Friday, March 6, 2009

Tell Your Story

March 6, 2009- Ever listen to an older person tell stories of how things were different in the good old days? Channel surfing was your youngest kid turning a knob after adjusting the tin foil antennae. Global positioning system meant stopping at a gas station to ask the teenage clerk what state you’re in. And checking your mail actually required walking all the way to the end of the driveway in rain, sleet or snow. Even with all our new technology, high school seniors all across America are still trekking to the mailbox for the answers to the question: did I get in?

If you follow the college admission process you know March is when the final round of acceptances and denials land at millions of homes. In 2009, the economy has certainly changed the story for the college-bound population and added the question: can I afford to attend my school of choice? That’s why students are doing their homework and making sure they keep their options open as decision time approaches.

How can we tell? We found in our network that more public colleges made their way onto college lists. We know enrollment at community colleges is up. We learned more financial aid assistance is being sought. Just last month in Florida and Texas, we presented our network with two on-site financial aid seminars to more-than-sold-out crowds of hundreds looking for advice. Families are getting smart about how to navigate this process. That’s why transparency into expectations and the availability of information has become so keenly important this year.

This month, I participated in a discussion with bankrate.com on how to “land more financial aid”. While some experts’ recommendations make perfectly good sense for this year, last and next year as well (like meeting deadlines) it’s interesting to see the shift in how colleges have incorporated financial into enrollment management. It wasn’t uncommon in the past for a student to receive his or her award packages, pull each one up side by side, and choose the school that appeared to offer the most aid….no questions asked. Now students are taking a closer look to distinguish between a grant or a tuition discount, a private loan and a PLUS loan, or even the disparity between similar colleges’ breakdown of aid. It’s just another example of families getting smart about the process.

Colleges too are changing the way they do business in the financial aid office when it comes to admitted students. Remember, they wouldn’t be in the business if they didn’t want to see young people succeed. They’re not interested in setting students up to default on loans. Keep in mind, they’re partners in the process, not adversaries. Even more so than in years past, students are able to approach the financial aid office to tell their story, should they feel their economic situation deserves a second look or has changed and could be adjusted. While the endless FAFSA may seem like it captured everything, there may be some circumstances that a financial aid officer may need to evaluate your situation. Remember, it’s not about bargaining or seeing what you can get way with. It’s about providing information to get to a manageable outcome, for all involved – families and colleges.

So as students evaluate their decisions we are encouraging them to take advantage of the technology and tools that we offer – like comparing projected debt burden and payback payments to the starting salaries for their career choice. And we use some “old fashioned” images to help our students understand the dilemma… like a can of dog food, piece of pizza, or slice of steak… even someone from the old school can interpret what those debt burdens mean.

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