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For more families than ever, cost drives the college search

Posted by Leslie Anderson  October 11, 2013 04:06 PM

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When Danvers High School guidance counselor Joy LeBlanc looks each spring to see where her students are accepted, the list includes many of the nation’s elite private colleges and universities.

But now more than ever, cost is dictating where students will end up as many families are choosing schools that offer the best value and not the most prestigious name.

“Today, it’s more of an issue than it has been in the past,’’ LeBlanc said. “We’re seeing an increase in the number of students selecting the state college system over private colleges because of the cost.’’

According to the College Board, the average published tuition, fees, room, and board for in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities in 2012-13 was $17,860 compared to$39,518 at private nonprofit four-year institutions. The cost for in-state tuition, room, and board at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is $23,198 for 2013-14, up $31 from the previous year.

LeBlanc said she advises students to choose not just academic safety schools but financial safety schools.

“We encourage students to develop a list that covers them in what they qualify for but we always say make sure the list includes schools that are financially feasible,’’ LeBlanc said.

To help deal with the rising costs of education, LeBlanc and other college advisors encourage families to have frank conversations about finances early in the search process, and to take full advantage of all financial aid options.

In 2012-13 there was $185 billion worth of financial aid available for undergraduate students in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, and work study.

The way to access those sources is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is available each January. The FAFSA, required by all colleges, gathers income and asset information for both parents and the student and is used to calculate the expected family contribution. Each college determines financial aid eligibility by subtracting the expected family contribution from its cost of attendance.

The Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA) is a nonprofit agency that offers a variety of services to help students and families make their way through what can be a complicated process, said Martha Savery, an agency spokeswoman.

“People get overwhelmed by this process and sometimes they get stuck,’’ Savery said. “Our job is to help empower those families with the knowledge and information to get them through.’’

During the next few months, MEFA will hold more than 350 free financial aid seminars at high schools across the state to help get families ready for the application. And when the application is available in January, additional seminars are offered in 25 locations to help families complete the form.

Savery said even if families do not think they qualify for aid, all should apply

“What we always try to emphasize to families is to take advantage of the federal process first,’’ Savery said. “What happens is families don’t always avail themselves of that and get completely confused. It doesn’t cost anything and the reality is that for most families, it’s worth the effort.’’

Even though the FAFSA form is not available until January, there are steps families can take now to prepare, Savery said. In addition to attending a seminar, they should research financial aid deadlines and requirements from individual colleges, sign up for MEFA e-mails, download a college financing e-book, and make use of other online resources.

On the MEFA website, www.mefa.org, families can access the major financial aid applications, a free national scholarship search engine, and a variety of online tools, such as calculators, fact sheets, to-do lists, and important deadline dates.

In addition to need-based grants, Savery said, some institutions award merit aid to students in recognition of academic excellence and other achievements. Merit aid varies from school to school, however, with some not offering any at all.

Savery said students should research merit aid options during the admissions process. Some colleges require a separate merit aid application, while others simply require students to check a box on the admissions application.

“If families want to be considered, they need to do the research at every college in order to get into the pipeline,’’ Savery said. “And that’s true for any scholarship. Students should also be researching outside scholarship opportunities, whether it’s on the national, regional, or local level.’’

But Savery said families need to pay careful consideration to the details of any award, such as whether it is renewable or contingent upon the student maintaining a certain grade-point average. She said there are also typically many students vying for the same pot of money.

“Competing for merit-based money is very competitive and generally not a huge component,’’ she said. “You hear about full-ride scholarships and the reality is they are few and far between.’’

As families work their way through the process, officials say it is important for students not to limit their options. Some students have become so turned off by the high prices that they do not bother applying to high-priced private colleges.

That can be a mistake, officials said, because while the sticker price of a school can be daunting, the number for families to focus on is the net price of attending after financial aid.

“Never take a college or university off the list,’’ Savery said. “The reality is some have their own resources to make it a viable option.’’

Anthony Garofalo, director of guidance for the Braintree public schools, said finances are playing a bigger role in the college search process for many students there than they did five years ago, but there are still many families that don’t do enough research.

“If you don’t consider the financial ramifications now and 10 years from now, then you’re being a bad consumer and could be making a bad decision,’’ he said.

He said families need to talk early and often about the short-term and long-term impact of the cost and students need to be proactive about finding aid.

“Kids don’t put enough time into it and there are plenty of local and regional scholarships if you just spent the time looking,’’ Garofalo said. “There is money out there if you spend the time to put in an application.’’

As more students choose the public college and university route, some private institutions are taking steps to remind families that aid is available.

Wellesley College, for example, is so concerned about losing students before the application process even starts that it has created its own easy-to-use cost calculator to help families get a sense of their contribution toward the $57,000 bottom line.

“The sticker price is expensive and it scares people off,’’ said Phillip Levine, an economics professor who developed the calculator. “People make decisions sometimes based on faulty information. We’re trying to provide better information so they can make the decision best for them.

While the federal financial aid form is long and complicated, Wellesley’s calculator takes just three minutes to complete, said Levine.

“The whole point is to get people off the notion that $57,000 is the price of coming to Wellesley College,’’ he said. “The purpose is to open the door. For many people, the door is closed before you even start.’’

The reality, he said, is that 90 percent of Wellesley students do not pay the full $57,000.

Two weeks after the calculator went up, 10,000 people had already been to the site.

“It’s a strong indicator that there’s a lot of demand for this kind of thing,’’ Levine said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

For more information, see "Nine financial aid myths" and "Six questions to ask colleges about financial aid."

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College Bound offers news and advice on preparing, applying, and ultimately heading off to college. Send your ideas and questions to Leslie.Anderson@globe.com. More »
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