WASHINGTON High school seniors who are stressing about college applications face an added burden this year: Not only are they buried in essays and transcripts, they are more worried about money than their older siblings might have been.
Several reports out in the last couple of weeks reveal that today's college students face higher costs, more loans, and fewer jobs upon graduation than people only a few years older.
The good news is that it's possible to be strategic about all of those finances now, at application time. By choosing the right schools, you can leverage the amount of money you get and trim the amount you have to pay.
More good news: There are new tools available to help with the financial part of the college search. College websites are required to have net price calculators showing how much they typically charge and award in non-loan aid.
Use those new tools, and a few money-smart strategies, and you may save enough money to finance your spring break next year.
-- Understand the system. Colleges price their services much like airlines or hospitals. You might be in a lecture hall sitting next to someone who paid half as much, or twice as much, as you did for the same seat. Colleges engage in "discounting" -- they set a sticker price and then give money back to students who can't afford to go there, and students who are particularly desirable. (That's the bottom-line difference between merit aid and need-based aid.)
When the College Board looked at school discount rates a few years ago, it found that 4-year public schools had an average "discount" rate of 15.4 percent. Private 4-year schools were discounting at 32.8 percent -- more than double that rate. That means you could end up paying less for a pricey private education than one at good old State U.
That means if you want to minimize your college costs, you should concentrate on two types of schools: Those that really want you, and those that have a lot of money, so they can afford to meet all of your family's needs.
-- Look for schools that have a lot of money. Big endowments mean more financial aid. Wikipedia lists colleges by endowments; it's no secret that schools with the biggest endowment per student, like Princeton University, Amherst College and Grinnell College, have generous aid programs. At Grinnell, for example, president Raynard S. Kingston takes pride in having a 64 percent discount rate. "It's like 64 percent off list price" he said in a recent interview. "I'd say only around 15 percent of our students pay full price."
You can check your list at the College Navigator website, run by the Department of Educatiat nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator. It shows what percentage of students at a school receive financial aid, the average amount they receive, and how much of it is in grants and scholarships as opposed to loans. It also lists something called "net price by income" so you can see how much, after grants and scholarships, you're likely to end up paying, depending on your household income.
-- Look for schools that want you. That doesn't have to mean lowering your expectations, but try to think differently. If you live in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, for example, and you want merit money from a small, liberal arts college, you may have more luck applying to schools in the Midwest and West, where an equally great school might be more inclined to buy in an East Coast student. Apply to similar schools that consider themselves competitors. Some schools claim they never get into bidding wars; others have admitted to matching competitive offers. Cornell University, for example, announced at the end of 2010 that it would match need-based financial aid offers from other Ivy League schools.
Apply to a broad range of schools, to give yourself options when the financial aid award letters arrive in the spring.
-- Avoid seeking the early decision. If you only apply to the one school you really, really want to attend, and you're bound to accept their offer if they accept you, you're giving up all financial aid borrowing power.
-- Apply for scholarships. There are thousands of them in a searchable database at Fastweb. The more local and specialized the scholarship, the better your chances of getting it. But the good thing about most third-party scholarships is that you can take them to any school you want.
-- Be pragmatic. That doesn't mean you have to major in accounting if you really want to study theater. Or that you should limit your applications before you really know how much your final cost would be at any particular school. But if you're on a trajectory that's going to include graduate school, or you want the freedom to travel or work in a low-paying field, consider affordability before you decide which school to say yes to next spring.
(The Personal Finance column appears every Wednesday, and as warranted at other times as well. Linda Stern can be reached at linda.stern(at)thomsonreuters.com)
(Editing by Gunna Dickson)