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The great college aid game: Ways students can avoid full sticker price (+video)

For five New Rochelle High School seniors who have applied to colleges, January has been spent facing a new pile of forms – for financial aid. Most students never pay full tuition, but it takes savvy help to make that happen.

By Barbara KantrowitzThe Hechinger Report / January 21, 2014

Matisse Clayton (right) worked on college application fees with her mother, Gwen Clayton (left), in December at the family's restaurant in New Rochelle, N.Y. With the application process done, Matisse then had to turn, in January, to a new pile of paperwork for financial aid.

Ann Hermes / Staff

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New Rochelle, N.Y.

This is the second article in a series following five New Rochelle High School seniors on their quest for college financial aid. The project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, Matisse Clayton was hunkered down in the back room of Alvin & Friends, her parents’ restaurant in this economically diverse suburb of New York City. The front room was packed with brunch customers, and Matisse needed the quiet space of the back room, normally used for private parties, to make her way through the thick packet of information about scholarships that her college counselor had given her a couple of days earlier. She also hoped that she might be able to grab time to consult with her mother, Gwen, who had been busy at the restaurant most of the weekend.

Just a few days after she pressed the “submit” button on her last college application, Matisse faced a new pile of forms. 

“You have to do it because you need the money,” she says. And Matisse understands that money will probably be the deciding factor when she makes her ultimate college choice in the spring. 

“My parents are going to want me to be happy wherever I end up,” she says, “but it’s not going to be a happy time if we can’t afford for me to go to the school.” 

Most college applications were due at the end of December, so January should have been a little easier for the five New Rochelle High School seniors who are the subjects of this yearlong series. But the gap between the cost of attending college and what their families can afford means that the month is filled with still more forms and applications, this time for financial aid and scholarships.

For Matisse and the other seniors, the results are critical. A year at the most expensive private universities now tops the US median household income of just over $51,000. Harvard University estimates that costs for the current school year could be as high as $65,000. Even public universities have hefty price tags. At the University of Michigan, the full price for state residents is more than $26,000 for freshman year, while the bill for out-of-staters can be nearly $54,000.

But most students do not pay that “sticker price.” The College Board estimates that two-thirds of undergraduates get some financial aid, so their “net price” is lower. Applying for that aid means plowing through what may seem like a labyrinth of forms. Low-income students – who need money the most – can struggle to navigate the daunting process without the guidance so in abundance at New Rochelle High School. 

Financial aid is generally a combination of grants or scholarships, which don’t have to be paid back, and loans to students or parents, some subsidized by the federal government. Scholarships can come from the colleges themselves, governments, or private organizations. Students can also get money through the federal work-study program, which pays for short-term jobs on campus. 

The net price for an individual student depends on many things, including family income, the college’s selectivity, a student’s academic record, and the amount of money a school has for financial aid. At the most selective schools, students from relatively wealthy families might pay the full sticker price while low-income students could end up paying almost nothing – which often leaves middle-class students struggling. Less selective schools, especially private institutions, may give out money to attract talented students in the form of “merit” scholarships. These scholarships don’t depend on need and are one way that middle-class students can reduce their costs.

One of the New Rochelle students, Haleigh Doherty, made getting a merit scholarship a major goal by applying to schools where her strong academic record would stand out. So far, Fairfield University in Connecticut has awarded her a $25,000 annual scholarship, and the University of Vermont has offered $12,000 a year. She doesn’t have to decide until spring and is still waiting to hear from other schools. 

Some critics say that giving merit aid to middle-class students like Haleigh keeps out students from lower-income families. But Haleigh says getting merit aid is the only way she can go to colleges like the ones she applied to. 

“You can look at my parents’ income and say that they can pay full price,” she said. “But then you’re not calculating the fact that I have older siblings, that my dad has been sick” with lung cancer. “If I didn’t think I could get merit aid, then there’s no way I would have applied to these schools because I couldn’t have afforded it or I would have ended up in a lot of debt, which I don’t want to do.”

New Rochelle’s college counselors try hard to make sure students understand all the ways they can pay for college. There’s an annual workshop run by Michael Tedesco, a retired New Rochelle counselor who is an expert on financial aid. The school regularly sends out newsletters listing scholarship deadlines. Counselors also meet individually with students to help them understand the various types of scholarships and loans they’re eligible for.

Mr. Tedesco, who now works as a college adviser at Westchester (N.Y.) Orthodox Hebrew High School, says the recent recession made financial aid even more important for middle-class families. 

“More than ever, parents are talking about the cost of college with their children before they’re allowing them to apply to school,” he says. 

A good first step, Mr. Tedesco says, is the Federal Student Aid website, where seniors go this month to download the 2014-15 version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form that colleges require to determine aid packages. The site has a net-price calculator that gives a rough idea of how much aid to expect. The federal government requires schools to place net price calculators somewhere on their websites, but Mr. Tedesco says user-friendliness varies. The College Board also offers a net-price calculator, which many schools use; other colleges create their own. All the calculators, Mr. Tedesco says, provide only “a guesstimate.” That’s because schools might see something in an individual financial aid application that makes them think a student deserves more or less money.

Filling out the FAFSA form is a major task this month for the New Rochelle students because the financial aid deadline for many colleges is in the next few weeks. 

Esteban Acevedo, who immigrated to this country four years ago from Colombia and hopes to become a doctor, says his parents haven’t been sure how to respond to some of the questions. His mother, a home attendant, and his father, a porter, don’t work the same number of hours every year, so Esteban worries that their income tax returns won’t reflect the true amount of money they’ll be able to contribute. 

He says he and his parents usually try to figure out the best answer together. “If it’s a question that we really believe we should get help on, I ask my counselor.”

Esteban’s family income and his good grades qualified him for a program called QuestBridge, which matches high-achieving students with full scholarships from some of the nation’s most selective schools. Esteban was a finalist, but didn’t get admitted in the first round last month. Because of his strong academic record, he still has a good chance of ultimately getting the money he needs. He’s also applying to several other scholarship programs this month, including one from his father’s union and another for students of Colombian origin. 

“I’m hopeful but I am kind of nervous,” he says. 

Esteban’s classmate Camille N’Diaye-Muller also applied through the QuestBridge program. One evening in mid-December, after she had opened her e-mail, she walked into the kitchen to tell her mother, Marie-Ange N’Diaye, and her older sister, Ella, some amazing news: She had been accepted to Princeton with a full scholarship. 

“She was very happy,” recalls her mother, a high school teacher in the Bronx. “She was jumping and crying at the same time.” Two years ago, Ella had also been accepted at several private colleges she liked, but the financial aid offers fell short of what the family needed. Fortunately, Ella was able to enroll at Hunter College, a New York public institution where she says she pays about $5,000 a year.

Camille learned from her sister’s experience and started thinking about financial aid very early in the process, when QuestBridge first contacted her after she took the PSATs in ninth grade. She has learned about other scholarships through online alerts, her counselor, and the high school’s scholarship newsletter.

After working hard all through high school, Camille is grateful for the Princeton scholarship. 

“For me,” she says, “it is affirmation that my hard work and things I passed up were worth something.” 

Her mother, Ms. N’Diaye, is impressed with Camille’s independence: “She is really somebody who is doing every single step on her own. She’s that type of person. She wants to achieve on her own.” 

Adaugo Ezike also learned from her older siblings’ experiences. Adaugo hopes to study engineering like her older brothers, Jide at Carnegie Mellon University and Kayode at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who both received substantial financial aid from their schools and other scholarships. She has spent a lot of time working on scholarship applications, including the Archdiocese of New York’s Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Program, which both her brothers won. She’s also a semi-finalist for a National Achievement Scholarship, a program for African-American students that’s part of the National Merit Scholarship program. She’ll find out later this month if she’s a finalist.

Because her family income is solidly middle class (her father is a civil servant in New York City and her mother is a financial aid administrator at a local college), Adaugo says she has been at a disadvantage for many scholarships. 

“A lot of them don’t ask you for additional information, like family size, or how many in your family are going to college,” she says. “That’s why I look at the ones that are mainly merit or service-based … I feel that the middle class gets the short end of the stick with a lot of these scholarships.”

Adaugo says money isn’t the only reason she’s applying for scholarships. Many of them create a network for recipients, she says, and that could be useful in the future. Even now, she knows that getting in is just the first step.

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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