Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

College Planning: Don't discount colleges based on tuition

Posted December 28, 2011 8:28 p.m. EST

As students begin the process of searching for colleges, they will inevitably be hit with sticker shock. The cost of a college education today can range anywhere from $16,000 a year at a state school to over $50,000! Cost, however, should not keep you from exploring the college of your dreams.

The college search should always begin with determining whether or not a school is a fit. Once a school has made it on to your list, it's time to do some research. For admissions purposes, check to see whether or not the school is need-blind. Also, check to see what percentage of your demonstrated financial need will be met by the school. This varies from school to school; depending on the school's funding and endowment, this could be 100 percent met or nothing.

It's important to understand the difference between your perceived need and what the federal government and the school consider your need. After completing the FAFSA, you will be given what is called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). ( If you have not filled out a FAFSA, you can go to FinAid and get an estimate.)

Your EFC is a critical number. While you may feel you can only contribute $5,000 a year, your EFC may be quite different. Their number is the number that will be used to determine how much aid you need. Remember, this is a financial need. It does not have any bearing on merit aid, unless that merit aid is designated for students with financial need.

Consider the following: if your EFC is $15,000 and your state school is $15,000, your demonstrated need has been met and you will not receive financial aid. You may be eligible for merit aid. If the school you are looking at is $50,000 and they happen to meet 100 percent of financial need, then you would be expected to pay that $15,000 and the school would come up with the remaining $35,000.

Remember, when applying for aid, regardless of the school, you will always be expected to meet that EFC. Given the fact that many schools have generous need-based aid packages, as well as merit aid packages, it is best not to discount a school based on their reported tuition cost. Take time to speak with the financial aid and admissions office at the school's you are considering. Often, you may be surprised at how affordable some of these schools may be once they have made their merit and need offers.

Dr. Christine M. Hall owns Cary-based CMH College Consulting. See her earlier tips on financial aid in the box above.