Thursday, October 1, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

One Down, One to Go

So M is going to Grinnell.  So it is time for child #2, a sophomore to start exploring schools.  M's adventure; applying to seven and getting accepted at six, makes me think that seven schools may have been two too many.  Or at least it was when you are mainly applying to schools that accept 70% or more of applicants - and you compare favorably with the average student that they accept.

One other lesson learned: I would discourage my child from applying to a school in anyway that is binding.  (See "Days of Worry.")

This may be the end of this blog.  Maybe #2's search gets her own blog, but probably not.  What I want to leave you with are numbers.  M's high school asked for the amounts of scholarships she won.  That number is $364,000.  That is a totally meaningless number that they will use in to help market themselves.  She was accepted at six schools, she was offered scholarships at five of them.  The sixth was Grinnell.  They called all of their "free money" grants, so officially they gave her no scholarship, just a $29,898 grant.  Free money is free money so I don't really care if they call it a grant or a scholarship, but the high school wants to spread the word about the scholarships that their students earned - as if they were not tied to any specific school and therefore a pile of money that she won for being a gifted student (thanks of course to her high school.)   In actuality, the $364K is over four years, so that is $91K per year.  And that $91K per year is comprised of $23K to Beloit College, $21K each to Lawrence University and Knox College, $18K to Illinois Wesleyan, and $8K to Truman State.

The much more important numbers are the actual number of dollars that it would take to send M to a specific college.  I have numbers on four schools.  Remember that these numbers are influenced by financial aid, (except for Truman State's), which means that they are taking our financial information in to account.  So from your point of view the important thing might be how similar the numbers are for the private schools, and not the numbers themselves.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Days of Worry

I felt like I messed up M’s life.  Had I made a mistake that was going to prevent her from attending any college next school year? 
My last post mentions that M had applied to Grinnell early decision, which is binding.  If she doesn’t attend there, she isn’t supposed to attend any college until fall of 2016.  But all was sunshine and roses when I wrote that, because I had yet to see the details of the financial aid offer.  In Monday’s mail I saw the details of the offer. 
Do you remember this chart?…
 It was included in my post at the end of November, where I said of Grinnell (Choice #1),
one of my sources calculated that with our situation, school #1 should be the second cheapest school on the list - with an annual cost of less than $19,000.  The only school cheaper is the only public school and the one ranked last on her list.  Also when we toured school #1, they said that they don't negotiate on aid packages, their offers cover 100% of need, and they cap loans at $3,500 per year.”
In early February I was looking at this…
Where did I go wrong?  Did I make another mistake on the CSS that I didn’t catch?  Why did I ever agree to let her apply Early Decision?
Just looking at “direct costs” (Tuition, Room, Board & Fees) minus the “aid package” (Grant, Loans & Work-Study), we were being asked to pay over $30,000 – when we were expecting to pay less than $19,000.  And why was M getting $4,500 in loans when they were supposed to be capped at $3,500?
There was just no way that we were able to pay for Grinnell.
I felt ill.  I sent off a quick e-mail to their Financial Aid Office.  Maybe this could be fixed. 
I followed up Monday night’s email with a Tuesday morning phone call.  I arranged for a 9:30am phone call with a financial aid counselor.  The scheduling secretary called me back at 9:20am to cancel.  My counselor was running behind.  She offered me slots on either Wednesday or Thursday.  I took the Wednesday slot because “I’m not going to be able to sleep until this can be resolved.”  She found me a slot later on Tuesday morning. 
The counselor sounded as if she had received a thousand of these calls before.  I tried to convince her that there must be some mistake.  At the very most we might be able to afford $25,000, but that was our limit.  I told her about the loan cap (“An old policy,” she said.), and our expectations from guestimates I entered at  As I said that, I realized Grinnell could not be held responsible for something reported.  The counselor said as much.  She said, according to what she has seen, our package was in-line with what she would expect it to be.  All hope was evaporating.  And then she went to Grinnell’s own on-line calculator and entered the same data that she had used to generate our official aid packet.  It concluded that we should expect to pay $24,000.
This bothered her. 
She then said things that gave me hope:
  • ·        She would take our case to the case review meeting at the end of the week. 
  • ·         If we couldn’t afford Grinnell, M could be released from early decision.
I immediately e-mailed or called the other schools that had accepted M and ask them if it was possible to restore her status, because our financial aid at Grinnell was not working out and we might get released.  They all said that this was no problem.  One said that they see this sort of thing happen once or twice each year.
The next day there was this…

Friday evening we were e-mailed; in their review meeting Grinnell decided to increase M’s grant by $4,085.  So we needed to pay about $28,700 before M could earn back $2,200 through her work study job.  This was still a far cry from our upper limit of $25,000, and another problem was that this felt like a one-year allowance so next year we’d be asked to pay over $30,000 again. 
My wife and I showed M the figures, shared our concern for next year’s aid, and showed her that if she used almost all of her college fund for year one, we could afford one year at Grinnell.  M decided that she wanted to be released from Grinnell.  It was the only option that made any sense.  But yet I felt that she should be able to think it over some more.  

At dinner three days later I asked M to confirm her decision to seek her release from Grinnell.  She hadn’t changed her mind.  The next day I sent the following e-mail asking for that release…
Dear Grinnell,

We were misled by your representatives into believing that we could afford your school. 
·      When we toured your school last summer we were told that loans were capped at $3,500 per year.  After we applied we discovered that that policy has ended. 
·      We believe that at our upper limit we can make $25,000 per year work financially.  Last week Tuesday, a financial aid councilor at your school, put the same numbers from our aid application into your own on-line calculator and discovered that it estimated that we would need to pay $24 K.  This was the same financial aid councilor that put together our official offer that said we needed to pay $32 K.  (Actually $34 K, with the opportunity to earn $2 K back through work study.)
·      To your credit, the on-line calculator was then taken off-line and "fixed" the next day, but the damage was done.
·      Because of the calculator issue.  You re-assessed our case and increased the grant offer to bring our share to $28 K for 2015-16.  This figure is still more than we can afford, and we believe that next year we would expect to be asked to pay $32 K once again. 
We would never have applied Early Decision if we had received accurate information regarding what we would be required to pay.  Your school provided us with the inaccurate information that led us to believe that we could afford your school.

To put it more bluntly; you lied to us.  And since this lie was tied in to my daughter's hopes and dreams, it really hurts.   Going from the euphoria of being accepted to the despair of realizing that it is financially unattainable, made us feel like we were sucker punched in the gut.  

Please release us from our agreement to attend your school.  Please let Beloit College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Knox College, Lawrence University, Truman State University and Washington University in St. Louis know that we have been officially released from this agreement as well. 
I received an e-mail from someone in the financial aid office, telling me to expect a call that evening from the head of Financial Aid.  But the call that I received was from the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid.
He wanted to hear this story.  He apologized.  He said his department needed to learn from this.  We talked about M’s college search, and his daughter’s search.  They had visited 16 schools; many of them were the same.  He asked why M chose Grinnell.  I handed her the phone and she told him in some other words that it felt like home.  That the students that she met felt like members of her tribe.  He then told us, (I had him on speaker), that this was exactly the reason why his daughter chose Grinnell four years ago. 
He also told us that four years ago he was a dad living in Kentucky and having a similar conversation with the previous head of admissions at Grinnell, where he was explaining why their aid package wasn’t enough for him to be able to afford Grinnell.  Of course, Grinnell made it happen for his daughter and now he was in the position to see if he could make it happen for M.    
He lowered the loan amount to $3,500 for each year she attended and capped the total family contribution to $25,000 for each year that she was our only child in college.  When our second child goes off to college in two years, the total family contribution will be capped at $15,000.  It is all in writing. 
A happy ending.  I never thought that having figure out exactly how we can pay the $25,000 could make me feel this happy.  
Here are all of their offers, side-by-side…

Sunday, February 1, 2015

This Journey is (Almost) Completed

A College Search has resulted in a college found.  Yesterday M read the email that contained the link to the site that held the letter that started with the word "congratulations."  Every acceptance letter that M received started with that word, but this notification was different.  It wasn't just that this was from the school that was her #1 choice.  It was that she had applied "early decision" - and that means you agree to attend if they accept you.  We now know where she's going; Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.  Now M needs to fill out residence hall surveys and I need to redo the FAFSA.

BUT - if she still had a choice, our next job would have been to compare the acceptance and financial aid packages as well as the schools.  I was planning on creating a spreadsheet to compare possible majors, required courses, interesting clubs, and other items that might help M choose between the liberal arts schools that accepted her.  Most (private?) schools will negotiate their aid packages to the point where the decision can be made based on the schools - and not on the money.  For example if your expected cost is $25,000 a year at school A and $20,000 per year at school B - and your student prefers school A, it is time to call the admissions department at school A and tell them that if the money was equal, you'd love to go to school A.  Or maybe you want to negotiate for a package with smaller loans and more work study...

If your student has options, you have until May 1st to sign on the dotted line, but since Falls' residence hall spaces, and aid money are slowly disappearing, I suggest negotiating sooner rather than later.  Also, be kind to others; if your student has ruled out a school - let that school know so whatever scholarship/grant/aid money they had offered your student can be reallocated to other students.

For those that care...

Here is "Grinnell at a Glance" (from their website)...
  • 9:1 student-to-professor ratio
  • 7th nationally in the percentage of Ph.D.s per graduate
  • 38 majors and interdisciplinary concentrations
  • 11 Fulbrights won in 2014
  • 25% domestic students of color
  • 200+ student groups 0 fraternities and sororities
  • 40% of Grinnellians complete a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP)
  • 13% international students
  • 500+ course offerings
  • $1.8 billion endowment supporting academic programs and student life
  • More than 50% of Grinnellians study abroad
  • 500+ events, lectures, performances, and symposia per year
  • 20 NCAA Division III varsity sports
  • 51% of Grinnellians hold an advanced degree 10 years after graduation
M wanted a quality school, with a diverse student population and a solid study abroad program.  She is very excited to become a Pioneer.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Applying for financial aid

Three of M's seven schools required us to fill out the CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE from the College Board.  All of them required the FAFSA in order to get financial aid.  Which schools required the CSS? - the top schools, the most competitive schools.  One of them required the CSS with the application, which was due on January 1st.  Once we met that deadline, it was no problem to fill out the FAFSA with an estimate of our 2014 taxes (based on our W2s).  I will need to re-do the FAFSA once our 2014 taxes are completed.

Because I filled out both, I can compare the two.  First of all, the FAFSA is free.  The F and A stand for Free Application (for financial student aid.)  The FAFSA is less comprehensive, and therefore easier to fill out.  Financially, we are fairly uncomplicated, we don't own our businesses or real estate beyond our home.  We don't receive (or pay) child support or other forms of untaxed income.  We have jobs, we have pensions and 401Ks, we have a house that we are making payments on.

To fill out the FAFSA we needed our social security numbers (student and parent(s)), our last federal taxes (2013), our last paystubs for 2014 (because W-2s aren't available yet), and cash, savings and checking account balances.  The questions basically amounted to some demographics, how much did you earn, how much do you pay in income taxes, and how much cash do you have on hand (savings, checking, cash).  I was told that the FAFSA takes about 20 - 25 minutes to fill out.  That seems about right.

The CSS on the other hand was $9 per submission and $16 per school, so $57 total for the three schools.  The CSS also required everything that the FAFSA required PLUS the amounts of our retirement accounts and the value and amount owed on our home.  They also required much greater details from last year's taxes.  It took us about 3 hours to gather the require information and fill out the on-line forms.

It was so fine grained and complicated I felt like I needed a CPA to fill the thing out.  And then I made an error on the CSS.  The form asked for "extra Medicare deductions" and  wondered what they meant by "extra."  I clicked on their "help" feature, but nothing popped up, so I typed in the amounts deducted from our pay for Medicare.  After I submitted, I closed out of the browser and found the pop-up window that explained the "extra" amount was for people who earned more that $200,000 annually.  I immediately e-mailed the College Board, to ask what to do.  I didn't want to re-file and pay another $57.  The next business day they sent me a long response that made my eyes glaze over, but it included something about contacting the financial aid offices at the schools.  That is what I did.  I told them the item that I had entered $2000 for and that the correct number was $0.  So far 2 of the 3 schools have told me that they have made the correction on their end, and the 3rd said that the will be out of the office until January 5th.  So it seems like the schools are understanding and supportive.

On the topic of complicated forms, a local reporter who has covered issues related to the FAFSA for the last few years, told me that some in Congress are looking to reduce the FAFSA to how much did you earn, and how many kids do you have in college.  That would mean people with wealth - but no income - would be eligible for the same aid as homeless and unemployed families.  I didn't find the FAFSA difficult enough to be a problem in need of fixing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Getting in...

Brief update...

M started to apply to schools in mid November.  She met two early action deadlines on 11/15.  Both of those small private, liberal arts schools have accepted her.  She also has received her acceptance from the one public school to which she has applied. 

We have yet to apply for financial aid, but so far every school has awarded her scholarships.  You want numbers, here they are...

Liberal Arts School One
Annual Tuition, Room & Board, and Fees: $51,465
Initial Annual Scholarship(s) Offered: $21,000
Pre-Financial Aid, Annual Cost: $30,465

Liberal Arts School Two
Annual Tuition, Room & Board, and Fees: $50,290
Initial Annual Scholarship(s) Offered: $20,000
Pre-Financial Aid, Annual Cost: $30,290

Public School One
Annual Tuition, Room & Board, and Fees: $21,920
Initial Annual Scholarship(s) Offered: $8,000
Pre-Financial Aid, Annual Cost: $13,920

We can't afford $30K per year, but $14K is about what we are spending to feed and educate M now.  So the public school option is giving us what we wanted - a financially doable college option.  We are hoping that financial aid offers bring the liberal arts schools more in line with the public school option.  If they do, M can make her choice based on the merits of the schools - and not the cost to attend.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Over the last 16 months, M has toured 21 schools (19 with me from New Jersey to Missouri and 2 local schools with her high school.) Application season is finally here.  There are three ways of applying to a college; "Regular Admission,"  "Early Action," and "Early Decision."   Early decision is binding.  This means that if they accept you, you have to attend.  Therefore you can only apply to one school Early Decision (ED).  Early Action and Regular Decision are non-binding.  So why would you apply ED, why not wait to compare financial aid offers?  Schools accept a higher percentage of their ED applicants.  If you fit their student profile, the school is hard to get into, and it is your clear first choice - it may make sense to apply ED.  The downside is that you are bound to the school and loose all negotiating ability when it comes to financial aid.

In the very beginning I gave our stated goal of applying to 7 schools; 2 "reaches", 3 "matches" and 2 "safety schools," but that isn't exactly how it worked out.  M is applying to 8 schools, only one of them is a reach and none of them are true safety schools, but many of them are almost guaranteed to accept her.

Let me define those terms again; "reach schools" are schools the student would love to get into but they fall short of that school's typical student profile when it comes to test scores or grade point average, "safety schools" are those where the student exceeds the school's average student.  From there I bet you can figure out what makes a "match school."

So here is some data about each school, its students and its rates of acceptance and retention - in the order of M's preference. 

Looking at the 25th percentile of ACT scores, you can see that her second favorite school - (a top 15 national university according to US News & World Reports) - is her reach school.  And now let's look at school #1; (a top 20 Liberal Arts school).  It is a match and it is hard to get into (36% acceptance rate).  It could be a candidate for an Early Decision application.  So now let's look at the financial side of the equation, one of my sources calculated that with our situation, school #1 should be the second cheapest school on the list - with an annual cost of less than $19,000.  The only school cheaper is the only public school and the one ranked last on her list.  Also when we toured school #1, they said that they don't negotiate on aid packages, their offers cover 100% of need, and they cap loans at $3,500 per year.

I didn't expect her to apply ED anywhere - as you can see, I didn't even include ED deadlines in my table - but all of the stars lined up and M asked to apply ED to school #1, so I agreed.  And we do all need to agree.  Applying ED requires the signature of the student, a parent, and a school counselor. We have until the end of the year to send in that additional form.

Notice also that M has a four-way tie for 4th.  That is OK.  Making artificial fine distinctions in your fall rankings doesn't make much sense.  She may very well feel differently in the spring when things really matter - and you don't want the somewhat arbitrary fall rankings to influence her final decision.

The second-last of her 4th ranked schools (when listed alphabetically) is one of the more difficult to get in to (34% acceptance rate) and more like the top 2 in terms of rankings, retention and graduation rates.  It is also projected to be among the least expensive.  It is a rare liberal arts school in that it offers engineering as a major.  You will also note that it is the furthest from home.  M & I visited this one on our first trip 16 months ago.  In fact it was so long ago that M couldn't remember our visit and wanted to drop it from her list, but I asked her to first meet with their admissions representative when he came through town doing interviews.  She liked what he had to say, and I agreed to pay for an 8th application.

The rest of her 4th ranked schools and her 3rd ranked schools are small Midwestern liberal arts schools with similar numbers all up and down the line - I can see why they rank near each other for M.

M still has two applications to complete.  She plans to meet an Early Action deadline tomorrow, and a Regular Decision deadline in mid-January.  She met a few mid-November Early Action deadlines, so we should get a few decisions before Christmas...

Next Up: Financial Aid (and scholarships?)