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College Admissions: New Financial Aid “Calculators” & Their Pitfalls

Monday, October 10, 2011


According to a federal mandate, all colleges in the U.S. must post a net cost calculator on their Web sites by October 29. The calculators will allow families to input their financial and student information, and then receive an approximation of that they can expect to receive from the college or university. This marks a major milestone in allowing students and families insight into what various colleges will actually cost vs. the sticker shock they currently face. However, there are some pitfalls in using the calculators that families need to be aware of.

Is Merit Aid included?

While some calculators will tell you what students can expect to get in the form of merit aid, others will not. So, you need to understand if the tool that you are using estimates just need-based aid or if it also estimates money that the student will get based on grades, test scores and leadership roles. At many colleges and universities, merit aid can


Where's the Merit Aid? Amherst's imperfect calculator

eclipse need-based aid, and it often does not have to be paid back. At Amherst College in Massachusetts, the calculator clearly states that it estimates ONLY need based aid (Amherst does not offer merit aid), but at Baylor University in Texas, there is a calculator where you can get an estimate of your scholarship opportunities based on class rank and SAT/ACT scores.

Calculator accuracy

Some schools began posting online financial aid calculators almost a decade ago. So, they have had a chance to work out the kinks and test reliability of the output data. However, many colleges are just posting calculators for the first time this month, and the accuracy remains an unknown. If you have questions about the validity of your estimate, it is a good idea to call the financial aid office at the college in question to review your numbers with a live person. Inevitably, the data you get out of a calculator will only be as good as the data you put in. So, when you use the tools, try to have as much information as possible available from your past tax records and student transcripts.

Forms still must be filed

It is critical to remember that these tools are just an aid in the process; they do not replace the forms that you need to file at each college in order to receive financial aid. The two primary forms that are required are the federal FAFSA and the CSS Profile. FAFSA is necessary to receive federal loans and grants, and it is usually filed after January 1 of senior year in high school. However, some universities also use FAFSA to calculate college-based aid, and they may require it in the fall of senior year for early admission applicants. The CSS Profile is a form that many private colleges (and some larger universities) use to calculate college-based aid. The CSS Profile is usually required around the time that you submit an application. That means that if you are applying early action or early decision, you need to submit the form then. Finally, some colleges have their own proprietary forms for financial aid or scholarship consideration. Individual college websites will list the forms required at each school and the deadlines.

Sadly, many families each year miss the fall deadlines when students are applying early to schools, and that means they lose significant financial aid opportunities. So, start early with one of the new online net cost calculators, and then follow-up by filing all the required forms accurately and on-time.

Cristiana Quinn, M.Ed. is the founder of College Admission Advisors, LLC which provides strategic, college counseling and athletic recruiting services for students. www.collegeadvisorsonline.com.

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