Editor’s note: Author and career mentor Marty Nemko has helped hundreds of students make educated decisions about their college options. Often the choice comes down to whether the price of a quality private education outweighs the affordability of less-personalized public instruction. We asked Nemko to address the typical concerns of someone who is contemplating returning to school, either to complete an undergrad degree or to pursue an advanced course of study. In this second of two parts, Marty conducts a fictional counseling session. CLIENT: The sticker price at a public college like UC Davis is $5,000 a year, just for tuition, not counting living expenses, books, nothing. And at a private college like USC or USF - I'm not even talking Stanford or anything - it's $25,000. Just for one year!
MARTY: Actually, well-endowed universities like Stanford and USC publish a high sticker price, but if you're deemed financially needy, they give big discounts.
C: But I'm not going to Stanford or USC.
M: Right. So, to make college or graduate school affordable, you have to be really careful. One thing you must do is fill out a form called the FAFSA. If you're applying only to public colleges, that's probably the only form you need to fill out! You can get a paper version of the FAFSA from any college or file it online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. That site says the filing deadline is June 30, but that's misleading, for reasons I won't bore you with. The fact is, every college has its own deadline. For example, the deadline for all University of California, California State University, and California Community College campuses is March 2. File the FAFSA after that, and you'll probably get a much worse deal.
C: What about private colleges?
M: Private colleges make you fill out other forms in addition to the FAFSA, with varied deadlines, and use additional criteria for awarding aid. For example, private colleges may count divorced parent's income in calculating how much aid to give you.
C: I'm 26. Will they still count my parents' income?
M: Not at public colleges. But expect it at some private colleges, especially the prestigious ones.
C: What I'm really worried about is that I made $40,000 this year. When they see that on the financial aid form, I won't get much aid. But next year, I'll be back in school and I won't be making squat. It seems they should base financial aid on what I'll be earning next year.
M: Unfortunately, the formula doesn't work that way. No guarantee, but this sometimes works. Phone the college's financial aid office, explain the situation. The financial aid officer has discretion to override the formula and base your financial aid award on your projected next year's income.
C: But I also own a house with some equity in it. Will they expect me to take a second mortgage on the house to pay for tuition?
M: Not at any California public college. But at privates, if you have a lot of equity, maybe.
C: It sounds like I'm not going to get much if I apply for financial aid. What about those private scholarships awarded by foundations and rich old ladies? Do I have to apply for those separately?
M: Yes, one scholarship at a time. Here's the good news: you can find the private scholarships you're most likely to qualify for by using a free online scholarship search.
C: But I've heard that if you pay $75 or so, you can get access to zillions of dollars of unclaimed scholarships.
M: Those scholarships and more are available free at www.college-scholarships.com/free_scholarship_searches.htm. It links to free databases, which enable you to search over 600,000 scholarships to find the ones you're most likely to qualify for.
C: That sounds terrific.
M: Alas, it's not quite as terrific as it sounds. Even if you pick out the best-fit scholarships to apply for, your chances of winning are small. You usually have to write an amazing essay, have a terrific interview, and have just the background and experiences they're looking for. A lot of people put in a ton of time and end up not winning a dime. Even if you do well and get $10,000, for all the hours you put in, you probably could have made as much working at McDonald's. If you were a woman or person of color, I'd be more optimistic. There are many, many scholarships set aside for them.
C: So is it a waste of time for me?
M: Truthfully, in your case, probably - because you'll probably be eligible for some cash financial aid from the college. Here's why. Even if you get $5,000, the college is likely to say, "Great he got $5,000 from the Nicey-Nice Foundation" so he doesn't need the $5,000 grant we were planning to give him.
C: So what should I do?
M: Apply to more than one college - financial aid awards can vary wildly. Submit the FAFSA on time, and if you're applying to private colleges, fill out the additional forms. If you're not happy with your financial aid award, negotiate with the college to improve it.
For more ideas on how to find money for college or grad school, consult these terrific books: Don't Miss Out by Anna Leider or Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kalman Chany.
AbsolutelyScholarships.com - This site claims more than 200,000 scholarship awards in its database. Scholarship hunters must register to search for scholarships, and the site matches their profiles to scholarships in the database.
For more information on college tuition assistance, check these sources:
- AICCU.edu - The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities provides information on finding, selecting, planning, and applying to independent colleges and universities in California. The site also provides complete overviews of campuses and links to their sites. (916) 446-7626.
- CaliforniaColleges.edu - Developed in collaboration with the California State University (CSU), University of California (UC), California Community Colleges (CCC), Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), and the California Department of Education to allow students to obtain information about higher education opportunities in California. The site aims to become the portal for all colleges and universities in the state and includes virtual campus tours, criteria searches, and a student-campus matching assistant.
- FAFSA.ed.gov - This is the website for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You can fill out and submit the official FAFSA online - which will get it filed faster than mailing in the paper form. This is an excellent website that includes information on gathering the documents needed for filling out the form, determining eligibility, worksheets, deadlines for applying, FAQs, etc. Applicants can also check the status of a submitted FAFSA. The site can be overwhelming; applicants still should meet with a financial aid counselor for help. Although many educational institutions and programs qualify for federal student financial aid, you should check to make sure the college or career school you plan to attend is eligible for funds. (800) 4-FED-AID (433-3243).
- Fastweb.com - This website claims to be "the oldest and most popular free online scholarship matching service" with a database containing more than 800,000 scholarships. This site matches your profile with scholarships in their database and also has a college search. (800) FASTWEB.
- Petersons.com - Provides searches and information on higher education, including test preparation and financial aid. Peterson's website is one of the most comprehensive education resources, a must visit for anyone looking to attend college.
- Scholarships.com - A free college scholarship search engine and financial aid resource that matches your profile with a database of over 600,000 scholarships from about 8000 sources. When registering, note the check box saying that they would like to keep you informed about scholarships, federal aid information and "special offers, designed for students & parents, from our marketing partners."