This is the second in a series of posts that college finance expert, Laurie Peltier, is writing about her own experience going through the college application and enrollment processes with her kids. Her first post focused on how to stay organized during the college search process. Here, she discusses staying organized during the final decision-making process.
March and April of senior year was a very stressful time for me and my kids. Some colleges had sent out their acceptances and their scholarship offers, while others were still requesting more information like tax returns and W-2’s. There were some disappointments along the way when one got waitlisted or denied. I began to second-guess our list, and worry about our finances. Every day included an anxious trip to the mailbox and a debate at the dinner table. We wondered how we would ever make a decision by May 1st, the national deposit deadline.
Create a System
It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to stay organized or this process would get away from me. Using an accordion-like file that had a different slot for each college, I filed away everything that we received. Then I set up an Excel spreadsheet, listing the colleges down the left-hand side and making columns for the different information I wanted to track –cost, grants and scholarships offered, loans and work study – across the top.
Identify the Costs
My goal was to do an apples-to-apples comparison of each school to determine how much each one would ultimately cost. A few of the schools were very upfront about their current actual costs for college, while I had to dig through websites to find the information for others. I quickly found that some schools that looked initially like they would be our least expensive option turned out not to be! This chart was helpful when we went back to the colleges to request more financial aid and could explain the better offers that we had received.
I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for this college comparison project, as the College Board website offered an interactive financial aid chart that I could use to track our college offers and aid packages. I chose to not include the books and supplies cost because those would be similar everywhere. I did include transportation costs for those colleges furthest away that may require a plane, bus, or train ride, and left it blank for the local schools. The chart did the math for me and helped separate out the gift aid (grants and scholarships) from the self-help (loans and work study).
Read the Fine Print
In addition to comparing the cost and aid offered by each school, I took a careful look at the wording on the scholarship offers. The majority of scholarships were renewable for all four years, if the student maintained a specified GPA. I wanted to make sure the GPA requirement was not so high that my child wouldn’t achieve it the first year , and most were around a 2.7 to 3.0, which I thought was acceptable. One scholarship was for half tuition, so no matter what the tuition was over the next four years, the scholarship would cover half—a good deal when you consider that most colleges increase tuition costs significantly each year!
We eventually narrowed down our list to two schools, and attended Accepted Students Days at each college to make a final decision. These on-campus programs were a great way to get all our final questions answered and meet other students who had been accepted. April vacation of senior year was a great time to visit colleges before we had to make a decision!
Sign on the Dotted Line
Each college acceptance letter had instructions for how to pay a deposit if we were going to choose that school. The deposit was typically around $500 and would be applied as our first payment to the fall semester. We weighed our options right up to the May 1st deadline, but felt a huge sense of relief when we clicked the button to pay the deposit. Thankfully the colleges offered online payment, so there was one less piece of paper to keep track of!