April is coming, what does that mean for your senior?

April is a big month for seniors. Those who applied to highly selective colleges will be getting their admission decisions. Others need to start deciding where they are attending and pay an enrollment deposit. Many students never got to see these colleges in-person. Making a decision is incredibly difficult when you have limited information.

Many schools are hosting virtual or in-person admitted student events. They typically showcase a student panel, faculty and academics, and student life. The in-person events would normally include either a day on campus or an overnight where students attend classes with another student, meet faculty, eat lunch in the dining room and experience student life. Whether virtual or in-person, these events can help your students discover which school they want to attend.

If your student is really struggling with what school to pick, ask the Office of Admissions if they can speak with faculty in the major areas they are exploring. Often meeting the people who will mentor them, connect them to internships and research, will help your student feel at home. Or, if the faculty are not welcoming or supportive, it might not be a good fit. If student life is more of a concern, see if they can talk to current students who have similar interests to theirs.

If cost factors into your decision, don’t forget to file a FAFSA , if you haven’t already. Make sure you are comparing apples to apples on your financial aid packages. Just because one school gave you a larger scholarship might not mean its the cheaper school. Take a look at all tuition and fees, subtract scholarships and grants (free money). Where will you have more out of pocket expenses or loans? Don’t be afraid to have an honest conversation with the colleges about what you can afford. Not all will adjust aid packages, but some may, if they still need students. Also make sure you sign up for a tuition payment plan, if offered. It usually allows you to pay your portion over 10 or 11 months. Often these must be completed in June or July.

Make sure you get your enrollment deposit in by the deadline. This will allow your child to sign up for orientation programs, register for classes and pick housing (some schools may have a separate housing deposit or orientation fees). The longer you wait to make the decision or pay your deposit, the later an orientation date they will receive. They will have a better class selection if they attend an earlier registration date.

Don’t pay two deposits if your child is still deciding. It makes it difficult for schools to know who is really coming. It also keeps a student who may be on the waitlist from being admitted. Do what you can to help your child make a decision and select their school. Once you have paid your deposit, have your child notify the other schools they are not attending. That way, their spot can be offered to another student.

As always, if you need assistance do not hesitate to contact Coffman Consulting. We know making a decision can be challenging. We can often help your child answer some questions and conduct some research that will finalize their decision.

It is spring of your junior year…so what should you be doing?

Normally, you would be visiting colleges in person. But COVID is making that more challenging. Juniors can still use this spring to search for colleges, start the application process, strengthen their applications, and gather recommendations.

Exploring Colleges

Some colleges are open for limited visitors. Check the college’s website to learn if you can tour in person or attend only virtually. Virtual information sessions are a casual way to learn about a college. Typically there is a presentation by an admissions staff member. There may also be a student panel, information from faculty or administrators and a chance to ask questions. They will cover their admission and financial aid process including deadlines, recommended high school courses and requirements like SAT/ACT scores, interviews and essays.

Admission officers may also be “visiting” your high school. Check with your counseling office to learn how to register. Your school may use an online system like Scoir or Naviance to manage the college admission process–they will post visits and allow you to register via these sites. Most of the visits are virtual right now, but will likely be in person next fall.

There are also virtual college fairs through organizations like NACAC and College Board. The fairs will use break out rooms to let you meet with different schools and learn which might interest you.

Strengthening Your Application

Most students apply to college in the fall of their senior year, before first semester senior year grades are official. Your junior year grades will be the last chance to boost your grade point average before you submit applications.

While many schools are now test optional, you can work on test prep for free through Khan Academy If you have a copy of your PSAT score report, you can link your PSAT results to Khan Academy. Khan Academy will then customize the test prep–helping you strengthen your areas of weakness.

Create a Common Application Account

Over 600 schools use the Common Application as their application for admission. Students create one profile, write an essay from the common application choices, upload one set of grades and test scores, and centralize recommenders through the common application verses submitting multiple applications to schools. Schools can require additional information and essays as part of their common application, but it simplifies the process for applicants. Juniors can create an account and explore colleges through the common application. Member colleges can then connect with you and share requirements and deadlines.

Think about, or even ask, recommenders

Not every application requires you submit recommendations but many will. Now is the time to think about which teachers know you best. Who can comment on your academically ability, your work ethic, your class participation and your character. Teachers, coaches and counselors get inundated with requests for recommendations in the fall. Talking to them now, then getting the appropriate forms or links needed for your application to them in early fall, will give you an advantage (and make their life easier). Most colleges prefer at least one recommendation be from a teacher who can comment on your academic performance.

College admissions can be both fun and stressful. Preparation and planning now, will make senior year easier. If you need help, contact Coffman Consulting for assistance.

It’s registration time…what courses should your child take?

It is the time of year where high school students and 8th graders are planning their courses for next year. Based on the questions we are receiving, we thought we would compile a list of tips and advice that might help.

No two kids are the same, so often our advice is “It depends” because it does. You need to think about your child’s academic potential, how busy they are with sports/extra curricular activities/work, what type of career or college they want to attend and the requirements for those programs, your child’s mental health and what can they truly handle.

Is it better to take challenging classes or have a high grade point average? Colleges will look at both–did the student challenge themselves in high school and did they do well? No college wants to see a student taking honors or AP/Dual credit and getting C’s or D’s. The student should take the most challenging classes they can handle with a B or better. Also think about what other classes and activities they have–will they be able to balance it all? Loading up on a very challenging schedule plus playing multiple sports or having a job can lead to time management challenges. Make sure you child has the capacity and time to get the school work completed well, but can also have some activities and interests to help them be well-rounded.

How many years of a foreign language does my student need to take? Most states have minimum requirements for their high school diplomas. So first check your diploma requirements. It is usually 2 years for a basic college prep diploma and 3 for a more challenging diploma. Most colleges want to see at least 2 years but there are some that want to see four. Take a look at some of the colleges your student wants to attend and see what their requirements are (we list how to do that at the bottom of this blog). If your child is wanting to do something with an international focus, having strong language skills or multiple languages is a plus. Start your foreign language as a 9th grader. Don’t put it off incase you do poorly and need to retake it, or decide you want to change languages.

What’s the difference between Dual Credit and Advanced Placement courses? Dual credit is a college course that is taught in high school and is affiliated with a specific college. You receive college credit from that college/university. For example, many Indiana high schools offer Indiana University’s W131 composition class. If you take a dual credit class and get a C or better, you typically receive the college credit for that class. You will need to get an official transcript from the college that offered the course and send it to the college you are attending for the credit to be applied to your degree. Not all colleges accept all credit. As you met with the admissions officers on your college visit, share what you are taking and ask what you will need to get credit. For example, if you take an engineering course for dual credit but attend a college that does not offer engineering, you may not get credit.

Advanced Placement are courses designed by the College Board. You then take an exam at the end of the school year that is scored on a scale of 1-5. Some schools require a 4-5 to get credit, some give credit for a score of a 3. Most colleges will publish a list of scores needed to receive credit for an AP class. Not all colleges accept all AP classes, so again its good to check before you register. Some AP classes are worth more credit at certain schools. Its frustrating that it is different at every school, but schools are allowed to determine what credit they accept. You will also need to check if you have to have official College Board scores sent to get credit or if schools accept self-reported scores (a screen shot or photo copy of your score).

What electives should my child take? There are several different strategies that you might consider. If your child is applying to a highly selective program, the college may want to see subjects related to that major–advanced math, science, engineering for example. Check the college website or speak to an admissions officer to better understand what they want to see. If you student is an artist or performer, taking advanced art or music might be critical to succeeding at auditions. If your child really dislikes a subject and wants to get it out of the way in high school, taking dual credit or AP in that area will give them college credit and free up space during college to take classes they enjoy more, do an internship or study abroad. Or you child might just take things they like now to have a few things on their schedule at which they will excel. Its also a chance to explore–trying something they are curious about or think they might enjoy but don’t have much current exposure (like business, coding, career and technical courses).

Should my child take summer classes to get ahead? Summer can be a great way to challenge yourself, explore interests, and strengthen college applications. Summer classes are one way to take additional coursework. There are many intensive programs offered at colleges where students can take courses with faculty in a wide array of subjects–sometimes for college credit. If you child loves writing, forensic science, art, etc you could probably find a program that matches their interest. These are typically several days, involve staying on campus overnight and have tuition costs. There are many summer camps around the country that also have an academic scope from immersive spanish experiences, theater and music, or robotics. Some students just need to work and make money, or help with younger siblings, so they can’t do camps or residential programs. That need can be explained in an essay.

How do I find requirements for certain colleges? While every college website is different, most have an admissions section. Within admissions look for first-year admissions (or transfer if you student is transferring between colleges). Some colleges have a section called requirements, or high school courses. Some might say applying and under that have information about your high school transcript and what courses are required. Every school will say something about the high school preparation they want you to have, if they require an SAT or ACT, and deadlines. If you can’t find it, reach out to admissions. Always get your answers from the college where you are applying.

What is a typical schedule? There really isn’t a typical schedule because everyone has their own interests. There are 7-8 periods at most high schools each day, unless schools are utilizing block schedules. Taking 5 academic courses is typically looked at by admissions as a college prep schedule. Most colleges want to see at least:

Four years of English. It is also helpful to have Speech or Public Speaking.

Three to four years of Math. Students will want to take four if going into a science or math field or applying to a highly selective college. Typically the fourth year should be pre-calculus or calculus for highly selective colleges. Dual credit courses like Finite Math or Statistics are also a good option depending on the college.

Three years of science with two years of lab sciences (Biology, Chemistry or Physics are lab sciences)

Four years of Social Studies including US History, World History, Government and Economics.

Two to Four years of a foreign language. Students can do two years of two different languages. American Sign Language is considered a foreign language. Students applying to highly selective colleges, international studies or international business should consider taking four years.

2-3 challenging electives or academic electives. These could include performing or fine arts. They could include career related coursework such as business, education, computer science, healthcare, or other technical classes. Many states require physical education. Taking weight lifting each semester is not considered an academic elective.

Please send us additional questions through facebook messenger or the contact form on our website and we will answer them in future blogs.

Overwhelmed by Financial Aid and Tuition Costs

We haven’t had a blog recently, and we apologize for that. Like many of you we are juggling virtual work, virtual school and dealing with pandemic related fatigue. While we haven’t put much in print, we have had the pleasure to work with families through workshops and individual counseling. We continually hear that families are overwhelmed by the cost of college, the financial aid process and how to understand what they can afford. We are going to answer a few questions we get asked often and provide some resources to help you plan.

Should I file a FAFSA? Yes, even if you don’t think you will qualify for need-based aid. Many schools require them for their merit aid process. You also never know when tragedy might strike-job loss, death, divorce. If something occurs where you might need more aid or a loan, having a FAFSA on file can’t hurt. You need to make sure to submit your FAFSA before the school or state deadline–whichever is first (for example, Indiana’s state deadline is April 15th but many colleges have a March 1 deadline, so you would need to file before March 1). You then need to file the FAFSA for each child every year they are in college. Tip: Parents and students will have a PIN you each create to access and sign the FAFSA. Save your PIN in your phone so you can find it next year when you file again. The FAFSA is free. Never pay to file it. You can find it at http://www.fafsa.gov.

What tax year does the FAFSA use? The FAFSA now looks at tax data from two years ago (called prior prior year data). The FAFSA typically opens around October 1. It has gotten easier to file because it now includes an IRS look up tool that pulls in your tax data automatically. If you don’t use the IRS look up tool, you may be selected for verification. Verification requires you to submit hard copies of all your info to be “verified” by each financial office, slowing down the process.

What if your parents are divorced? The FAFSA will look at household financial data. If parents are divorced, list the parent who provides 50% or more of support or has the child 50% or more of the time. If parents have joint custody there are 365 days in a year–who had the extra day? Or who provides health insurance? If parents are remarried, the parent selected will also have to provide the step parent’s financial info even if that step parent contributes nothing financially to their college education–the FAFSA looks at household. The parent listed does not have to be the parent who claims the tax deduction for the child. It does not matter who is responsible for college tuition in any divorce decree. If the divorce decree says mom and dad must split tuition costs, only one parent (and any step parent) has to be on the FAFSA.

How do I know what I can afford to pay for college? This is often one of the hardest questions to answers and discussions to have with a family. We rarely met anyone who agrees with what the FAFSA calculates as their estimated family contribution. We like to drive newer cars, take vacations and eat out–but the government doesn’t care about that. Sit down and budget out your monthly expenses. What do you have to pay each month (mortgage, car payment, utilities, groceries, insurance, etc) and what is left. Reasonably, with making some sacrifices, what could you pay each month in tuition and costs? Most schools allow you to divide tuition payments into 10 or 11 months. If you think you can handle $1000 a month then you need to be at $10,000 out of pocket or take a loan to cover the rest.

I need help comparing financial aid packages? Colleges don’t use standard language on their financial aid letters so it is hard to compare apples to apples. We have created a spreadsheet you can use to compare costs and aid. We are happy to walk through this with your family to help you understand what is your bottom line cost and what options do you have to cover those costs.

Can I ask a college for more aid? The answer to this is maybe. First, we will look at need-based aid, then we will talk about merit aid.

Need-based aid: If something in your life has changed (job loss, death, medical bills or divorce for example) you can work with your college financial aid offices to complete an unusual circumstances form. The college is allowed, by the federal government, to use their professional judgement on whether or not to adjust your FAFSA data and recalculate your need-based aid. But you must have a FAFSA on file. Make sure to file it by the school/state deadline.

Merit aid: Some schools will not negotiate their aid packages. Other schools may be willing to review it. First, you need to have a reason for the adjustment. Saying “X school gave us $20,000 and you gave us $15,000” is not reason enough. X school might be more expensive to begin with, have weaker applicants, or just be able to afford to give more. Sit down and compare you net costs (your out of pocket costs after aid is applied) at each school, understand what you truly can afford, then have a conversation with the aid office (the spreadsheet above can help). If schools are very similar (both are small privates for example) but the aid packages are very different, that might be worth sharing. But if you are comparing a state school and a private school, the costs are not going to be equal. A school will likely not make an adjustment in that case. It never hurts to ask (nicely), have a discussion and learn what options might be available to you. You should only do this if your child is truly going to attend. Don’t waste people’s time just trying to game the system. They are busy professionals trying to help your family make the best decision for your child. Respect their time and expertise.

Is it too late to get a 529 plan? No, its probably not too late. Look at your state’s plan, as it will probably have the best tax incentives to optimize. See if you can withdraw contributions made in the same calendar year? If so, then put the money you would use to cover your out of pocket costs into the plan, get the tax credit/deduction (depending on your state) and follow the process to use the money to cover eligible educational expenses. In Indiana we get a 20% tax credit (not deduction, credit) on contributions up to $5000. That is up to $1000 off your state tax bill each year that can be directed to tuition. We are not tax professionals so check with your financial planner or CPA to get the most up to date info for your state and to also understand how other tax credits or college savings plans can be optimized for your family.

How can we avoid loans? This advice is going to be controversial–we don’t think you should. Too much loan debt is a bad thing. But a reasonable amount of loan gives your child “skin in the game”. It will also help them establish credit while in college. There are many different payment plans to fit many different income levels. Interest rates are low. However, you need to balance a variety of factors–what will their salary be like when they graduate? If they are entering a low paying field will they be able to pay off their loans. Are they planning to go to graduate or professional school, likely resulting in more loans? If so, minimizing undergrad loans might be important so they don’t have too much debt after graduate schools. Debt of 30,000 or less is reasonable–many people borrow that for a car and will pay it off in 5 years. College loans can be repaid over a longer time period.

We are happy to meet with families to help you understand the financial aid process. Happy Holidays, stay safe and healthy.

Applying to College in a Pandemic stinks!

College planning in the midst of a pandemic is certainly challenging.  Many K-12 schools are determining if they will open in person, virtually or some form of hybrid. Students aren’t confident they will get all the classes they need if they choose a virtual format.  Parents are worried that grade point averages will be impacted by students having to do so much remote work.

On top of those concerns, many testing centers had to cancel SAT and ACT exams.  The National Association for College Admission Counseling is compiling a list of schools who have either permanently or temporarily gone test optional.  You can access the list at https://www.nacacnet.org/news–publications/newsroom/test-optional-means-test-optional/.  These schools will not be using the SAT or ACT for admissions purposes.  Check each college’s website for their test optional policy and how it impacts scholarships.

What can a senior be doing right now to help themselves?  They should schedule a virtual or in-person visit to the colleges they hope to apply.  Many are offering both and you can schedule on their website.  They should be working on their applications and essays.  Make sure to visit the website and read through any deadlines, requirements, etc so that you can ask questions during your virtual or in-person visit.  Seniors should be collecting letters of recommendation if needed for their applications (typically these are also online and you send your recommender a link to complete the form). 

If a student has no idea where they want to apply, there is still plenty of time to search.  Start by using a college planning website like collegeboard.org, niche.com or Naviance if your school has that program.  Based on your interests and how you answer certain questions, they will recommend some schools to look at. Talk to your school counselor about your interests as they will know many schools to recommend.

If a student has their heart on a particular school—consider applying early or even by an early action or early decision program.  Most early decision programs are binding so read the requirements and details if you elect to go this route.

The one positive of this pandemic is it will build resiliency in students.  They are learning to be patient, innovative, and seek out information to accomplish what they need.  Those will be skills that help them for the rest of their life.

What you say and do on social media matters

Every summer there are several stories about colleges rescinding offers of admission because of questionable social media content. This past Tuesday, Marquette University rescinded the athletic scholarship and admission of a incoming female due to her racist social media post.

When you submit an application, and especially when you pay your enrollment deposit, you are agreeing to abide by the policies of that college or university. The college is required to provide those to you. They are typically found in the college catalog, student handbook or code of ethics posted on the college website. Most students don’t read them. You should. So should your parents.

While you may be going to college to “find a job”, the college wants to educate you. They want to do so in a diverse and inclusive place. They don’t want to bring students onto their campus who will make others in the community feel unsafe. And once you are a student, your social media posts can get you expelled if they show you violated campus policy.

Will colleges look at your social media during the admissions process? Some will and some won’t. Some ask for your social media handles right on their application. Others might have an admitted student social media group they invite you to join later in the process to help you get to know other students. Smaller colleges with a more personalized admissions process may have counselors who send you friend requests or follow you on Instagram. I discouraged this practice with my staff as I felt it was uncomfortable for the student. But not all schools see it that way. Eventually, you and your future college may connect via social media.

One way that I did use social media was to see if a student was planning to attend. We might look to see if an athlete posted a signing ceremony photo indicating their plans to enroll. If a student, who seemed interested was now ghosting us, we might check their social media to see if they had announced where they were attending (college reveal parties are a recent social media trend). If something concerning was found through one of those connections it could impact admission. I’ve luckily never discovered something that way.

I have received screen shots from people for all sorts of reasons. Angry ex’s looking to get someone in trouble. Parents of another child who felt “we needed to know”, even educators or alumni who felt someone might poss a risk to our campus. The minute you post something, someone can capture and forward it. Typically it resulted in a conversation with the student and parent. In two cases, the student “decided” not to enroll.

I’ve seen posts that were well intentioned but shouldn’t be put on social media. Don’t share, to brag or complain about, your scholarship amounts from a particular school. Competing schools could see it. While you want to demonstrate interest in the schools you are considering, don’t post videos from your top choice college visit saying it’s your top choice (your other choices don’t need to know that). For marketing purposes, many schools use social media tools that let them see when they are mentioned. If you talk about a school, even if you don’t tag them, they will know.

Be smart. Be kind. Treat others as you would want to be treated, even on social media. If we can be of assistance during your college search, please let us know.

Writing an essay in the time of COVID

I read recently that we are all weathering the same storm, but doing it in different boats. Like many other parents I’m juggling working full-time remotely, helping my kids do remote learning, navigating how to feed and supply us when I don’t want to get exposed to the virus by shopping. I’m lucky. No one close to me has gotten sick, or died. I have friends and family who have lost jobs. I worry about my healthcare worker friends. But all in all, I have weather this storm in a very secure boat. And for that I am grateful.

Most teenagers will feel it makes sense to write above Covid in their college essays. Its been a defining life event for many of you. Global pandemics don’t happen very often (and lets pray never again). You missed out on seeing friends, sports seasons, spring musicals and concerts. You had to learn quadratic equations via zoom and will take AP exams at home. It is different from your norm. But its different from everyone’s norm. So everyone will probably write about it.

I remember reading application essays about September 11th. 9-11 was very personal for me. I grew up on Staten Island, NY–part of New York City. My father and brother both worked in lower Manhattan when the towers were hit. Staten Island is home to more fire fighters and police than other parts of the city. I lost friends that day that I learned about immediately. Social media wasn’t around yet. As I talked to friends and family (on an actual phone or via email), I learned of people from all stages of my life who were killed. It went on for weeks, months, even years as friends have contracted health issues related to working at ground zero. It was hard for me to read essays about 9-11, unless they were thoughtful. Students didn’t have to know someone who was killed for the attacks to have impacted them. But they had to reflect on what changed in them, our nation, the world that day.

You likely won’t know the person reading your essay. You won’t know how Covid impacted them or their family. You won’t know if they typically read 100 essays or 1000 essays. But you want yours to be honest, reflective of your situation and heartfelt. The person reading your essay wants to know more about you than your transcript and test scores show. They want to be able to picture you in class adding value to that day’s discussion. They want to confidentially know that you will be able to take college level material, read it, analyze it, and synthesize your thoughts into a meaningful piece professors will value. They want to have a sense of the personality you will bring to campus and how you will contribute.

Instead of talking about how you binged the entire Tiger King documentary in one day, discuss how Americans needed a distraction so badly they choose that one. Discuss feeling a lack of safety for the first time in your life. Discuss what was the same and what changed when the world was able to resume. Be vulnerable and share your true thoughts. When admission counselors are heating up their lunch or grabbing coffee in the break room you want them to say “I was so tired of reading essays about Covid until I came across this one”. And you want that one to be yours.

Use your social distancing time to find scholarships

High school students everywhere are missing out on so much, but funding for college doesn’t have to be one of them. While stuck at home, why not look for scholarships.

Finding scholarships online takes time and effort. Junior year is a good time to start—although most applications are due the fall of senior year. Starting now will give you a sense of what is required and allow you to note future deadlines. Online websites are a great resource . The most common include:

  • Fast web.com
  • Cappex.com
  • Scholarships.com
  • Bigfuture.collegeboard.org
  • Chegg.com
  • Niche.com
  • Petersons.com

You should also check with your local community foundation website. They often have scholarships specific to your town, county or high school. The Lions Club, Kiwanis, Rotary or other service organizations also have local awards. Check their websites or your school counselor may have a list.

Where do your parents or grandparents work? Do they have a foundation or scholarship program? Where do you like to shop? Visit the webpage, look for community relations or charitable giving—if there is a scholarship it will be under that section.

Do you want to go into a certain industry like teaching or nursing? Both have shortages so some states are offering scholarships to encourage enrollment. These can usually be found on the website of the agency that handles financial aid programs for your state or your higher education commission/board of regents/board of education. Search for professional organizations related to your field of interest as their may also be scholarship competitions.

Your church may have scholarships to specific colleges of the same faith/denomination. Check on your home church website but also check your national website.

Follow organizations like Sallie Mae, College Board, get schooled, and ACT for their scholarship announcements.

Having good grades and a strong essay are key to scholarship success. If you want someone to read and provide feedback on your essay, Coffman Consulting is happy to help.

COVID-19 changes, cancellations and picking a school during the crisis.

What an unprecedented time. I continue to pray this virus will end quickly; for our health workers and first responders to stay healthy; for small business owners and entrepreneurs to survive any economic impact; and that we all give each other help, grace and mercy during this difficult time

My heart breaks for high school seniors—they had so much to look forward to that has been put on hold or cancelled. I’m sure they are devastated. Juniors were excited and nervous to visit colleges and that is on hold as well.

Many colleges have sent their students home and are conducting classes online. All campus events are cancelled including admissions tours and admitted student events. Seniors—I encourage you to take part in any online events the college is offering to help you make your decision. You can have phone calls with faculty in the areas you want to study, ask to be connected to current students, and speak with your admissions counselor—they can help get you the info you need.

Schools set to release admission decisions in April have not, yet, indicated they are postponing those decisions or extending deadlines to pay deposits. But continue to check their social media and their websites for the most updated information. They will likely also email applicants if anything changes.

Check that your first year orientation dates, especially any early registration programs held in April or May, have not been cancelled or postponed.

College Board has cancelled the May SAT. At this point they have not cancelled AP exams and are even making arrangements for students to possibly test at home. College Board’s social media accounts are the best source of information. At the time of publication, ACT has moved the April test to June.

I will continue to share news as I learn of it. I wish you all the best as we navigate this challenging and unique time.

Why has it become so difficult to get in to college?

This is a loaded question because while some colleges have become highly selective, many have not. According to Nathan Crawe’s “Demographics and Demand for Higher Education” the birth rate is on a twenty year decline resulting in less high school graduates. As a result, many colleges are struggling to fill their freshmen class. Those schools are offering very competitive aid to good students in an effort to build their enrollment. However, the colleges that are nationally ranked have continued to get more and more difficult to gain admission. There are several factors impacting college admissions.

In the 1980s magazines began ranking schools and programs. These issues sold a lot of copies, and advertising space. So even more magazines and websites launched rankings. Ann Machung argues in “Playing the Rankings Game” that those rankings impacted college applications. Colleges began to look at the factors that impacted their rankings. Selectivity was one of those factors. Average SAT/ACT scores were another. Schools began to work to increase applications. They admitted a smaller number of students with higher test scores, all to move up in the publications.

At the same the American economy was changing. Workers needed more than a high school diploma to secure a livable wage. Baby boomers were beginning to retire. More qualified workers were needed. Yet, according to the Lumina Foundation, only about 40% of students entering college were actually graduating on time. Only 50% were graduating at all. State legislatures, foundations, the federal department of education started focusing on completion rates. Lumina set a goal that 60% of working age adults would have a post secondary credential or degree. Many states shifted how they funded state colleges/universities. Funding was

now based on students graduating not just enrolling.

Colleges wanted evidence that students would be successful at their schools. They began studying their incoming and graduating student data. They created profiles of successful students. This resulted in admitting students with stronger academic profiles—higher grade point averages, advanced placement and dual credit, and ACT/SAT scores. Some colleges began accepting students who were more likely to complete (while others created support programs to help students complete). High schools were pushed to better prepare students for college. They responded by increasing their offerings and rigor to help.

While the birth rate is down, high schools are graduating more of the students who enroll in 9-12th grade. More of those students are heading to college. High school seniors have also been applying to many more colleges than the high school graduates from the 1990s and early 2000s. A larger applicant pool sometimes means a college can be more selective. However for the last few years, despite an increased application pool many colleges are seeing a smaller number of students enroll.

So what does this mean for the student applying? Broaden where you are looking. There are hundreds of colleges in this country. Most will prepare you well for what you want to do after you graduate (as long as you do internships and take advantage of work-based experiences). Brand name colleges can be very attractive-they have impressive alumni, big time sports, etc. But there are many colleges, not at the top of the rankings, that are changing lives.

How to compare financial aid packages

When I worked in admissions and financial aid, I’d often be contacted by families asking if we would match a scholarship offer from another college. Not every college has the same budget for financial aid, nor do they have the same tuition costs. I’d encourage families to let me do a net price comparison for them. They could then see the bottom line costs at all schools. They could then factor in the true costs as they decided which was the best option for their child.

Colleges, and the government, use a lot of terms. A term you will hear a lot is “Cost of Attendance (COA)”. The federal department of education allows colleges to list a cost of attendance that includes tuition, room and board, and other costs they estimate like transportation to and from campus, miscellaneous fees, personal expenses (ie: toiletries). Not every school includes the same things in their cost of attendance.

Mandatory fees are fees a college or university charges all students such as an activity fee or a technology fee. Optional fees are fees students are charged for specific classes or services such as a parking fee or a lab fee for a biology class. I don’t typically compare optional fees as they vary from school to school.

Instead of using the cost of attendance, I look up the actual costs of tuition, housing, meal plans, and fees to make sure I’m using the most similar data. It’s important to compare apples to apples–some schools might have multiple meal plan options. Some may charge different amounts for different housing (suites, apartments, single rooms). The cost of attendance at once school might be an average while the other school uses actual numbers.

You can easily make your own net price comparison spreadsheet. Create a column for each school, input the costs for tuition, housing, meal plans, and mandatory fees. Total those costs. Subtract any aid from the total costs–listing out merit scholarships, federal grants, state grants, work-study and student loans. You will be left with your unmet need/out of pocket costs. Below is a basic example, you could add any lines you need for additional school specific need-based grants.

 College ACollege BCollege CCollege D
Tuition full-time 15-19 credit hours1122030,10035000 
housing517055005500 
standard meal plan600055006000 
any mandatory fees500250500 
total costs2289041350470000
     
     
Merit scholarship Total50002300025000 
Pell Grant000 
State Grant000 
Work Study150015001500 
Federal Direct Subsidized Loan250025002500 
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan300030003000 
Parent Plus Loan00  
total aid1200030000320000
     
remaining unmet need1089011350150000

Sometimes a private school maybe less expensive or close to the same cost as a state school, after scholarships. Sometimes the larger scholarship is from a school with a larger tuition–making the smaller scholarship still a better deal. If costs at two schools are similar, but one has offered significantly more aid, I’d let the other school know. They might increase the scholarship to be competitive. I’d only do it if its your top choice and you are willing to attend if they make the increase. Many schools will not negotiate this way, so be prepared for a no.

Most schools will offer a payment plan to let you cover costs over a 9 or 10 month period (otherwise you typically have two payments–one for fall and one for spring). Parents can also borrow a parent plus loan up to the cost of attendance of a college. Discuss as a family what can you afford to pay for tuition annually. Think about expenses you will no longer have once your child heads to college–fees you pay for their clubs/sports/lessons, groceries if they are now eating at school, utilities if they are no longer at home–can that be applied to tuition costs? What have you saved for their education and how much can you use each year? What do you typically spend on vacations a year? Will anything be paid off like a car or credit card that will allow you to redirect those funds towards tuition?

I don’t recommend picking a school solely on cost. You want your child to be happy and succeed. But if they are excited to attend all schools, and one is obviously a better financial option–comparing bottom line costs can help you with the decision.

Finally, look at the schools’ four year graduation rate. You want to make sure your child will finish in 4 years. The added tuition, room and board, and book costs for 4.5 years or 5 years is a major factor to consider when weighing bottom line costs. They will also be losing a semester or a year of salary if they are in school an additional year. On-time graduation has significant return on investment.

If you would like help understanding your financial aid package or need advice on how to talk to a financial aid office, feel free to reach out to Coffman Consulting for assistance.

How to start a college search?

Starting a college search can be overwhelming. There are hundreds of colleges around the country. Schools can have a few hundred students to tens of thousands of students. They are in small towns and large cities. Tuition, scholarships and financial aid vary. So where should you start?

A college search engine can be a great tool. Some high schools purchase a program like Naviance for students to use. But there are many free tools available as well. College Board, the people behind the SAT, have a great website called BigFuture (www.bigfuture.collegeboard.org). Cappex.com, Niche.com, Petersons.com, Collegeconfidential.com are all sites where you can explore colleges.

Most of the search endings will ask similar questions to try and match you to schools that might be a good fit. They include:

What do you want to study? Its ok not to know but think about what might be some areas of interest. What subjects do you enjoy in high school? What do you enjoy in your spare time? What do you know you don’t want to do? If you have no idea you might consider taking a career inventory. Many high school guidance staff can get access to them for you. They help take your interests and aptitude and provide a list of careers using those skills and interests.

Do you want a large or small school? Again, you may not know until you walk on a campus but start looking at the websites of all different colleges. What do they say that resonates with you? Do you tend to do better when teachers know you and work closely with you or do you prefer to be one of the crowd? Do you want to know everyone’s name or do you want to be more anonymous? Are you looking for big time sports where you get to be a fan, do you still want to play at some level, or are you not interested in athletics?

What type of clubs and activities do you hope to join? Do you want a place that lets non-theater majors perform or where you can sing in a chorus even if not a music major? Do you want to be involved in student government? Is service important to you? Do you want fraternities or sororities? Check out the student life pages of websites to see what they offer.

Will you be living on campus? Take a look at housing options and food options. Do you have any particular dietary needs or preferences you want to make sure you can access?

Who will be teaching you? Will your classes be with faculty who get to know you well or will you likely have graduate students (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–they just tend to graduate so you may not have them ever again). Does the curriculum primarily use lecture style or is it a more engaging format that involves project-based or case-based learning where you get more practical experience.

Is there a core curriculum with classes you have to take? Do they interest you?

How will they help prepare you for your career? Are there required internships? How is the career services office? Do students end up employed after graduation in careers related to their interests (I purposely didn’t say in their field of study because a student might end up with a job they love that uses the skills they gained in college but isn’t directly related to their major).

Start to create a list of schools that interests you. Go to the school’s website and join their mailing list. Visit the school and attend an information session. Talk to your school counselor and see if there are any recent graduates from your high school attending (or who attended but transferred elsewhere). They will be honest with you about their experience.

When should you start visiting colleges?

I’m prepared to get some push back on this post. But read it all the way through because I’m not crazy. I want students to submit the strongest applications for admission they can. I also want families to approach the college admission process informed and on the same page. And that starts with visiting colleges as sophomores.

I know you are thinking, my child has no idea where they even want to go or what they want to study. How can we possibly start looking at colleges? That’s a perfect reason. Go see what’s out there. Check out a small private, a large state school and what’s in between. Learn about costs, scholarship opportunities, admission requirements and majors. Some will feel too big, some will feel too small, but like Goldilocks–some will feel just right. Don’t rule anything out based on tuition until you hear about their scholarships and what percentage of students receive them.

More importantly, starting sophomore year gives your student time to bring up grades, add coursework and improve test scores. The majority of students will submit applications in the fall of their senior year, typically by November 1 deadlines. Their transcript will show all of their grades through the end of junior year. Nothing is worse then visiting your dream school the fall of your senior year to hear that you are missing a class they require for admission, or that your grade point average is fair below their middle 50% (colleges will publish the range of where the middle of their applicant pool scored–25% will have scored less, 25% will have scored more, but being in this middle 50% is typically an indication you should apply). What if they want to see activities related to your academic interest and you have none. You’ve got time to fix all of the above.

To get started, visit a college website, click on admissions, and then visit (might be called visit opportunities, visit days, visiting), and look for open houses or information sessions. These programs typically include a campus tour (do the optional residence hall tour as well so you can see some living options) and a presentation by the admission staff. The presentation will include general information about the college or university, majors, academic programs of interest–for instance a small liberal arts college might talk about its liberal arts core curriculum. There should be information on the admissions and financial aid process including deadlines, high school coursework recommended, if they require test scores, and how to apply (school application, common application, coalition application). They should include information about campus life and most importantly how they prepare you for your life after college.

Then come back as a family and discuss what you heard and saw. Get past who had the biggest residence hall rooms or Chick-fil-a in the student center. Did you like what you heard about career preparation, support services, academic majors? Did you see students who looked like you? Will you be comfortable there? Do faculty teach undergrads or is it mostly graduate assistants? Does it sound like their financial aid or costs line up with what you can afford?

Then as a junior return for a more personalized visit to campus. Depending on the school and their visit policies this may include a one on one meeting with an admissions counselor. They will look at test scores, transcripts, high school involvement and help counsel you on whether or not to apply. They can also suggest areas to improve to strengthen your application. They may have a program for juniors that include student panels or faculty talks. Check their website or call their office to learn more.

Senior year might require an additional visit for a formal interview if that is required for admission. Once you are admitted, you want to take a test drive. Some colleges may let you spend the day shadowing a student with similar interests to you–attending class, eating lunch in a cafeteria, meeting with faculty. Some offer overnight programs where you stay with a student host and spend the day going to all their classes and activities. It helps you discover if the college will be the right fit for you. It also demonstrates your interest in the college. If admission decisions or scholarship decisions are made by a committee, they can see you have been to campus multiple times.

Building a relationship with your admission counselor can be helpful at some schools. When they know you, they can advocate on your behalf as appropriate. Smaller schools will often have their admissions staff call, email, text you–answer and ask questions. They are there to help you figure out if their school is right for you. The better they know you the better they can connect you to opportunities on the campus.

If you are applying to colleges that are not where you live, sign up to receive information from the school. They may offer virtual programs you can attend or a regional event in your area or a nearby city. They may offer alumni interviews. There may be online chats with students or the admissions staff. Read the emails they send you so you don’t miss out on these opportunities.

If you would like advice on how to research colleges, what should you bring on visit, what questions should you ask, and how to prepare for your interviews, Coffman Consulting can help. We provide hourly consulting for specific situations like these as well as more long term contracts to meet a variety of needs. Being prepared can make a visit go smoothly and help you learn what you need to be admissible.

It’s FAFSA Time

The financial aid process has changed over the last few years. Most changes have been designed to make it easier on families. You start by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at http://www.fafsa.gov or by downloading the MyStudentAid app from your App Store.

The FAFSA now opens around October 1st giving families a longer window to file. It also now uses your income from two years ago instead of the prior year. If you are submitting the FAFSA for the Fall 2020 school year, you use your 2018 taxes. Also most states have a deadline. Make sure your FAFSA is submitted, signed and correct by your state deadline. Visit http://www.studentaid.gov to find your state deadline. Indiana is April 15.

For most people, the FAFSA is a very simple process. The form offers an IRS link that allows a family to import their tax info in seconds. Using this link significantly reduces errors and minimizes being selected for verification. Thirty percent of filers are selected for verification—a process where you must submit additional documentation to the financial aid offices to verify the information on your FAFSA. Don’t worry—just submit the materials requested by the required deadlines and you will be fine.

Whose income should be included on the FAFSA? A student’s and their household’s.

  • If the student’s parents are divorced, it should be the parent who has custody.
  • If divorced parents share joint custody then it should be the parent providing 50% or more support to the child—health insurance, school fees, etc.
  • What if the divorced parents split every cost down the middle? There are 365 days in a year—an odd number so it can’t be split evenly. Who had the child 183 days, who had 182?
  • If the parent being listed on the FAFSA is remarried, the step parent’s income must also be included.
  • Even if the divorce decree says one parent must pay for college, their income doesn’t need to be on the FAFSA if they are not the household parent.
  • It doesn’t matter which parent claims the child on their taxes—it is household.

Many families say they know they won’t qualify so why bother filing a FAFSA. Tragedies happen. Having your FAFSA on file by your state’s deadline allows you to tap into aid if you might need it. I have seen families experience job loss, death, and other situations that resulted in needing a student loan or qualifying for a grant. Financial Aid offices are also given some leeway to make professional judgements for families who have unusual circumstances impacting their income. Talk to your admissions counselor or financial aid office if you have questions.

If you need help with your FAFSA many states have a College Goal Sunday event that offers free help completing your FAFSA. Get Schooled published a helpful list of each state’s FAFSA events https://getschooled.com/article/2632-find-a-fafsa-workshop-near-you.

The FAFSA is a free form (it’s in the name) so do not EVER pay a fee to have it completed. If the website is asking for a credit card to submit, it’s not the correct website.

Keep both the parent login credentials and student login credentials, called your Federal Student Aid ID or FSA ID, because you will need them to file each year your child is in college, as well as to access loans and other federal aid documents. If you have multiple children, the parent FSA ID will be the same but each child will need their own credentials. Go to https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/filling-out#creating-an-fsa-id to get started.

Financial Aid professionals at the college where you are applying are your best resource for school specific aid information. Coffman Consulting is happy to help with any general aid questions.

Do I have to take the SAT or ACT?

With so many schools going test optional, do you still need a standardized test score? The answer is yes.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing reports that 1060 college and universities no longer require the SAT or ACT for admission. But there are hundreds of colleges that still do. And even among those that are test optional, their practices vary. I always recommend talking directly to an admission counselor at the college you are applying to get both their policy and to clarify how they put that policy into practice.

Some test optional (TO) colleges still require an SAT or ACT for their scholarship competitions. Other TO colleges and universities may still require it for direct admission into certain competitive majors or honors programs. It is important to not only research the college’s admissions process but also check scholarship and major criteria.

What has been difficult is knowing how a TO school will use your test data if they receive it. Some colleges require you specifically ask for it not to be used. Some colleges will still use it if submitted. Make sure your scores are not on your high school transcript if you do not want them to be part of your official application.

All students should take at least one standardized test. If you can afford it, take both the SAT and ACT at least once. They test different concepts and subjects. Some students find they perform better on one than the other. Take the PSAT or the PreACT in the fall of 10th grade if your high school allows, but definitely by fall of 11th grade. Typically one of these tests is offered at your high school but check with your school counselor if you haven’t heard how to register or when it’s offered.

Colleges license your data from these testing agencies. They will then market their schools and programs to you. While this will significantly increased the email in your inbox—it will also allow you to learn about colleges that offer your career interests and are a good fit for your academic profile. You may get invited to scholarships competitions or invited to apply for specific programs. Read the mail, digital and paper, that colleges send you. A great opportunity may lie in those messages.

Before you take the PSAT or PreACT do some preparation. You can access free test prep offered by College Board in partnership with Khan Academy at https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/practice/khan-academy or ACT’s https://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/test-preparation.html to possibly improve your score. Continue that preparation before each additional test to increase your comfort with the exam.

You are more than a score. But putting your best foot forward with a strong score can be helpful. Knowing when and how to share that score data can help strengthen your candidacy. Talk to your school counselor, the college’s admission staff, or to Coffman Consulting if you need advice and guidance on this matter.