I work in the field of college admissions and visit dozens of school every year, so I’m familiar with the numbers. I have an idea of what different schools charge for tuition, room and board, and other fees. But that doesn’t mean I’ve connected the numbers I’ve seen in print to a budget for my own children’s education.
Many people I talk to are in the same boat. We know college is expensive. We know there are choices that can reduce our costs such as applying to schools that are likely to offer merit aid or selecting an in-state university rather than its out-of-state counterpart. But when it comes to an actual budget for college, there’s a disconnect.
Get Actual Numbers Before Senior Year
How will financial aid play a role? Will we even qualify? Should we bother applying or just assume that we make too much money? The good news is that you don’t have to wait until your child’s senior year to start getting actual figures.
In the interest of greater transparency in the college financial aid process, colleges provide a variety of online tools to help you calculate costs. These tools can show what your expected family contribution (EFC) is based on your current finances and you can begin to plan an actual budget. (Might also want to use this to select the right schools for your list.)
You are eligible for financial aid when the cost of tuition, housing, and fees exceeds the estimated family contribution towards a student’s education. Families planning for college costs may want to use some of these financial aid calculators to estimate the financial aid for which they may qualify.
Free Financial Aid Tools
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, best known as the FAFSA, is a mandatory form for any student seeking financial aid. The FAFSA4caster is a tool offered by the Department of Education on the FAFSA website.
When you provide estimated college costs, family savings, and income information, the calculator provides an estimate of eligibility for federal student aid. Estimated costs are available on every college website. Search your college plus “cost of attendance” to see the current numbers.
FinAid.org is a free website dedicated to providing comprehensive information on financial aid. The FinAid website offers families a variety of calculators designed to help estimate college costs including their College Cost Projector, Savings Plan Designer, Loan Calculator, and Expected Family Contribution and Financial Aid Calculator.
In addition to offering the ACT, a college admissions exam, ACT.org provides families with college and career readiness information. The ACT college cost calculator takes about 10 minutes to complete and offers families an estimate of a student’s cost of attending particular schools.
The College Board is best known for exams such as the SAT, PSAT, and Advanced Placement, but College Board offers a number of college planning services including an online college search feature and tools and calculators for financial aid. The College Board’s net price calculator allows families to get a personalized calculation when they input accurate financial data and select a specific college from a list of participating schools.
College Specific Calculators
In fall 2011 all colleges and universities with federal student aid programs were required to have a net price calculator on their web sites. The goal was to make up to date price information accessible to students and parents allowing families to quickly compare the cost of attending different schools and receive an estimate of what financial aid they may be eligible to receive. Families can search any school’s website for “net price calculator” to use the tool specific to the cost of attending that particular institution.
Of course, the accuracy of any net price calculator depends on the accuracy of information submitted. Families may want to have a copy of their most recent income tax return on hand to accurately enter adjusted gross income, taxes paid last year, untaxed income, and savings information.
Start the Process Before Appling to College
You don’t need to wait until your student’s senior year to begin the financial aid process– in fact you shouldn’t wait. Making initial calculations now may influence your college search process later. (Remember the colleges themselves give most scholarships, so selecting the right schools can make a huge difference.)
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