It’s officially admissions season, the name of the game is “whitewashing,” and financial aid offices are not exempt. I’m not saying that your financial aid office is lying to you; I’m just saying that some of the words–and, especially, the following words–need to be taken with a truck full of salt shakers.
1. Any time they mention “need”
Not every school claims to meet 100% of need, but the ones that do are certainly enchanting. Great, you think, I won’t need to pay a penny more than I can.
Unfortunately, “need” does not mean what you think it means. Your formula for calculating your need probably looks like this:
[total cost of attendance] – [the amount your parents/you can pay] = need.
Schools, on the other hand, have a different formula. Some may use the FAFSA’s EFC (expected family contribution), in which case you may find this calculator from CollegeBoard useful, and subtract it from cost of attendance. Other schools independently calculate need, with formulas incorporating, for example, “5 percent of the value of [parents’] assets, plus 20 to 25 percent of the students’” (Pérez-Peña, Richard). Other factors probably include a coin toss.
Right off the bat, you and your school are probably working with different numbers…and you’ll probably be accountable for more than you bargained for.
2. Any time they mention the amount of “aid” awarded
The need that that your school does meet is unlikely to be 100% free money (grants and scholarships). Some of it may be in work-study or in loans, and you–not your school–are responsible for both. You call this aid?
Work-study certainly has its pros and cons (which you can read about here), but it is, indisputably, an amount on your bill that isn’t actually paid, while still contributing to the amount your school deems “your financial aid package.” There’s no guarantee that you’ll make the full amount, and in fact, it may be impossible. As a personal example, student workers at my school have a limit to the amount of time they can work each week, and last year, I needed to work more than that to make my full work-study award. Calling that total amount “aid” is somewhat misleading.
Then there are loans, which are paid on your tuition bills but come back to bite you once you graduate. One of the schools I applied to met all of my need, and their formula was more generous than my other offers; however, the aid with which my need was met included more than $20,000 in loans.
Sara* has a similar story: “My top school, after getting in and wanting to go so, so badly, ‘met 100% of my need’ by giving me a 37k parent plus loan.” Did the school give her $37,000 in aid? Technically, yes. Was it $37,000 worth of help? Not by any means.
3. Congratulations on your outside scholarship.
If you’re smart, you’ve probably applied to some scholarships, and if you’re lucky, you’ve won a few. Suppose you’ve won $10,000 from Hypothetical Scholarship Foundation. First, congratulations.
Second, you’re wrong.
There are many ways that schools handle outside scholarships, but rest assured that one of these ways is not subtracting the full amount of your scholarship from your bill, at least if you’re receiving any need-based aid. Extra scholarships represent extra resources and may affect the “need” calculation, which will in turn reduce the amount of aid that your school gives you.
TP writer Lucy Zhang writes about a friend who “received many scholarships that…[were] simply offset by decreasing the amount of financial aid.” At many of the schools I applied to during my senior year, it was common to deduct half the scholarship amount from aid–beginning with work-study and loans–which allows the student to use the other half toward their bill. A $10,000 scholarship from Hypothetical Scholarship Foundation becomes a $5,000 scholarship. The best way to find out how your college deals with this is to ask your financial aid counselor.
4. Your financial aid package will be similar in coming years.
High school seniors have options when it comes to financial aid, but incoming upperclassmen don’t, unless they want to transfer–and colleges know it. I tried to estimate my post-college debt by multiplying my freshman loans by four, but as an incoming sophomore, I know this is going to be a huge underestimation.
Because financial aid is such a private matter, it’s difficult to know if a college will do this to you, but a bit of research helps. According to US News, these 10 colleges significantly decrease financial aid for returning students.
5. This is all the money they have for you.
If you’re unhappy with your financial aid, it isn’t always a “take it or leave it” kind of deal. My school promises to meet 100% of need–which, as we know, is misleading–but it’s not uncommon to hear of students appealing and receiving more. Your financial aid office is not asking students to appeal, and they’re not advertising extra money on brochures, but often, the money is there, if you’d only ask.
Once you know the common financial aid deceptions, navigating the process isn’t too difficult. Keep an eye out, read the fine print, do your research, talk to other students, and talk to your financial aid counselor. In the end, the truth–and, hopefully, some decent aid–will come out.
*=source name changed