With every college promising an affordable education in the face of rising student debt, someone has to be lying. Fortunately, the numbers don't lie. Unfortunately, that means that students have to navigate an increasingly deceptive landscape of colleges vying for their deposit.
So what is one supposed to do?
Honestly, there isn't much that you can do about the system. There is a lot that goes on behind closed doors: unique formulas that each universities use to calculate aid packages, ever-changing financial aid policies, and of course, human error. But in today's economy, prospective students, especially those who are low-income, can't afford to be exploited by the stinginess of their dream schools. The solution? Don't apply to schools that will treat you like a dollar sign.
You might think there's a program or major that is worth the debt. There isn't. Too many students choose schools for their prestige or special programs, only to transfer after their freshman year due to poor financial aid. If a particular school is worth going to, they will treat you like you are worth it.
There's good news in all of this, though. The Obama administration saw this student debt epidemic and began undertaking research in order to make college financial aid as transparent as possible. The project was halted due to lobbying by large corporations and universities, but that didn't stop them from dumping all of their data into what is known as the CollegeBoard Scorecard. Seriously, check it out. Their database includes exact numbers on the cost and financial aid programs at most schools, so you don't have to take the school's word for it.
Highly selective private and public schools dominate what one would consider "good" financial aid programs, but what makes a financial aid program bad?
1. Not meeting 100% need (even if they say they do)
- You see, "meeting full demonstrated need" means nothing during the college application process. What qualifies as need is in the eye of the beholder, and many colleges construe applicants' need to include unnecessary loans and work study. Essentially, colleges can determine that you can handle thousands of dollars in loans, even if your Expected Family Contribution(EFC) is 0. Universities such as NYU and USC are infamous for their stingy financial aid packages. Forums like College Confidential are toxic most of the time, but it's for questions like these where you can get a feel for colleges who are guilty of this practice. The CollegeBoard ScoreCard will also shed some light, recording the average debt of its graduating classes.
2. Decreasing financial aid after the first year (even if your financial situation has not changed)
- Yes, colleges will lure students with good aid packages before they've committed to the school — and then flush their financial aid down the toilet once they become upperclassmen, regardless of whether their financial situation has improved. I'm talking about an increase of up to $10,000 or more at some schools. Colleges will typically do this because they can. Think about it. The student only really has two options: 1) transfer elsewhere, which is a stressful process for obvious reasons, or 2) take on the debt. I know of several students who are transferring out of or dropping out of a prestigious school *cough* USC *cough* for this exact reason. It's not a fun position to be in.
3. Taking scholarships and simply subtracting from your aid
- Those hard-won scholarships that you poured blood, sweat, and tears into? Yes, some colleges will simply take it and leave nothing for you. Most colleges are reasonable and will subtract from any loans or work study for every scholarship won, but beyond that, financial aid offices will simply take back the grant money given to you. Goodbye, incentive to apply to scholarships. This is why it is incredibly important to apply to scholarships that send checks directly to you. If they send it to the school, chances are, you'll never see that money. Unlike the question of "need", financial aid offices have no problem telling you their policies concerning scholarships. Just email them (after you're accepted, of course. Otherwise, it's a little presumptuous, no?)
Now, which universities and colleges are guilty of ruining their students financially?
Again, so much goes on behind closed doors, it's hard to pinpoint culprits. The CollegeBoard ScoreCard does a good job at outing schools that may be saddling their students with debt, but school-specific practices regarding financial aid remain a well-kept secret. Schools like NYU and USC do have notorious reputations for the aforementioned practices, and US News catches other schools who exploit their students in articles like this. All in all, it's much easier to identify schools with good financial aid programs.
For example, there are only seven schools in the US that are need-blind for international applicants. The fact that their financial aid program allows them to be completely need-blind speaks to its generosity. These schools are:
- Amherst College
- Harvard University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Princeton University
- Yale University
- Soka University of America
- Minerva Schools at KGI
The CollegeBoard Scorecard is an excellent resource for finding other affordable colleges, especially those that are not as selective as those listed above. I realize that this whole article is a plug for the ScoreCard — but only because I came across these articles - How Students Used the College Scorecard to Research Schools, and Ranking the Best (and Worst) Colleges for Low Income Students. The first article states that the Scorecard is used primarily by "well-resourced, particularly private, schools", which means it is not being used by the very demographic that needs it most — low-income students.
All in all, the financial aid process is a confusing one that requires extensive research. Don't rob yourself out of tens of thousands of dollars by planning poorly for the college application process. It starts now, with every school you apply to. If you plan your list carefully, you should have an affordable financial aid package at a school you're going to be happy going to.