visiting colleges

Part Two: What questions should I ask about financial aid on my college visits?

Last week we told you how to begin researching the financial aid practices of colleges you plan to visit. This week, we provide you with questions to ask an admissions or financial aid counselor that will help clarify your understanding of their processes. (Note: It’s usually not a good idea to ask these questions of student tour guides, as they will not be as well informed about school financial aid policy.)

Questions for the Admissions Office to Understand Financial Aid:

Does your college award merit scholarships? If yes, what is the average award? What percentage of the admitted class is offered scholarships, and what is the academic profile (test scores and G.P.A.) of recipients?

This is one of the most important financial questions you will ask on your visit. Every college’s merit scholarship awarding practices differ based on the academic profile of the students they admit and who they are trying to attract to their campus. Understanding how your student fits into each college’s applicant pool is crucial to estimating how much money s/he might receive. Remember, if your student is at or near the top of a college’s academic profile, s/he is most likely to receive a generous scholarship from that college.

How will the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment classes my student has taken in high school affect our costs?

Some colleges allow students to transfer in numerous college-level credits taken during high school, which allows them to skip otherwise required classes. Other colleges may only allow the courses to count as “elective credit,” or may have strict limits on how many courses can be considered. Still others may not consider them at all. If part of your financing plan is to use these credits to shorten the length of time your child is in college, you will want to make sure this is feasible at each place you visit.

Questions for the Financial Aid Office:

What is the application process for need-based financial aid? Are you able to meet the full need of all admitted students? If not, for what percentage of incoming students do you meet full need? Are there any factors that you consider that differ from the standard FAFSA formula?

There are very few colleges that meet the full need of all admitted applicants. For those that don’t, your student’s placement in the academic profile of the incoming class may affect how much need-based aid s/he is offered. Students who are at the top of a college’s profile are most likely to have their full financial need met.

Colleges that include the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as part of their financial aid application will conduct a more thorough review of your finances than schools that do not collect it. Ask them if and how they consider home equity in the formula, if they treat 529 Plans (if you have them) differently from the federal rules, and if there are any other school specific things that they can share with you.

How much do your costs increase each year? Do you have any guaranteed cost programs available to freeze or limit tuition increases?

In an effort to help families plan for future expenses, some colleges have implemented tuition freezes, which guarantee that tuition will stay at or near the level it was when the student entered. If they do, ask them how a student qualifies, maintains eligibility, and how many semesters it lasts. . If a college does not offer one of these guarantees, you should ask if scholarships and grants are adjusted as tuition increases.

Is there any variability in your cost structure? Are there ways to reduce costs by moving off-campus or adjusting meal plans?

Some residential colleges limit how many students are allowed to live off campus each year, so don’t assume your student can move off campus to save money. Depending on the rental market in some college towns, it may not be cheaper to live off campus anyway. If your student doesn’t eat 21 meals per week, there may be a way to save money on the board options offered at a college.  This is helpful to know ahead of time as you plan your upcoming expenditures.

Finally, just as your student is taking notes on his/her impressions of each college, so too should you take notes on the answers to these and any other financial questions you have. Using the information you have each gathered, you and your student can construct a college list that is a good fit both academically and financially. Safe travels!



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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.