Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Safety School" Takes on a Whole New Meaning During Economic Downturn

Applying to college, albeit stressful, is often an exhilarating time in a young person’s life. Once you’ve successfully maneuvered the grueling process of gathering letters of recommendation and writing seemingly endless amounts of essays, the possibilities college can offer emerge from the shroud of paperwork. Postsecondary eagerness is piqued by the thought of new people, new places and the idea of finally acquiring that oh-so-coveted notion of independence. You may also find the frequency of your mailbox trips increasing by the day.

College applicants are often especially anxious to find out whether or not they have been granted admission to their “dream schools.” The possibility of rejection from such schools necessitates the need for the “safety school,” a college (or two) which will be there for you if (knock on wood!) you do not make it into one of your top choices.

Amidst rising costs of tuition and the current financial concerns facing Americans, the generic “safety school” for many young adults has become one based on financial practicality rather than mere preference. According to Shelly Banjo of the Wall Street Journal, “While many parents and students have long emphasized getting into a top school over financial considerations, families in recent months have seen the value of their homes decline, their investments dramatically shrink and sometimes monthly income lost due to layoffs.”

In order to ease the burden of the cost of college, many families have begun to encourage their high school seniors to apply to less costly universities. Students whose families have been adversely effected by the financial crisis have also begun to think about attending colleges that are close to home to save on housing and transportation costs. Some have even broached the topic of attending a community college for the first half of their college career.

The above claims are not mere media hearsay; according to MeritAid.com, a scholarship website, a survey of 2,500 high school seniors found that “57% of prospective college students say they are ‘now considering a less prestigious college due to affordability.’” The survey also found that 16% of these students are even “now putting their college searches on hold because they don’t think their families will be able to pay for college.”

While many families will inevitably endure the financial crunch of an economic downturn, college hopefuls should not consider the possibility of attending their dream university a lost cause. According to Banjo, “While the sticker price might be high, a favorable aid package could make some private colleges cost-competitive with a public institution.” At Dartmouth, students of families who earn less than $75,000 are not charged tuition.

It is always disappointing to feel as if the door of your dream college has been slammed shut before you’ve even applied because of financial considerations beyond your control. However, being both knowledgeable and aggressive in respect to financial aid and scholarship opportunities can bring to light various possibilities. Filing the FAFSA will determine if you qualify for federal aid and is also used by some colleges to determine your award package. The FAFSA is available at fafsa.ed.gov and is to be filed no earlier than January 1 of the year you will be attending. It is important to remember to file every year.

The CSS Profile Application is another resource utilized by colleges to determine need, as it "gives financial aid administrators a broader set of data from which to derive your eligibility for institutional need-based assistance." The CSS Profile Application is available at collegeboard.org. For more information on applying for aid (including the process by which the Department of Education determines your need, scholarship search services and other options such as work-study programs, visit the Financial Aid Resource Center at http://www.theoldschool.org/

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