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Answers to Your College Questions

Top 7 Financial Questions to Answer Before Starting Your College Applications

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1. “How much can my family and I afford to pay for college each year?”

Unfortunately, many young people go about their college search as if financial aspects are a nonissue. These students are often disappointed in the end, when they learn that their number-one college choice is unaffordable. Determining the amount you and your family can afford before beginning your applications will prevent this and allow you to find a school within your budget.

2. “How can I use net price calculators to estimate the amount each college will cost me?”

Every college in the country has a net price calculator on its website. A college’s net price calculator helps you to estimate the amount you will have to pay, or your net price, at that school. Net price is defined as the sticker price minus any grants and/or scholarships provided. It is important to understand your net price because this price is what your family will actually have to pay. If it matches what you have determined you can afford, that school is a financial fit.

3. “How much is a reasonable amount to borrow in student loans?”

Every student who files the FAFSA automatically qualifies to borrow Federal Direct loans in amounts up to $5,500 in freshman year, $6,500 in sophomore year, and $7,500 in each of junior and senior years. If students need to attend college for a fifth year, they are eligible for another $4,000 for that year. Borrowing $30,000 will result in a payment after graduation that should be less than $300 per month (assuming that you pay over the standard 10-year period).

It is important for you to determine if this payment schedule would be reasonable for you. Are you willing to risk borrowing more, given that many students today are borrowing excessive amounts of $50,000 or more to pay for college?

Not sure how much you can afford to spend on college? Searching for schools that will offer you a reasonable net price?

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4. “Do the college(s) on my list offer scholarships beyond those listed on the net price calculator?”

Some colleges include academic merit scholarships in their net price calculators, while others do not. Even when academic scholarships are included in the NPC’s, some colleges provide additional scholarships for art, music, athletics, leadership, volunteerism, and more. Make sure that you investigate every type of aid available at the schools you’re interested in, to see if your strengths make you eligible for other scholarships.

5. “What back-up options are available to me if it turns out that my first-choice colleges are not affordable?”

There are two primary back-up options that every family should consider: the commuting option and the community college option. Investigate the four-year and community colleges close enough to home that would allow you to save on room and board costs. When commuting to a four-year school, a student could save up to $13,000 in room and board costs. Local community colleges also offer the benefit of much lower tuition, in addition to saving on housing by commuting. This will be very helpful to you should your first-choice colleges not be affordable.

6. “How likely is it that I will be accepted to the colleges that are affordable to me?”

This question speaks to the notion of academic fit. Is it reasonable to believe that you will be successful academically at the school? Does the college have the major you want? Do your ACT or SAT score and your GPA match the average profile of the students at that school?

If there’s a possibility that your affordable college options are not an academic fit, then continue your search to find additional colleges that fit you both ways, and consider the economical back-up options listed above: community college and commuting.

7. “Is the college right for me culturally, socially, and spiritually?”

Application fees cost anywhere from $35 to $100. If you are going to invest the time, energy, and money to apply to a college, you should already have determined that the college is a financial fit, an academic fit, and a “feel” fit. The best way to determine “feel” fit is to visit colleges. When you’re on campus, speak with students and faculty. Is the college right for you socially? Is the culture of the college campus one that fits your personality? Are you interested in the spiritual make-up of the college? These social, cultural, spiritual, and (in some cases) political aspects may be critical in helping you decide whether a college feels right for you.

The key is to consider college costs throughout the process, so that when you apply and get accepted to a school that fits you best in all the important ways, you won’t have to borrow excessively to earn your college degree.

Want to find schools that meet all your financial, academic, social, and cultural criteria?

Check out Fiske Interactive Online 2014 to browse over 300 profiles of the best and most interesting schools in the U.S. and abroad.

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Frank Palmasani is a Chicago area high school guidance counselor and former college director of admissions, and creator of Financial Fit. In 1985, Palmasani began delivering seminars on the college financial aid and planning process, and estimates that he has reached more than 200,000 people through his talks. He is a member of NACAC, IACAC, and the College Board. Palmasani has been featured in the Boston Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Yahoo! Finance, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV, CBS’s Monsters and Money in the Morning, and is the author of the forthcoming book Right College, Right Price (Sourcebooks, January 2013).

Palmasani is the founder of Financial Fit, which you can find in the College Countdown bookstore.