Financial Aid - Its impact on the college selection process

In last quarter's Christian Connector e-newsletter I shared a couple of tips that I hope were helpful for selecting the college that's right for you. I particularly focused on what I've learned going through the college selection process with my son this year. In this quarter's newsletter, I'd like to continue with some tips in regards to financial aid and its impact on the college selection process.

Tip #1:  The cost of the school should have little impact early in the college selection process. For those of you who think this sounds crazy... let me explain. The truth is that very few students/families pay the full cost for school. If you rule out a school based on the initial cost, you're missing out on learning if that school may actually be less expensive in the end.

Allow me to use my son as an example. He now has his choices down to just a few Christian colleges. The cost for three of his top choices range from $20,000 to $30,000. I can assure you that we will not be paying the full cost at any of these schools. This isn't because I know some great secret or because of my background in Christian college admissions. Rather, it's simply because many Christian colleges are willing to provide significant financial aid to students. Regardless of your family's income level, please don't cross a school off your list without knowing what financial assistance that school can provide to you and your family.

Tip #2:  Not all financial aid is created equal. Loans are not the same as scholarships and grants. While loans need to be repaid, scholarships and grants do not. Also remember that college work-study really is a job. It should not be looked at in the same light as a loan or a scholarship. Here's what I'm getting at... given the price of two schools being equal and the final "financial aid package" amount also being same, there still could be a significant difference in which school is offering a stronger financial aid package. For example, if you receive a $12,000 financial aid package from two schools with the identical cost, but school A includes $4,000 in loans and $1,500 in college work-study and school B includes only $2,000 in loans, then school B is likely offering a much stronger financial aid package. This is because the remainder of the financial aid package may consist of $10,000 in scholarships and grants at school B while only $6,500 in scholarships and grants at school A.

Additionally, consider which school's scholarships are "renewable". If it is an academic scholarship, will it be renewed, and if so, what GPA must the student maintain to keep the scholarship? Other types of grants and scholarships may not be renewable. Each school has their own policies regarding scholarships, so be sure to continue to ask questions after you receive the financial aid package. Don't assume that just because one school says a scholarship is renewable, that this is the case for every school. A school that offers a smaller financial aid package, could actually be the stronger package, based on such factors as school cost, loans vs. scholarships and grants, college work-study, and the opportunity to renew scholarships for up to four years.

Tip #3:  Schools with a higher initial cost may offer more scholarship dollars. While a college's cost is based on many factors, this point is important to keep in mind. Colleges that cost more may be able to offer more aid because of their higher initial cost. With a simple call, or even a visit to each school's website, you can quickly learn the academic scholarship amount you will receive based on such factors as your SAT or ACT score, GPA, and/or class rank.

Let me use my son's situation as an example again. While we don't have any financial aid packages yet, we already know how much academic scholarship money he will receive from three of his top schools. Guess what? The school that is the most "expensive" is offering the largest academic scholarship. The school with a $30,000 cost will likely be offering my son almost $10,000 in academic scholarship money. The one that has a cost of $20,000 will be offering about $3,000 in academic scholarship money, and the school that is in between the two in cost will offer an amount somewhere between the other two. While there are exceptions, I believe you will find this pattern common.

Let me further encourage you by saying that while my son is a good student academically, he is not an exceptional student. If he would have been more committed to earning strong grades earlier in his high school career, the scholarship amounts at each school would likely be even higher. You may be pleasantly surprised what academic scholarships your GPA and SAT or ACT score may yield at the colleges you're considering.

There are other merit-based awards that are not as "objective" as academic scholarships. My son is a cross country runner and while we know the athletic scholarship amount he will be receiving at one of his top choices, we are still waiting to hear the amount the other schools are willing to offer. This could make a tremendous difference in our final financial aid package for each. I'd encourage you to make direct contact with the decision makers for the various scholarships at the school to let them know of your interest and accomplishments. For example, I began letting coaches know about my son's interest, his times, etc. for cross country and track the summer before his senior year. Don't be shy about promoting yourself and your talents to the colleges.

Like athletic scholarships, there are many other types of scholarships that are subjective such as music, art, out-of-state grants, leadership grants, etc. It would be wise to ask questions of the admissions staff at the schools of interest to learn what opportunities they offer. It's well worth the time to learn if a school has a scholarship or grant for which you feel you may be eligible. Ask questions!

Tip #4:  Ask the school if you're close to the next academic scholarship level. Because every school has their own "academic scholarship scale" you are wise to ask if you are near the next scholarship level at each school you're considering. An increase in your GPA of just .1, or a small increase on the SAT or ACT could produce an additional $1,000 - $2,000 a year in academic scholarship money. That certainly makes it worth taking the ACT/SAT again, or simply finishing well your senior year. If you're not a senior yet, even better, realize that just a small increase in your GPA and SAT/ACT test scores can make a significant impact.

Finally, while the cost of your education is an important consideration, it certainly is not the only factor. By learning the final actual cost to you and your family, you can include that information as one of the factors in choosing the school that's best for you. Best wishes in your search!

Thom Seagren
The Christian Connector, Inc.
Christian College Grad, Class of 1987