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Winter Coats and College Financial Aid

I heard someone accurately explain college costs with this anecdote:

You live in the Northeast quadrant of the United States. The temperature outside could be displayed on one hand on any given day in January, and your little brother dumped a quart of yellow paint on your winter coat necessitating the purchase of a new one immediately. You go out shopping, and find a stylish, warm and comfortable jacket that fits like a dream. Ready to take it to the register, you wisely ask, “How much does this little beauty cost?” You’re mid-stride when the salesperson takes a deep breath and says, “Well, that depends. First you’ll have to fill out paperwork that asks you to detail your family’s financial situation. We’ll send that information off to the government, and they will tell you what THEY think you can contribute to the cost of this coat. This information will then go to our manager who will determine whether or not he can offer you enough financial assistance to make this coat affordable for you. You may also be asked to submit supporting documentation, like your taxes and a paystub. All of this will take about a month, at which point we can provide a definitive answer to your question regarding the cost of that coat.”

Luckily, this fallacious example will not doom you to a run in with frostbite, but the parallel to college financing is undeniable. All too often, students and parents visit a college and ask, “How much does it cost to go to school here?” This, however, is really the wrong question if money matters in your college decision. Cost, as described in the previous issue, is the total sum of tuition, fees, room, board and miscellaneous expenses. The real question is, “What will this school cost me?” And, of course, the only way to arrive at a specific answer is to persevere through the financial aid application process. A good question to ask as a follow up to the cost question is, “What percentage of your student body receives financial aid?” If the percentage is fairly low, don’t rule the school out as an option. Instead, just ensure that you have a good mix of schools so that odds are some place will be affordable to you either through low tuition (like community colleges or state schools) or will offer a suitable financial aid package.

Remember that the government uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to calculate what they think you can pay (that amount may well make you break out in hives), and while it is each school’s job to prepare a financial aid package for you based on that amount, the school is under no obligation to fill all of your financial need. Just as students need to have schools that cover their bases academically (from safer bet to reach), you need to have this same philosophy for a financial range of schools

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