Choosing the right college has always been hard. But as costs have increased and the need to borrow has grown—so much that 69% of students graduating from college in 2014 had student loans —your first-choice school may not be the best choice for your long-term financial health.
When you are borrowing to attend school, the choice can quickly evolve from one about the best prospects for intellectual enrichment into more of a consumer finance decision—getting the greatest value for the dollars spent.
This is the reason the financial reward letters that follow up your acceptance letters play such a critical role for many families and why they need to be fully understood.
Many schools—though not all—now use the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. The form helps students and their parents make cost comparisons across schools to understand how much they would need to borrow to complete the desired program at each school.
While the general rule of thumb is not to borrow more than the starting salary expected upon graduation, it’s surprisingly easy to unintentionally violate this rule.
If a school isn’t using the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, it may take a little work to determine what the components of an award actually are. Some schools mix loans and grants into the same total. This lack of clarity has led many student borrowers and their parents to assume they are receiving awards when they are agreeing to loans.
Another complication to making a good comparison, and one that can lead to underestimating how much you’ll need to borrow over your college career, is front-loading. Some schools provide more grants early in your college career than you can expect to receive in later years. Their award letters may not make this timing clear. Without that disclosure, it can lead to false assumptions about how much grant money will be received each year.
The College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics can help you determine if a school is front-loading. The tool enables you to compare the typical financial aid for a school’s freshmen with the amount for all its undergraduates. If it is substantially different, it’s a sign the school may be front-loading and you’ll need to adjust your financial expectations.
A reality check.
The government also now helps the college-bound to make consumer-based assessments. Its College Scorecard lets you look at factors like graduation rates and the earnings histories of graduates to help understand the monetary value of each college’s education.
In an attempt to do its part to keep new student borrowers from becoming eventual clients, a Los Angeles-based law firm specializing in bankruptcy, Weintraub & Selth, launched its own interactive assessment tool. This tool gives soon-to-be college freshmen and their parents the ability to put numbers into what-if scenarios. It’s not a perfect predictor, but one designed to help keep optimism in check by relating college costs to earnings potential and lifestyle expectations.
Another resource available to you as you sort through the financial award letters you’ll be receiving is our network of NFCC-affiliated member agencies. Each offers access to experts well versed in the plans available to you for funding your education throughout your school years, along with the best options for affording those loans once you enter repayment. When you’re ready to talk through your student financing concerns, start here.