Mind the College Financial Aid Gap


Last week, I visited two public schools in Los Angeles to help lower and middle class seniors decide which college to accept by May 1. At each site, my intended discussion about comparing programs, facilities, majors, and communities was re-directed to considerations about college costs.

Despite receiving varying need and merit based scholarships, these high school seniors and their families were being asked by many of the colleges that accepted them to not only take out more than $10,000 per year in loans, but also to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $23,000 per year in out-of-pocket money. These students and their families did not have the money to cover the gap between college costs and money provided in financial aid and scholarships.

After speaking with these struggling students, I re-designed my presentations for the rest of this month to focus on these five topics.

1. Ask colleges to match other offers. If the students have top choice colleges that are more expensive from other match colleges that have awarded them more money, they should ask the top colleges to match those other offers or come closer. They can appeal financial aid decisions and provide more information about their family's financial situation.

2. Apply for more merit based scholarships. They can contact the top colleges' scholarship offices to research scholarships on and off campus. They can also access wonderful free websites that list scholarships and contact their local state representatives as well as religious and cultural groups, all of which often provide scholarships. Often this money will help lessen the gap and make attending the more expensive colleges more possible. They can apply for scholarship money each year they are in college.

3. Make realistic economic decisions. Students and families may have to borrow money to pay for college, but they need to think about their future professions and determine whether the loan debt matches future incomes. They should not borrow so much money that they won't be able to afford even more expensive graduate programs. In addition, students need to avoid high interest credit cards that prey on college students to pay for college expenses.

4. Focus on the more affordable colleges. Seniors need to find ways to be happy at the more affordable colleges that admitted them. They should try to visit them by the end of April and learn as much about them as possible. Many colleges will send students free transportation tickets to visit. Every college offers tremendous opportunities with honors programs and themed communities. They offer unique opportunities to work with scholars, use outstanding facilities, and interact with amazing students. Often at more affordable instate public universities, students can still live in the dorms and participate in extraordinary programs. Students may need to be more proactive, but they can thrive on these campuses, especially if they join groups their first semester, visit professors, and participate in different campus activities.

5. Contact state officials, college top officials, and the media. After accepting their best match college, families and students need to let everyone know that many colleges priced them out of attendance. They should write letters and emails to anyone who will listen to their stories of deciding which college to attend. They need to emphasize how painful it is to mind the financial aid gap.

Finally, I believe that colleges should never accept students when they cannot provide them with sufficient funds to attend. Last fall, I received a call from a college that wanted me to help a student return home. This student had not understood that he owed thousands of dollars not covered by his financial aid offer and had gone to the college and started classes. It took the college a while to realize what had happened, and rather than meet the unmet money, they sent him home.

Please help all students mind the financial aid gap now before it is too late for them to find happiness at other equally good colleges.

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This blog post is part of the 'College 101' blog series, curated by the editors of HuffPost Financial Education to provide parents with the best advice for financing their children's college educations. To see all the other posts in the series, click here.