Playing the College Numbers Game

Eldest leaves this afternoon with her mother for the last college visit, an out-of-state overnighter and with that, it then becomes a game of wait-and-see.  Wait and see who finally accepts her – although she’s a rocket scientist, like her mother – and wait and see what the final numbers are for the cost after the financial aid packages are received.  But does it have to be a wait-and-see scenario or can she just acknowledge an acceptance and be done with it before Christmas?

The biggest lesson that we’ve learned from watching others in the past several years is that you should never, never, ever apply to a school early admission and that is because it’s a question of timing.  The typical early decision process is meant to be completed in the November/December timeframe, which is at least weeks in advance of when the standard FAFSA financial aid paperwork is due from the families to the institutions.  Any student who applies early decision is contractually locked into attending without ever knowing what the financial aid package is going to be and we’ve witnessed multiple situations in which the final package from the early decision institution wasn’t what the teen and parents expected.  There are occasions when early decision isn’t an issue, but the implications can make it problematic.  The consumer advice given to parents has been that early decision should be largely avoided, with the student and parents using the various aid packages as negotiating levers to improve the financing from the favored college.  If you can shift $5000 from Parent Loans to grants, then Fiona can make it as one of your incoming students and boy, what an asset she’d be!  She’s a poster child for Ol’ Wassamatta U and can’t you just imagine that tousle-haired, cross-eyed, gap-toothed smile on the cover of your 2014 recruitment brochure?  The institutional rejoinder is that the demand for their services is high enough that there are other students who can fill that spot, as though our kids are cogs in the Big Ed machinery.  But the drumbeats about the college debt are sinking in as my wife learned in a recent admissions lecture that the number of schools being applied to by high school students has increased significantly in the past several years; the upshot is that the colleges are no longer certain how many students will actually accept offers and these institutions are in business, with seats to be filled come September.  So it’s still worth the effort to take a shot at negotiating the package.

In our case, Eldest is interested in a college that is upfront about this early decision dilemma.  Their practice is to give the families a best-guess estimate on what they could expect from an aid package should their child want to enter via early decision.  The caveat is a quid-pro-quo in that the family provides a non-FAFSA financial statement in the Fall and the school provides an estimate of what to expect with an aid package in the Winter/Spring.  There’s some uncertainty on both sides as the family numbers might not be what in January what they were earlier and the aid package might not be exactly what was promised, but the numbers might be enough to actually make the case on whether or not early decision should even be on the table.  This past weekend, my wife and I sat down with the financial paperwork to complete this college’s process and we’ll now see what the prospect looks like.  If it’s out of the ballpark, then we’ll have to consider whether the application is early or regular decision. 

So it’s still wait-and-see.


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