate the process.
In the end, remind students that it’s not just about getting into that dream school, it’s also about being able to afford it. Encouraging families to start the college cost conversation early on can save a lot of tears—and money—when senior year finally rolls around.
Jack Schacht is the founder of My College Planning Team, a consortium of academic consultants and financial aid specialists serving students and families in the Chicago area. www.MyCollegePlanningTeam.com