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Decoding College Financial Aid


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to turn now to a rite of spring - the wait for those college acceptance letters. Soon to follow for many will be financial aid packets that spell out grants, loans and other awards. Now that financial aid offers the promise of college to many who would otherwise not be able to afford it. But we know it can be very complicated. That's why, along with our colleagues at NPR's Morning Edition, we're spending some time this spring bringing you stories about paying for college. We want to help you navigate that higher education money maze. Now previously, we talked about why college has gotten so expensive. Today, we're going to focus on those forms. Scott Juedes is with us. He is director of student financial services at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Scott Juedes, thanks for joining us.

SCOTT JUEDES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now we looked up a number of sample award letters, and it seems like they're all different. Is that the way it is, every college, every university has its own format?

JUEDES: It is. I mean, that's actually one of the most confusing parts about sending out financial aid awards is they all look slightly different, and they all have slightly different components to them. So sometimes families find that very confusing.

MARTIN: How would you recommend that you start? Let's say you're in the lucky position of having a number of awards. What's the first thing you should do?

JUEDES: So I think the first thing you should do is step back and first of all say, congratulations, right, to either your student or yourself if you are the student because it's been a long road to get here. And so you always want to take a step back, I think. But after you've done that and you are starting to figure out your financial aid award, what you don't want to do is focus solely on how much grant did I get or how much loan or even looking at the bottom line of the financial aid award letter. What you want to try and do is figure out, what are my bottom line costs? And there are a number of ways that you can do that. But my suggestion would be to focus on cost versus the actual financial aid award.


JUEDES: So again, we have - financial aid awards are different for each school, and they're going to be made up of different components. So some will be heavier in loans. Some will have no loans. And also the price of each institution is different. So if you're looking at just the grant amount, at the final tally, the grant may not make the difference. It's the actual final cost.

MARTIN: Are there common mistakes that people make in filling out those applications that might lead them to not get the right amount of money?

JUEDES: There are some common mistakes that folks make. One of them is that when folks are filling out the financial forms, they don't actually understand what they're being asked. And so what they try and do is put, for instance, what they feel like they make. And so sometimes families either over or underestimate that. And when we verify that information, that can make a big change.

MARTIN: Well, I'm kind of puzzled by that, you know. I mean, people put down how much they think they make? And is that because a student is generally filling the form out...

JUEDES: It can be...

MARTIN: ...And not the parent himself or herself?

JUEDES: It can be because the student is filling it out. And so oftentimes we find that families aren't talking. So they - you know, a student may be filling out the form and feel that they're solidly middle-class, and they think their family makes about $70,000 or about $100,000. So that's what they'll put down, when in reality, that's not their actual situation on paper.

MARTIN: And you can see where that makes a huge difference.

JUEDES: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What about a situation - since you went there - about where the parents are not cooperative, where the student is an able student, and the student has the qualifications to go to school? Perhaps, that person is getting some support or help from college advisors at school, but the parents for whatever reason are not cooperative in filling out and being fully transparent about their finances. What do you do?

JUEDES: So that's a really difficult situation. And unfortunately, we find too many students who are in that boat. And one of the things that you can do is there is a way now that you can file the federal form and indicate that your parents aren't cooperating, and you can at least file the form. Unfortunately, it's not going to get you any federal funds outside of loans. And for most institutions that are awarding their own money, they're not going to accept that. So really the student is going to have to do their best to get the parent to actually file the paperwork. Filing the paperwork doesn't mean that the parent is ultimately responsible. Coming up with the financing plan is something that can be done at a later date. But in order to determine financial aid eligibility, we at least have to start with what the parents' financial situation is.

MARTIN: Is there generally room to negotiate how much financial aid you get as a student, particularly if you're a student who is highly sought after?

JUEDES: Wow, that's a question that really spans the spectrum. So at some institutions, they do not allow for negotiating of financial aid awards. And usually those are institutions where their award is based solely on a family's demonstrated need. So if your family situation changes, that school may be able to change their financial aid award. But if it's simply, this isn't enough, or my parents don't feel they can pay this, that's usually not a reason. There are some other institutions out there that actively solicit financial aid awards from other places and say, we will match your award. Or perhaps your funding is based on a merit scholarship, in which case a lot of times those will be negotiable as well.

MARTIN: Do you find that, you know - it just - this seems like a lot of marketplaces where the college and university has all the information, and the student, particularly if this is a first-time student going to college or somebody from a background where they don't have a lot of exposure, the student's really at a disadvantage. I mean, it just seems like one of those, you know, unbalanced marketplaces, right? So is there anything that the student can do to kind of level the playing field?

JUEDES: I think that the student can do a number of things. And I think one of the first things that I would recommend is that the student be a partner, whether it be with their parents - perhaps their parents don't have that experience and they haven't been to college themselves, or maybe they've been to college a number of years ago. I mean, oftentimes families will feel - you know, parents will feel that that's as much of a disadvantage.

But for those students, particularly first-generation college students, where they may not have the support of their parents, the first thing those students need to do is educate themselves and to seek out the help. And so you point out a really good resource that so many students I don't think take advantage of, and that would be college resource officers. Maybe it's in their high school or with some community-based organizations. And this is a place where a lot of colleges have put a lot of time and effort in as well, so a number of outreach programs. So you should start with the colleges as well. And I don't think it's so much that institutions don't want to share the information, but there are some natural roadblocks that have to be overcome.

MARTIN: Like what?

JUEDES: So in our society, we don't tend to talk about financing very much or about money in general. And I think that that's a huge problem when it comes to financing college because this one of the financial milestones in a student's life. And yet, until this point in time, many of them have no financial training whatsoever. So they may shake their head, yes, I know the difference between loan and grant, when in reality they don't have the understanding that a loan has to be paid back.

MARTIN: So what's the most important thing you would like people to draw from this conversation?

JUEDES: I think to have a conversation with folks. So it sounds a bit strange, but the conversation really has to start. And for many families, that can be with your parents. But as we've already noted, there are a number students where that's not an option. But we need to connect them with the resources so that they can have that conversation and understand what their options are, so that it's not just the sticker price that you see on a website or that you hear these private elite colleges are so expensive or your only option is college X. There are a number of options out there.

MARTIN: Scott Juedes is director of student financial services at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and he joined us from there. Scott Juedes, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

JUEDES: Thank you.

MARTIN: And just a reminder, you can weigh in with your own story or question on Twitter at #PayingForCollege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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