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Paying For College?

Help is there for you, experts say 

How will we ever pay for college? That’s the front-and-center question facing the families of most graduating high school seniors at this time of the year. According to Mineola School District Supervisor of Guidance Dr. Whittney Smith, it helps to get there early.


“The first thing is to fill out the FAFSA form early…as soon after Jan. 1 as possible,” Smith said. “Aid is a line. The earlier you fill it out, the earlier you get on line.”

Smith encourages students to apply everywhere, because the sticker price on colleges is not “necessarily what you’re going to pay” after aid packages and scholarship opportunities are made available. Furthermore, price shouldn’t discourage parents.


Colleges are presently announcing financial aid award packages. A handful of families will be happy with the amount of aid that will be granted. Most will not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Plainview financial aid consultant Andy Lockwood.  


“The first thing that parents need to understand is that colleges will negotiate,“ said Lockwood. “Most parents don’t know this. Most people just accept what they get. They don’t have to. There is room to either negotiate, or the word that colleges prefer is, ‘appeal.’ I think some of the financial officers think of themselves as like they’re on the Supreme Court. Any type of mercenary words like ‘negotiate’ is beneath them. That’s why they prefer that you ‘appeal’ to their judgment.”


East Williston School District Guidance Director Mary Harrison says colleges will re-evaluate packages upon request, but many times, need-based packages are not flexible.


“It never hurts to ask for more financial aid—the worse they can say is ‘No,’” she said. “If a student is granted a merit scholarship based on grades and scores, I have seen more flexibility. Many families share their financial aid packages from other schools as leverage. Whether the representatives take this into consideration, would depend on each college’s procedures and protocol.”


Harrison agreed with Smith’s notion on the FAFSA forms. She said parents need to be in the know.


Parents need to know that the information they document on FAFSA is directly linked to the IRA,” Harrison stated. “I always encourage parents to attend our Financial Aid Night early on in their child’s high school career. The presenters always offer great advice on planning for college costs.”


While parents of current seniors might not be able to take advantage of all of Lockwood’s suggestions due to time constraints, parents of juniors can benefit.  

“It’s always helpful to speak to financial aid officers of the schools,” said Smith. “Even if you’re not planning on attending that school, it’s very helpful. Officers at our local colleges are very helpful in trying to help parents navigate the process.”


The first question students should ask themselves: Home versus away?


“Do you want to stay home or be away? Look at whether or not the college has the programs of study,” Smith stated. “We give students a lot of points to consider; the size of the college, campus reputation, sports and athletics, etc.”

Mineola holds a college-infused program dubbed Parent University, a series of seminars in which parents and faculty and/or member of the administration can interact to exchange information that will ultimately benefit the students. The district invites experts on saving for college, campus life, etc.


“Every little bit helps,” Smith said. “It’s well attended.”


Another suggestion by Lockwood is that students apply to what he refers to as “competing” schools. “Out of the over 2,700 four-year colleges in the United States, only about 100 or so accept 50 percent or less of their applicants,” he claimed. “There are a whole lot of schools out there that are struggling to fill seats. Even at the Ivy level there’s a lot of schools that will compete.  Cornell even suggests you appeal if you have another offer from an Ivy League school.”


To illustrate the effectiveness of his strategies, Lockwood cites the case of one of his most recent successes, a student who was accepted at USC in Los Angeles for the current year. Tuition, without any aid, would have been over $56,000, including room and board.  Last April 14, the student received an initial award of $23,518.


A month later, guided by Lockwood, the university had increased the award by $30,022. The total award—$53,540—was for a single year.


 “This was an atypical case, “ he said, “but we’ve had similar successes over the years. In her junior year when she was picking schools she came up with a few other colleges that compete with the University of Southern California. A lot of people would think that the other schools were in southern California, like UCLA and Pomona, and they do compete with each other. But there are East Coast schools that compete with USC. In her case, George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) gave her a much better offer.”


 “So,” he continued,” we wound up writing a letter to the financial officer at USC in a very gracious tone telling the school that USC was her top choice and she was very excited to go there but that her family couldn’t afford USC. We told them we had other offers and attached them to the letter. The letter wasn’t outrageous or pushy. Financial officers get lots of those. The letter also said that she was 100 percent committed to going there. We requested that they reassess her situation and asked if they could meet or exceed her other offers. But we didn’t hear from the school for several weeks.”


The next step that Lockwood took was to ask the student to send that same package to the admissions office at USC.  The family heard from admissions almost immediately with the increased offer.


 “Admissions, unlike the bean counters in those financial offices, are the ones who care,” said Lockwood in explaining why the college upped its award so substantially. “Admissions people care whether the people they admit actually show up and matriculate. And the reason for that is the ‘yield ratio’, the percentage of people who are admitted and actually attend— that actually affects the school’s ranking in publications such as U.S. News & World Report and a school’s credit rating. You know when [the school] goes to borrow the money for its next $20 million athletic facility? Admissions, they’re the real stake holders.”


—Rich Forestano contributed to this story