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Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #2 – COA Surprises

cost of attendance
Surprises, they can be good or bad.
Good, such as pulling a forgotten $20 out of a jacket pocket not worn over a long, long winter, an unexpected message or letter from an old friend, a thoughtful gift.
Or not so good, such as opening your tuition bill and realizing it is going to cost thousands of dollars more than you expected. How can this happen? Don’t colleges and universities advertise costs?
Yes and no.
Colleges typically advertise cost in terms of Cost of Attendance (COA). Federal financial aid guidelines define COA as:
    • Tuition & Fees
    • Room & Board
    • Books & Supplies
    • Transportation
    • Personal Expenses
Many (dare I say most) institutions are less than transparent when advertising the “true” cost of an education – typically they only market and advertise these five COA components. 
Now the rest of the story…
Smart higher education consumers need to play detective, sleuthing through brochures, web pages, letters, etc. to unearth hidden costs – to determine your “true” cost of attendance.
What are these shadowy hidden costs? From differential tuition rates – to loan origination fees and everything in between, hidden costs come in all shapes, sizes, and forms – real money out of your pocket. Let’s examine a few:
A common hidden charge is a differential (extra) tuition rate. It is fairly common for students majoring in nursing, engineering, business, computer science (to name a few), to be charged an extra fee on top of regular tuition rates – see examples below:

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Most families do not realize advertised room and board COA charges are the “average” rate a student can pay. The real cost can span thousands of dollars as evidenced by these 2018-2019 rates:

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Look at this statement from a college web site – “All students receive a laptop as part of our laptop program.” Cool! Not so fast. Dig deep enough and you find students are not receiving a laptop, they are paying for the use of one – the real cost:
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per semester.
Let’s talk disingenuous. In reviewing a financial aid award letter for a student this spring (see partial letter below), I noted the school understated their own cost of attendance (as calculated by their own Net Price Calculator) by thousands of dollars.
Note how they seem to have “forgotten” personal expenses or transportation in their “estimated” COA. “Luckily” when this was pointed out to the director of admission, this student’s award was adjusted upwards to include these real costs. 

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How about matriculation (new student) fees, course and lab fees, capital enhancement fees, tuition payment plan fees, credit card fees, excess credit charges beyond a full-time credit load, stadium fees, parking fees, health center fees – I digress… but I could go on and on and on…
Smart consumers need to shield themselves from COA surprises, by determining their “true” cost of attendance before choosing to enroll. Unearthing the “true” cost of attendance in many cases will be the difference between choosing one school over another – saving you thousands of $$ on the overall cost of your education.
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Need help finding good match colleges. Contact me. and I can work with you to shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree.  

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.

 

Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #3 – Yield

 

What does “yield” have to do with college cost savings? Savvy consumers who understand how critical this figure is in admissions can often yield (pun intended) significant cost savings.
Yield is the metric most admissions directors obsess, fret, lose sleep over. Simply, yield = the number or percentage of admitted students who actually enroll and attend.
So, exactly why is yield important and why should you pay attention? Every college sets enrollment goals for its incoming class. Very few schools can boast of a yield rate like Stanford University of 82%:
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In reality, many colleges today scratch and claw for every student they enroll. In the 2018 State of College Admissions, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported the average yield rate continues to decline – down to 33.6%.
Couple this with the fact the number of traditional college-aged students enrolling declined for the 7th consecutive year – Current Term Enrollment Fall 2018, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. means colleges (and admissions directors especially) feel the heat when they do not meet enrollment goals.
Multiple years of “low yields” translates to declining enrollments – which means budget shortfalls. On more than one campus I worked this meant delays in campus initiatives, building projects/upgrades or worse yet – program cuts and staff layoffs.
Is it any wonder many campus administrators and admissions directors lose sleep over “yield”?
Don’t feel too bad for them, they understand the ground rules, besides colleges have been less than transparent over the years in the pursuit of enrolling students:
  • Bombarded with brochures – a college reaching out doesn’t necessarily mean they have any intention of admitting you – many entice applications for the sole purpose of lowering admit rates in an attempt to boost rankings. 
  • Bait and switch – awarding more “free money” (grant and scholarship) to incoming freshman, and converting a % of this free money to loans in subsequent years. (always read the fine print on your financial aid award). 
  • Preferential Packaging – The art of offering more grants and scholarships to students it really wants to attract versus offering more loans to those “less desirable”.
  • Hidden costs – differential tuition rates, hidden fees, advertising room & board as “true” cost of attendance when in reality these are the “average” prices students pay,  etc. 
  • Do you really think early decision and early action admissions deadlines are designed to benefit “students”? If you do I have some property I would like to speak with you about.
  • etc., etc., etc. 
I digress…
Most colleges want- in actuality need – to yield as many students as possible from its pool of accepted students. Colleges often do “whatever it takes” to protect their yield. How might one benefit?
Let’s say hypothetically, Luther College is your top choice. Luther at 19% doesn’t have nearly the yield rate as Stanford.

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Furthermore, let’s assume Luther tends to compete with say, Gustavus Adolphus College (18% yield rate by the way), for the same pool of students.
Remember it is best to never eliminate a school until the end of this process – even if you have no intention of enrolling. Thus, hypothetically, I might suggest you show enough demonstrated interest in both schools to receive an offer of admissions.
For argument’s sake, we will say Gustavus Adolphus offered you $2,000 annually more in merit scholarships than Luther. You really prefer Luther, but…
Wink, Wink. Nudge. Nudge. See how “hypothetically” leveraging Luther’s “yield rate” versus Gustavus’s higher offer might potentially work in your favor (theoretically of course)?
Understanding the dynamics of “yield” can and does lead to cost savings – remember the average yield rate is currently about 33%. It will not work at every school, every situation is unique, and results can vary from year to year, but families can and do successfully mediate better financial packages.
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Need help finding good match colleges. Contact me. and I can work with you to shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree.  

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.

 

Strategies to Decrease the Cost of College #6 – Dual Enrollment

 

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A typical four-year state institution will cost you approximately $26,000 to attend for one academic year (see chart below). 
A dual enrollment strategy (taking AP, PSEO, IB, CIS or PLTW coursework in high school) is one of my favorite strategies to save families money on the cost of college.
Shaving one semester or even one year off a college degree is easier than you think – if you know what you are doing. 

 

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After a workshop recently, a family came up and asked, “Can you help us get our son more credits for his PSEO classes”. As a former registrar, I knew the answer would be no. 
As a cost-saving strategy, their son enrolled in a Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program at a local community college. The hope – he would graduate in 2 to 2 1/2 years with his four-year degree.
The reality – his first choice school was only awarding him nine credits towards his degree requirements for the two years worth of PSEO classes he completed. Sadly, he had taken the wrong courses. Many mistakenly believe all college credit is created and awarded equally. 
There is a BIG BIG BIG difference between a course being accepted in transfer and how it will be used to satisfy a degree requirement. Did I mention BIG?
Many colleges will “transfer” in all your courses with a grade of “C” or better, but the critical question you need to ask yourself  – which courses will count toward my degree program? 
How colleges accept dual enrollment credit (or any transfer credit for that matter) is highly variable from school to school and even program to program within individual schools. 
Let’s assume you took AP Chemistry in high school with the goal of satisfying a lab science requirement in college. Let’s further assume you scored a 4 on the exam. If you enroll at Hamline University your AP Chemistry course will only count as an elective.  

 

At the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire the same result means you will be awarded 5 credits for their CHEM 105/106 course (satisfying a general education lab science requirement). Whallah – you are five credits closer toward your degree!

 

 

Why the difference? The reasons are nuanced and too numerous to discuss on this post, but the basic reality is the same – there is no universal standard for how an institution will accept college-level credits in transfer into their degree programs. Each school independently determines how a course will transfer. 
What are the keys to employing a successful Dual Enrollment Cost Saving Strategy?
  • sdrowkcaB gnikroW – research and understand Degree Requirements
  • Understand this will not work at highly selective schools (schools which enroll < 25-30% of students who apply). 
You need to be strategic and work backward. Start by determining which courses are required to graduate from a specific degree program

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then research which dual enrollment courses you can take to pluck off degree requirements. In this University of North Dakota (UND) example, taking AP Calculus AB (and scoring 3 or greater on the exam) is equivalent to UND’s MATH 165 Calc I course. One course down.
Taking POLS 1031 as a Century College PSEO student and getting a grade of “C” or higher is equivalent to taking UND’s POLS 115 course thus satisfying their Essential Studies Social Science requirementTwo courses down.
And so on!
Will this strategy work for everyone? No – you need to successfully complete college-level coursework. But plenty of students can and do.
Does it take time and effort to research? Yes. Is the research easy? No – you must meticulously determine how each course will transfer to multiple good match schools.
Simple strategy? I think so. 
Knocking off time and credits to complete your college degree by taking the “right” dual enrollment courses is an extremely effective way to save time and money.

 

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*Approximate Fall 2018 COA

Enrolling in and completing dual enrollment coursework is one of my favorite college cost-saving strategies.  
Seem like a great idea, but too much for you to handle. Contact me… I have helped numerous families shave thousand’s of $$ off a college degree, by counseling them on the “right” dual enrollment classes to take.
You have plenty of good fit options!

Jeff has spent 30+ years working in higher education as a Registrar and Director of Student/Academic Services. As an educational college planning consultant, he uses his experience and insights to save you $$$ by helping you in identify “good match” colleges to fit your academic, social and financial needs.

Does Tuition at Every College Cost $50,000?

No!  

Look at the tuition rates (approximate for 2015-16) for a handful of colleges in the image below.

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Yet ad nauseum I am reminded of the high price of college. This morning I read another story on the rising cost of college tuition. The other day my news feed was inundated with this storyaverage college debt is up again this year“. Why the doom and gloom? It sells. The sad reality is the mainstream media focuses 99% of their coverage, upon a handful of highly selective schools – the roughly 150 schools with admit rates under 20% and where tuition alone costs upwards of $40,000+
Are college cost rising. Yes, I won’t argue that point, but… there are many many great affordable programs that don’t cost the proverbial “arm and a leg”. When was the last time you read an article on Truman State University?  
Did you know Truman is considered a “Public Ivy”, is recognized as a College of Distinction, was a top producer of U.S. Fulbright students for the 2015-2016 academic year, and boasts high graduation, retention and post graduation rates rates? Oh, and it’s affordable. As a Midwest Student Exchange Program partner institution, out of state students in eight partner states (including MN) pay a MSEP tuition rate of approximately $10,728 this academic year. Look beyond the headlines!  
Look beyond the box scores! And beyond a geographic region. There is more to the Crimson Tide, than football. How does a full tuition scholarship opportunity for out of state students grab you? Touchdown! The University of Alabama offers attractive academic merit scholarships for out of state students with a composite ACT of 27+ and a 3.5+ GPA. A scholarship + a reasonable out of state tuition rate = affordable.  
One national college publication¹ reviewing small college bargains had this to say about the University of Minnesota Morris. “If you’ve ever taken a wrong turn on the way to Duluth, you might have stumbled upon one of the best public liberal arts colleges in the country.” Despite being geographically challenged (UM-Morris is pretty much due west of Minneapolis), the Fiske Guide does nail the fact it is a great academic institution. With both low tuition rates (in and out of state) and competitive merit scholarships, UM Morris is a very affordable option.  Look beyond the headlines!
Reduced out of state tuition options, i.e,. Reciprocity.  Residents of MN, WI, ND, SD, and the Canadian province of Manitoba enjoy lower tuition rates if they attend public colleges and universities in these states.  For MN residents, the University of North Dakota is one such option. There is a reason the Princeton Review included it in the 2015 The Best 379 Colleges edition. Low tuition, strong academic programs, and automatic merit scholarships = affordability. Look for regional tuition discount programs!
Look beyond four year degree options! Still haven’t grown out of the Thomas the Tank Engine phase? Dream of being a railroad engineer? Consider the Railroad Conductor Technology Certificate program at Dakota County Technical College. This program boasts established partnerships with many national and regional railroads, high program placement rates for graduates (the industry is experiencing high retirement attrition), and the 16 credit certificate program generally takes less than one year to complete. High placement rates + low tuition + < one year to complete + above average beginning salaries = affordable.
Good match colleges and universities exist for everyone. Eschew the doom and gloom articles. And any “College Rankings” for that matter. Find colleges that match “fit” your college bound students academic strengths, talents and interests and meet their needs academically, socially and financially. More good match colleges and programs exist than you might think.

¹Fiske Guide to Getting Into the Right College, 4th edition

Scholarships – The Holy Grail

You’ve completed the FAFSA.  Seen your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) figure for the next academic year. Likely are thinking, “how am I going to pay for this?” You are in same boat as the vast majority of families – make too much to qualify for Federal Aid, but can’t simply write a check for the cost of college.
Your thoughts turn to scholarships… the Holy Grail of college funding.
We’ve all seen the headlines screaming, “How I Helped My Son Win over $100,000 in College Scholarship $$… and I Can Show You How You Can Too”.  Don’t believe the hype.  The secret – sweat equity.  The rule of thumb for national scholarship competitions:
  • For every 100 scholarships you find, you
  • May qualify for 10, and odds are you “might” win
  • One!
There are no magic wands.  Don’t be romanced by the headlines or focus your entire strategy on the big payout potential of national competitions like Coca Cola Scholars or the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. Why? Exactly two students from Minnesota were recognized as Coca Cola Scholars in 2016. Wisconsin three. California the most populous state, 15. The odds are long. The competition is intense.
The minuscule % of families who manage such headline grabbing awards often employ a scholarship or two or three a day approach.  If your child has the gumption to research, apply and submit as many as three scholarship entries a day, by all mean have at it. For the rest of us lazy souls?
Turn your attention to the greatest source of scholarship $$. The colleges themselves. To get you started visit my College and University Scholarships page which will link you to the freshman merit or general scholarship opportunities at many colleges.
Look first for automatic scholarships. Many colleges offer them based simply on test scores, GPA, and academic rank. Don’t stop there. Dig deep. The linked College and University scholarship pages do not represent a schools comprehensive list of free money. Dig into the college web site to unearth opportunities for transfer, sophomore, junior, and senior students. Hint: you will often (but not always) find this information within individual academic departments in the form of scholarships, grants, stipends, fellowships, etc. or on the schools financial aid page.
The next best source of scholarships? Local opportunities, which too many families overlook. Don’t underestimate the potential payout from local sources. You will likely qualify for many many more $500, $1,000, or $2,000 local scholarships then any national competition. Last year Cola Cola Scholars had 150 winners and upwards of 70,000 applications. Your local credit union = three $2,000 scholarships and maybe 25-30 applications, 100 tops – have to like those odds.
The first places to look locally are:
  • chambers of commerce
  • fraternal organizations (Lions, Elks, Rotary, VFW, American Legion, etc.)
  • your church
  • your financial institution
  • counseling/guidance office at your high school
  • your employer
  • athletic organizations
  • charitable organizations
  • my list of scholarships open to MN residents
Don’t have the time to do the research. Don’t know where to start? Need help crafting a strategic scholarship search or strategy to find good match colleges where your daughter/son may qualify for merit scholarships?  Give me a shout.

 

 

 

Tips for Completing the FAFSA

Tips for Completing The FAFSA

Tis the season for the annual college financing rite of passage, October 1, 2016 means it is time to complete the FAFSA for the 2017-2018 academic year. What do you mean October 1st?????

The US Department of Education announced a big change to the FAFSA Financial Aid application process last year. The opening date (Oct. 1, 2016 is the first day the FAFSA is available, not the deadline as is being erroneously reported by some media outlets) to submit your FAFSA has moved up to October 1, 2016 (from January 1, 2017) for the 2017-2018 academic year and all subsequent years. The change was made to more closely align the awarding of financial aid with the college admissions process. The net benefit; (1) families will be able to submit applications earlier, (2) use the previous years tax returns and (3) financial aid awards will be known earlier to assist in making informed admission decisions.

Tip #1: Don’t leave $$$ on the table

Many families do not bother to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka, the FAFSA) because they do not believe they will qualify. Don’t make this mistake! What many fail to understand is that most colleges and universities will not consider you for institutional awards (scholarships, grants, etc.) if you have not completed the FAFSA. Don’t leave free money on the table. Get your pencils sharpened and file the FAFSA on or soon after October 1, 2016.

Tip #2: Get Your FSA ID before Oct 1st.

October 1st is right around the corner. To submit your FAFSA both parents and students will need a FSA ID. This ID is necessary to sign and submit your application. If you don’t have a FSA ID (which replaced the FAFSA Pin #) avoid the October 1st rush and request yours today at Federal Student Aid.  

Get it soon. The FAFSA system will be flooded with requests on and around October 1st. Avoid potential filing delays – remember many institutions award financial aid on a first come first serve basis.

Tip #3: List Your Earnings Correctly

Getting ready to fill out the 2017-18 FAFSA or CSS Profile?  When you do make sure to double-check your figures for accuracy. Make sure the amounts are accurate and don’t reflect over inflated assets (a common mistake). Check for these common errors:

Make sure the figures you report on the FAFSA and CSS profile (a little over 300 schools require this second financial aid form) match.  Failing to do so will trigger a financial aid audit, delaying your financial aid award and in many cases requiring you to send copies of your filed tax returns to college financial aid offices.

List your earnings correctly. Questions 88 and 89 ask – “How much did your parent(s) earn from working in 2015?  The question and directions are somewhat vague and you want to enter the largest number possible (to maximize your award). Why? The FAFSA formula uses this figure to calculate an allowance (the amount you are allowed to shelter against reported income (roughly $7,000 for public schools and $40,000 for private schools). What should you do? Look at your W-2 and enter the amount from Box 5 – your income before 401k contributions are removed. If self-employed enter the profits from your business not the gross income.

Listing earnings incorrectly won’t break the bank, but doing so will likely net you a couple of hundred dollars each year. Add this up over four years and it will significantly reduce your out of pocket cost to attend college.

Tip #4:  Know What Assets Count

The FAFSA methodology does not consider the home you live in, your retirement plans or insurance as investments.  When answering the “What is the net worth of your parents’ investments, including real estate” (Question #91) don’t include your primary residence.  Your primary residence is a protected asset on the FAFSA and does not need to be included.  Your other real estate holdings – a second home, rental property, vacation property, etc. are not protected and do need to be included when answering this question.

Do not include the value of your retirement accounts.  This is a protected asset. Do not include the value of qualified retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, pension plans, annuities, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, Keogh, profit sharing, SEP and SIMPLE plans. Doing so will likely increase your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Note: Tax free contributions to a qualified retirement plan and distributions from a qualified retirement plan are usually reported as income.

529 Plans Special Rule of 2009.  Reporting a 529 plan as a student asset is a common mistake.

Per FAFSA Directions:  “Investments also include qualified educational benefits or education savings accounts (e.g., Coverdell savings accounts, 529 college savings plans and the refund value of 529 prepaid tuition plans). For a student who does not report parental information (independent student), the accounts owned by the student (and/or the student’s spouse) are reported as student investments in question 41 (Student Assets). For a student who must report parental information (dependent student), the accounts are reported as parental investments in question 91 (Parent Assets), including all accounts owned by the student and all accounts owned by the parents for any member of the household.”

Incorrectly counting a 529 plan as a student asset will likely increase your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Rather than being counted in the parent assessment at a rate of 5.64%, it is assessed at a student rate of 20% in the EFC calculation.

Tip #5 Value Real Estate Correctly 

Parents who own a rental or second home shouldn’t enter its market value (a common mistake).  Instead, enter its net worth – the value minus any debt owed on it.  When valuing such property’s start by using the IRS definition of the properties quick-sale value – 80% of the property’s fair market value – or what it could quickly sell for.

Tip #6 Don’t List your business if you don’t have to.

Question #92 asks “What’s the net worth of your parents’ current businesses?  The answer for the vast majority of family’s who file the FAFSA is probably nothing, even if they own one. Since 2005 families who control more than 50% of a business with 100 or fewer full-time employees are exempt from reporting.

Tip #7 Avoid Common Errors

  • Failing to sign the FAFSA (both student and custodial parent need to sign).

  • Leaving a data field blank, instead of entering a zero (“0”).

  • Using commas instead of decimal points  – all amounts need to be rounded to the nearest dollar.

  • Adding an extra zero, for example writing $700,000 instead of $70,000.  Happens more often than you think…

  • Using nickname(s) instead of your legal name(s), i.e., Jeff instead of Jeffrey.

  • Transposing letters or digits.  Most commonly with Social Security and Phone numbers.

  • Don’t miss deadlines. Pay attention to the deadlines that schools post on their web sites. Some colleges and states have very early deadlines for filing the FAFSA. Some award aid on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out.

  • Don’t file the wrong year’s FAFSA.  Note: When filing your FAFSA you will notice two options:

 

Additional Financial Aid Resources

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