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Five Misconceptions of Financial Aid: How to Responsibly Prepare Financially for College

By: Mrs. Liz Stello, Director of College Counseling
As a college counselor, I talk a lot about “fit” with students when we work together to craft their college list. Generally, what we focus on are finding three sides to make a complete triangle: what a student wants in his or her college, what the college is looking for, and finally, the overall cost of that education. While most families tend to focus on the first two aspects, if the affordability piece is missing, the entire process falls flat.
Much like how each person sitting on an airplane has likely paid a different price for his seat than the person sitting next to him, so too does the cost of college differ for each family. Unfortunately, much like college admissions, affordability when looking at colleges is both very misunderstood and differs from person to person. Below are the top five myths I frequently confront, as well as advice on how to balance fit and affordability when looking at college.
  1. Colleges craft financial aid packages the same way. Although colleges typically utilize one or two main financial aid forms– the FAFSA and the CSS Profile– how they utilize the information on those forms varies. Each school has a finite number of resources and will allocate them based on their institutional priorities. Further, while some schools only give need-based aid, others focus on merit-aid and a large number in the middle do both. So even if four colleges are looking at the same family’s information, that family could receive four different packages. It’s not uncommon to have a private college be less expensive than a public state school, or for an out-of-state college to only award need-based aid to in-state students. It’s as important to research how a college approaches financial aid as it is to research how they approach admissions.
  2. You can’t predict the cost of college. Colleges are now required to have a Net Price Calculator on their Financial Aid website. This tool allows families to better estimate their cost for that particular school, and it takes only 15-20 minutes to complete. In addition, some schools are now offering MyinTuition, which is similar but even faster to complete. While it’s true that nothing is definite until a financial aid package is finalized, these tuition calculators are extremely helpful, give a really good estimate of total cost of attendance, and can be done at any time in the college process.
  3. Student debt should be avoided. While this is a personal stance and ultimately up to a family to decide, student loans are not a bad thing. Unlike a car loan, the return on your investment has been proven to be worth it when it comes to higher education. Further, having a student contribute money towards their education reminds them that they have a stake in their future. What is a bad choice, however, is taking on an exorbitant amount of debt. With many students considering graduate school after undergraduate yet too, coming away with more than a year’s cost of education in debt can be paralyzing. And the worst situation is to have student debt and no degree.
  4. We will get an outside scholarship to cover the cost of college. Oftentimes I meet with families who say they will “make it work” by seeking outside scholarships to help pay for school. However, these scholarships are either extremely difficult to get or are worth less than $1000. While helpful, they won’t put a dent in a school that has gapped a family tens of thousands of dollars. 90% of the money for college comes from either the colleges themselves or the government. Far better to investigate which colleges will give your family the best package than to try to scrape together money when it’s too late.
  5. “Fit” = perfection. When students first think of their college choice, they believe it will be a “Say Yes to the Dress” moment, where everything is perfect and it’s clear that this is “their school.” The reality, however, is far from that. Students need to maturely take everything into account when making their final decision, and often price is a major factor– and, assuming a family has done thorough research, there is nothing wrong with that.
When we help families craft college lists, it is always important for us to know what the financial situation of a family looks like, generally speaking. Having seen many financial aid packages from a variety of schools, our office has a thorough understanding of both the financial aid process as well as the schools that do the best job in providing aid, whether that is in the form of merit or need-based aid. As a college counselor, it is important to take every aspect of a family’s situation into account or the entire concept of fit falls flat.

Transitioning to a new chapter in your life such as college comes with its own set of challenges, and is a major first step into adulthood. Being financially prepared and knowing what to expect can make all the difference for beginning your college journey with confidence and success. At Cape Henry Collegiate we take every measure to ensure a smooth transition. We offer a comprehensive college counseling program that emphasizes finding the best fit for every graduate. We believe that the bridge between high school and college is a significant part of the learning experience and a critical piece in helping our students not only gain admission to excellent schools, but also sharpen the skills that will help them graduate four years later. Cape Henry Collegiate is the oldest accredited Prekindergarten through Grade 12, college-preparatory, coeducational, independent, day school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Our academically challenging curriculum is responsive to each child's needs and is supported by a strong honor code. This process not only prepares the student for college study, but also supports self-esteem and a love of learning. For more information about admissions or to request more information visit us online at capehenrycollegiate.org today.
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