The great college aid game: Landing a full ride after a year of suspense

College costs were make or break for New Rochelle High School senior Matisse Clayton: With a lot of help from Mom and her color-coded files, she applied to 18 colleges, was accepted at four, and won a full ride at one. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
College financial aid puzzle: New Rochelle High School senior Matisse Clayton (r.) gets help from her mother, Gwen Clayton, during the college application process This is part of the cover story project in the June 2, 2014 issue of The Christian Science Monitor/Weekly.

This is the final 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.

On a chilly Saturday in late April, Matisse Clayton faced her future.

She had turned 18 a month earlier and now, near the end of her senior year at New Rochelle High School in suburban New York City, she had to make her first adult decision: where she would spend the next four years of her life. After months of struggling through the intricacies of the college application process and weeks of anxious waiting for decisions from admissions committees, it had all come down to this moment. 

Matisse had offers of admission from four of the 18 schools she applied to: American University and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; Temple University in Philadelphia; and Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. She was wait-listed at several schools and rejected by others. 

The rejections hurt initially, but she was past that now. 

“Once you get that first acceptance letter, the rejections aren’t so bad,” she said. “I’m just pleased that I got in somewhere. I have options.” 

Still, she worried that she wouldn’t make the right choice and would end up at a place where she didn’t feel comfortable. All year, she had been leaning toward going to college in Washington because she liked the idea of being in a big city, just far enough away from home.

Matisse was also concerned about money.

Her parents, Alvin and Gwen, run a restaurant in downtown New Rochelle, and the endless winter had hurt business. Gwen Clayton was determined that her oldest daughter would have the best education possible, but the prospect of tuition payments haunted her. “That’s what wakes me up in the middle of the night,” she said in early March. 

American and Catholic had offered Matisse partial scholarships, but Binghamton had given her a full ride – tuition and room and board. “My whole family’s rooting for Binghamton right now,” she said. Because of its reputation as a top SUNY campus, the school had always been high on Matisse’s list, but she had never seen it and wasn’t sure that she wanted to be in rural upstate New York. 

So on the morning of April 26, just five days before the May 1 deadline for making her decision, Matisse, her mother, and her 14-year-old sister, Bella, got in the car and headed north.

Getting in isn’t the hardest part

For students like Matisse, getting into college is just the first step. Paying for college can be an even greater challenge. Tuition at the most expensive private four-year colleges is more than $50,000 a year, and that doesn’t include room and board. Even public universities can seem out of reach with tuition and fees for out-of-state residents approaching the price tags of many private schools. 

That’s why the amount that students borrow has been steadily climbing. A study released last year by the nonprofit The Project on Student Debt found that 71 percent of students who graduated from four-year colleges in 2012 had student loans averaging $29,400. Many owe much more. The total outstanding student loan debt reached $1 trillion in 2011.

In New Rochelle, an ethnically and economically diverse city of about 78,000 just north of the Bronx, money is on the minds of most college-bound seniors. Although the city is in affluent Westchester County and there are some wealthy families, nearly half the students who attend the city’s public schools are considered “economically disadvantaged,” which means that they qualify for some form of assistance, such as free or reduced-price lunch programs or food stamps. Even families who are solidly middle class like the Clayton family struggle with soaring college tuitions – especially if there is more than one child to educate. 

Indeed, Matisse’s college bills would be just the beginning for Alvin and Gwen. Their son, Oliver, age 16, attends a private school on a partial scholarship, and Bella is finishing eighth grade at a public school. So the Claytons are looking at nearly a decade of tuition payments, including a few years with two kids in college at the same time. But they are determined “to make it happen,” Gwen says. “We are not stopping the train. We are going to keep going.”

Their restaurant, Alvin & Friends, is an airy welcoming space filled with colorful paintings by Alvin, who named his oldest daughter after his favorite artist. Matisse says her father is constantly working at the restaurant and her mother is often there as well. 

When Matisse needed assistance with her college or scholarship applications, she’d often sit in the backroom of the restaurant with her laptop, catching a few minutes with her mother when she could. All three kids help out in the restaurant, and Matisse often has additional duties at home, such as chauffeuring her brother and sister when her parents are working. 

Alvin and Gwen were both the first in their families to go to college. Alvin is from a large family in Trinidad but went to high school in Washington. He was a star soccer player and an honors student, so schools were recruiting him throughout his senior year, he says. But by spring, he still hadn’t applied anywhere. “I was not aware of the American system,” he says. In June of his senior year, his guidance counselor finally took him to see Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md. The soccer coach offered him a scholarship and he accepted. Gwen, who attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Alvin knew from the start it wouldn’t be so simple for Matisse.

Mom’s color-coded ‘Application Central’

In the early fall, Gwen headed for Staples, where she picked up a large plastic file box and a stack of colorful file folders along with other back-to-school supplies. The box would be “Application Central” over the next few months. 

Gwen had been getting advice from veterans, “really smart moms whose kids were at Vanderbilt and Yale,” and she was determined to get the college application process under control from the beginning. 

Matisse jokingly called her mother “the document keeper.”

The file folders sort important material by color: red holds “critical steps in the process,” Gwen says, like Matisse’s SATs or her college essay. Purple folders contain information about New Rochelle and the high school (the school’s colors are purple, white, and black): Matisse’s Advanced Placement classes or awards. Blue folders are for the Boys & Girls Club of New Rochelle, an important part of the family’s life, and Matisse’s other community service activities going all the way back to elementary school in 2005, when she helped to raise money for victims of hurricane Katrina. Green is for financial aid and other money-related material. 

Jessica Dorsett, Matisse’s guidance counselor, says she normally advises students to apply to no more than 10 schools: two or three “reach” schools that are the hardest to get into, four or five “targets” whose admissions statistics closely match the student’s, and three “safeties” where the odds are high that the student will be accepted.

But many students apply to far more.

“The reason I think students apply to so many schools is they haven’t done the research to figure out what would be a good fit,” Ms. Dorsett says. “Even though we as counselors might recommend schools that would be good for them, they don’t always listen to us.”

Until a few years ago, students had to send in a separate application for each school. Now more than 500 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, known as the Common App, which allows students to fill out one basic online form, upload their essay, and then apply to lots of schools just by checking a box for each. That is one reason the number of schools students apply to has increased dramatically. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the percentage of students submitting seven or more applications has grown from 9 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 2011. Dorsett says the ease of the Common App can be deceptive. Many of the schools also require supplementary information, sometimes even more essays, and keeping track of it all isn’t easy, as the Claytons discovered with Matisse’s growing list.  

Despite all their efforts to stay organized, “we were losing ourselves in all the paperwork,” Gwen says. 

It was also expensive. Much of the conversation about college costs focuses – quite naturally – on tuition. But even the process of applying stretches a family budget. College application fees can be as high as $100 each. Standardized tests add to the bill; it costs $51 to register for the SAT and then there are additional fees for subject tests. Low-income students can get fee waivers that aren’t available to middle-class students. 

At one point, Matisse added up all the application fees and it came to “a little over $1,000.” 

Matisse used Gwen’s credit card to pay all these fees. “I felt like I was melting money,” Gwen says. Although Matisse acknowledges that “$1,000 is a lot without a guarantee of acceptance,” she felt that she had to do it. “The worst nightmare is applying to 10 schools and not getting into any of them or only getting into one and it’s not the one you want to go to.”

In the fall, Matisse thought her top choice might be Georgetown University in Washington. She knew it would be “a little bit of a reach,” but she was hopeful. Her grades were pretty good – an A-minus average – and she planned to retake the SATs in the hope of improving her score of 1550 out of 2400. 

“I am not a good test taker,” she says. She decided to apply “early action” to Georgetown University, which meant that she would get a decision in December but could wait until May to make up her mind after she heard from other schools. 

 Georgetown  admits only about 17 percent of applicants, so Matisse also started making a list of other schools with her mother’s help.

Dorsett, her counselor, had suggested that Matisse apply to Howard University in Washington, a historically black university, but Matisse ultimately decided against it. One of the things she has always liked about New Rochelle is the diversity of the student body. The high school has about 3,400 students: 26 percent black, 40 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4 percent Asian, and 29 percent white. “We serve everyone from A to Z here,” says the principal, Reginald Richardson. “It is the world in here.”

Going to school with a diverse group of students has always been important to Matisse. In her freshman year, she thought about switching to a private school in the Bronx, because New Rochelle High School “seemed like such a big place,” she says. Although she was accepted, she didn’t get a scholarship to help with tuition, then about $40,000. By that time, she was already feeling more comfortable in New Rochelle. “I’m happy with my decision to stay,” she says.   

Getting involved with lacrosse helped a lot. Like her father, she is a talented athlete; in her senior year, she was named captain of the women’s varsity lacrosse team. 

“She’s the one kid I can count on,” says Natasha Vazquez, who has been her coach since freshman year. “She’s like a mini grown-up. She’s so reliable.” 

Ms. Vazquez says she recently called Matisse to tell her she was delayed getting to a game. “I’ve got it,” Matisse told the coach. And she did. Vazquez says Matisse made sure everyone was in uniform and ready to play by the time the coach arrived. “We won that game,” Vazquez says.

A kid’s first adult decisions

Matisse’s college list kept growing throughout the fall. Some of the schools were clearly reaches, like Georgetown, Stanford University in California, and Duke University in Durham, N.C. But Matisse and her mother felt that the process seemed so unpredictable that it might be worth a shot at these schools, which are among the most selective in the country. 

Matisse was also working hard on the application essay, which she says was a struggle. Gwen was her editor, but Matisse kept fighting back against her mother’s suggested changes. 

“I wanted my essay to be my essay,” Matisse says. “I wanted it to sound like me.” 

Ultimately, she decided to write about the restaurant, since it was such an important part of the family’s life. She wrote about how she and Oliver and Bella helped out, and how, as the oldest, Matisse had extra responsibilities: “The insurmountable daily request of favors ranges from taxi, tutor, to short order cook. Funny thing is, all along my parents have been giving me the favors. All this multi-tasking has brought me closer to family, aspirations, developing a stronger work ethic, being organized, and creating a game plan to be self-confident, self-reliant, and a team player.”

In December, Matisse learned that she had been deferred by Georgetown. It wasn’t an outright rejection – a deferral meant she would get another shot in the regular application pool – and she wasn’t discouraged. 

“It was kind of expected because I know it’s a very difficult school to get into and early action is very competitive,” she says. A neighbor who is a Georgetown alum told her that it might actually be easier for her to get in during regular decision because if you have applied early and get deferred, “they will look at you in more depth.”

The regular decision application deadline for many schools is in early January. Matisse was working on her applications until the last minute – and even later in some cases.  

Two of the schools she applied to, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, had a Jan. 1 deadline. Minutes before that deadline, she tried to upload her applications only to find she was locked out of the Common App. At first, she thought it might be a problem with the Wi-Fi at her house, which is always a bit unreliable. 

In the first dark hours of the new year, she took her laptop to a friend’s house, but she was still locked out. 

“I had to stalk my computer until 4:30 in the morning when it finally let me sign my name and finish the payment and all that,” she says. 

She felt a little better when she texted a few friends and found they were having the same problem, because the Common App itself had shut down. She e-mailed the two schools and learned that they were also aware of the problem and had extended their deadlines to Jan. 2. 

In fact, the Common App had become particularly glitch-prone in the fall as it processed more than 3 million applications from 750,000 students. In mid-May, Common App officials said they had made changes that would prevent problems in the future.  

With the final application deadline, Matisse should have been able to breathe a little easier as she waited for the decisions, but she was still anxious.

“I am constantly thinking abut the schools that I have applied to receiving my application, and I picture the admissions committee looking it over and making a decision, and that freaks me out,” she said in January.

But there was still another equally formidable hurdle – filling out financial aid forms and applying for scholarships. Without enough money, students’ choices can be a painful balance between desire and reality. The most important form is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which students now generally fill out online. To complete it, families have to sort through all kinds of financial paperwork. Colleges and the government use the FAFSA to determine aid packages after looking at a family’s income (as reported on tax returns) and other assets.

Hard truth: Loans are not scholarships

In early January, Dorsett handed Matisse a big packet of information about scholarships she could apply for. She wanted to go through the packet with her mother, but it was a busy week at the restaurant, and on Sunday, she finally hunkered down in the backroom as the front of the restaurant filled with brunch customers. She managed to grab a few minutes of her mother’s time to go through the information. “You have to do it because you need the money,” she says.

At many colleges, only a minority of students pay what schools call the “sticker price.” The “net price” can be significantly lower because the students get financial aid based on need or accomplishment. The 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 government. Scholarships can also come from the colleges, the government, or private organizations. 

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 sticker price and low-income students could end up paying almost nothing; middle-class students are often left struggling. Less selective schools, especially private institutions, may give 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.

New Rochelle’s 12 college counselors – each with a portfolio of 60 to 70 seniors to guide – try hard to make sure students understand all the ways they can pay for college. There’s an annual workshop on financial aid, and the school regularly sends out newsletters listing scholarship deadlines. Counselors also meet individually with students to explain the various types of scholarships and loans they’re eligible for.

But even with all that preparation, parents are often puzzled. In March, when the first round of regular decision acceptances and rejections started coming in, Michael Kenny, New Rochelle’s director of guidance, and the other college counselors were fielding money questions. It’s tricky, he says, because families don’t always realize that loans are not scholarships and the money will have to be paid back by someone – either the parents or the student.

“You have the excitement of getting into top schools, but then the financial aid package makes the top schools a little more challenging,” Mr. Kenny says. “There’s a level of disappointment and frustration that begins to impact students right now.” 

Mr. Richardson, the principal, came to New Rochelle a year ago from a high school in the East New York section of Brooklyn where, he says, the student population was “100 percent at the poverty level.” It was a major achievement to get 30 percent of the graduating class into four-year colleges, but the top students could get full scholarships based on their financial need, he says. 

In New Rochelle, more than 60 percent of last year’s graduating class was headed for four-year colleges, including some of the nation’s most selective. The top achievers from low-income families can still get those generous aid packages to elite schools, but middle-class families have a different problem. The gap can be “huge,” Richardson says, between the package that’s offered and the tuition. 

He thinks one answer is to emphasize the high quality of the state’s public universities, like Binghamton.

“There’s very little we can do about the average college tuition,” he says. “We just have to say, ‘Here are the affordable options that exist.’ ”

18 college applications, 4 acceptances

By late April, when Matisse, her mother, and her sister headed north to see Binghamton, Matisse was philosophical about how things had turned out. 

“It’s not really what I wanted,” she said, “but at the end of the day, I’ll end up where I am supposed to be.” 

Of the four out of 18 schools that accepted her, she ruled out Temple and was still leaning toward Washington. “I like the idea of being where there is a lot of stuff going on,” she said.  

She had hoped to visit American and Catholic before making her decision, but life intervened. She got sick just before spring break in mid-April. Then she spent a week in Trinidad with her father’s family – an 18th birthday gift from her uncle. By the time she got back home, there were only a few days left before the May 1 deadline.

Matisse thought she could do it all in a couple of days: back and forth to Washington on Friday and then a six- to eight-hour round trip to Binghamton on Saturday. But then she decided to skip the Friday visit because she didn’t want to miss her AP statistics class. The Saturday drive to Binghamton would be it. 

On the drive up, she was surprised to find that the campus was not as isolated as she had heard. There was a town that had businesses she knew from home: Five Guys, Chipotle, Walgreens. During a tour of the school, Matisse thought it seemed like a pretty lively place. She also saw the buildings for engineering and business – two subjects she might major in. She knew other students from New Rochelle would be going there so she would have a group of friends at the start. Looking around at the students, she also thought the school seemed pretty diverse. She could see herself fitting in. 

And money was clearly a major factor. Although American and Catholic offered her substantial aid, her parents would still have to pay part of her tuition and her room and board. She got a full ride from Binghamton. The substantial financial aid would mean that her parents would be able to pay for some perks – such as study abroad. That’s why she was hoping to love it, and she did.

As they were walking into the bookstore, Matisse turned to her mother and said, “I like this place. I really want to go here.”

“Good,” said her mother, “because I already sent in the deposit.” 

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. © 2014 The Christian Science Monitor and the Hechinger Report.

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