Cut College Costs Part 2: 2020 Edition
Welcome back! As promised during part 1 of our financial aid webinar series, we were joined by a financial aid expert earlier this month to share more insights about how to make college more affordable. For the sequel (which is definitely as good as the original), we were extremely fortunate to have Pamela Walker bring her years of experience in the college admissions and financial aid field to answer a wide range of questions about topics like student loans, scholarships, and what’s new in 2020. If you have questions about paying for college, I strongly encourage you to watch the webinar with Ms. Walker that is linked from this post. But not to worry if you can’t block out an hour to watch the full webinar: in this post, I’ll shine a spotlight on five moments from the webinar that really stood out to me.
1. Students who live in California or other west coast states may be eligible for significant tuition discounts at public universities on the west coast.
There is a program called the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) that is based on an agreement between more than 160 colleges and universities in the western half of the United States. WUE allows students in participating states (including California) to receive a reduced non-resident tuition rate at a wide range of out-of-state schools in the other states in the program. When I work with students here in southern California who want to go to college away from home, but not too far away, and who are interested in a relatively affordable education at mid-to-large universities, I often find myself recommending schools that participate in WUE. The non-resident tuition discount, which generally equates to 1.5 times the resident tuition rate at the same school, makes these WUE schools some of the best values available for students on the west coast.
To find out more about which colleges and universities participate in WUE, how to apply for the discount, and more, tune in to the webinar video from 3:15-10:15.
2. You don’t need to apply to colleges and universities by their Early Action deadlines in order to receive an equal share of student aid funds...but be aware of Priority deadlines.
First, it’s important to realize that although each school has a limited amount of student aid available to distribute to accepted students, those funds will not run out before students apply to the Regular Decision deadline. There are plenty of reasons why it would make sense for students to apply Early Action or Early Decision, but making sure to get their piece of the pie before it’s all gone is not one of them. As Ms. Walker clarifies in the video, financial aid offices designate significant amounts of financial aid for both early and regular admissions periods. However, some schools have Priority application deadlines, which are designated as the recommended date students should apply by to receive maximum financial aid consideration. If you are applying to one of these schools, such as USC (Priority deadline: December 1st), and affordability is a concern, definitely apply before the Priority deadline.
For our discussion of deadlines and how they relate to financial aid, jump ahead to 10:20-14:05 in the webinar video.
3. To get an inside track on scholarships offered by a particular college or university, get to know the admissions counselor for your area.
Ms. Walker shared this excellent insider tip while presenting a thorough overview of the world of scholarships. Applying to colleges in the 21st century largely involves filling out online forms and sending them into the digital void, which can feel like the human element is missing. Reaching out to your area admissions counselor can bring the advantages of human connection back into the picture (especially useful when applying to schools that track demonstrated interest). If you’re not sure what to say when calling or emailing the counselor to introduce yourself, asking about scholarship opportunities is a great way to get a foot in the door. By connecting with an admissions representative, you can potentially benefit from having an insider who will be willing to advocate for you when scholarship decisions are being made. To find your local counselor’s contact information, visit the “admissions” section of the school’s official website.
Much more information about savvy scholarship searching can be found in the webinar from 14:50-29:30.
4. When it comes to taking out student loans to pay for college, pay attention to the details and weigh your options carefully before making decisions.
The conversation Ms. Walker and I had about student and parent loans was jam-packed with helpful information and advice, and I’m hard-pressed to narrow it down to a single key insight. Ultimately, my biggest takeaway is that there are some important factors students should keep in mind when deciding whether to borrow towards their education. Be aware of the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans and your options for opting into only the loans you really feel comfortable borrowing. Pay attention to interest rates when thinking about taking out additional private loans to cover “gap” costs; fixed rates are preferable because they won’t fluctuate with broader economic trends. Finally, consider your intended career path and what your finances will probably look like after earning your degree. Ms. Walker offered a more precise way to evaluate your potential outlook for paying back student loans: don’t borrow more than what you think your first year’s salary will be. Of course, many students (probably most!) don’t have a fixed idea of what their career will be after college, but you can at least look at a range of options based on your academic interests. A great resource to find out about potential salaries based on careers of interest is the O*NET OnLine database created and maintained by the US Department of Labor. These considerations may not seem necessary to a teen trying to walk the academic/social tightrope of high school, but borrowing loans is a very serious step with long-term consequences, and a mindful, informed approach is crucial.
If you have questions or concerns about student and parent loans, I can’t recommend enough that you watch the webinar video from 29:40-46:50.
5. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to financial losses for colleges and universities this year, but that doesn’t mean financial aid offers will be reduced for next year.
It is true that the higher education field has taken a financial hit as a result of several measures taken to curb the spread of the pandemic. I have heard concerns from students and parents in recent months that grants and scholarships will be reduced for next year’s class because schools just don’t have as much free money to spread around. According to Ms. Walker, that is not a reasonable assumption. It is in the best interests, financial and otherwise, of colleges and universities to maintain their enrollment figures and welcome a new freshman class that will pay tuition and room & board fees; in order to keep up that status quo, they will need to continue to offer student aid packages that will entice students to attend. For families who have experienced financial struggles themselves as a result of COVID-19, the appeals process offers a way to potentially increase those financial aid awards, since the FAFSA for the incoming Fall 2021 class is required to include income and assets figures from before the pandemic. One of the best arguments I’ve heard for why it’s worth it to appeal for more financial aid is that it’s risk-free with potentially significant rewards; the initial award offer will not be retracted just because you asked for more, so there’s nothing to lose by trying. A more detailed overview of how to appeal an award offer is available here.
We address more about pandemic effects, the appeals process, and evaluating award offers from 47:00-57:10 in the webinar video.
As a final note to current seniors who are in the process of applying to colleges, make sure to fill out the FAFSA (and the CSS Profile, if applicable) as soon as you can, especially if you have applied and are applying to early deadlines. Paying for college is too extensive of a topic to exhaust in two webinars, but we hope that this two-part series has answered your financial aid questions and provided a helpful framework for college-bound students and their families.