Helping Students Take Charge of the Decision Making Process
By Howard Freedman
President, Financial Aid Consulting
EMPOWERING THE STUDENT
Guidance counselors are the mentors and cheerleaders that encourage each student to achieve their post-secondary educational aspirations. Yet their greatest gift is to empower each senior to become more self-directed and confident about making their own decisions based on Fit, Financial Decisions and Family Dynamics.
DOES IT FIT?
Once a student narrows their choices based on research, recommendations and admission criteria, their most critical decision is to determine if it is the best fit. Finding the right college is not just about getting in but actually checking it out for size, feel and if the student feels a sense of belonging.
This process requires three very simple steps. The first is to develop a shopping list of criteria such as size, majors, residence halls, etc. to consistently rate each college visit. In other words, staying organized and avoiding impulsive decision-making.
The second step is to provide students with the names of recent high school graduates attending these colleges with whom the student can network. With these contacts, students should be encouraged to arrange for a one-day or overnight visit to gain a feel for campus life and academics in general.
Finally, and probably the most challenging step is to use the visit as a way to factor in their feelings about whether each college will present a positive environment from which they can reap the greatest intellectual and academic benefits. Later on, students may also feel more comfortable meeting with their fellow classmates that have also visited the same campus to share information.
Financing college extends far beyond completing a financial aid form, applying for scholarships or taking out loans.
Although students should not underestimate the importance of accurate and timely financial aid forms, this is just the beginning of a much more challenging process.
Guidance counselors can suggest certain resources but cannot get into the personalized details, family dynamics or overall financial positions, investment strategies, debt or extenuating circumstances that will determine which is the most affordable but not necessarily the best college that that the student deserves to attend. This is the juncture where parents and students must develop a partnership to make this all happen.
All too often, parents feel a sense of relief once the financial aid forms are completed but make emotional rather than rational financial decisions after financial aid is awarded. This is where a qualified financial aid consultant with a wealth of financial experience can evaluate the forms, analyze the bigger picture and offer recommendations that are best suited to each family’s financial needs.
Interpersonal relationships, family size and values will dictate the ultimate direction that the student can take primarily based on economic affordability and career earning’s potential. Only they can determine if the costs of a particular college will generate a lifetime earnings stream to justify the net out of pocket expenses after financial aid. This is where information from such sources as the Occupational Outlook Handbook www.bls.gov/ooh/a-z-index.htm , and Pathways After a Bachelor’s Degree www.census/gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/acs/inforgraphics along with each college’s cost of attendance, can provide the necessary analytical decision making data.
Guidance counselors can also recommend websites for scholarship searches, provide lists of local scholarships to procure the free or gift aid, but only the student can demonstrate the drive to market themselves, network and creatively seek scholarships that lower college costs. After all is said and done, students should be better prepared to present this data to their parents and decide upon how much debt they are willing to assume over the four years of college. Moreover, they should be able to provide an acceptable answer when a parent asks: “Can we really afford this college or are there less costly alternatives?”
Students should also understand that other than the Stafford and Perkins loans, alternative parental and student loans are based on the borrower’s credit score. For instance, students with parents who have been denied a parent PLUS loan are entitled to an additional $4000 Stafford loan their freshman year.
On the other hand, students may still have insufficient funds to cover their unmet expenses. Even with alternative loans, families should also realize that well-intentioned students still require parental or other credit worthy co-signors that agree to repay the loan if the student does not. Consequently, the importance of finding merit based aid such as grants and scholarships is an ongoing process in which students should continually strive to market their skills and accomplishments, network with local and national organizations and creatively finds ways to achieve positive recognition.
With these and other tools students should feel more confident about making the right decisions as they build the plans for their future.