Financial aid season starts early this year

22 Oct
Current high school seniors and college students can do their FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year NOW...and SHOULD!

Current high school seniors and college students can do their FAFSA for the 2017-18 school year NOW…and SHOULD!

For the first time next year’s college students (enrolling the school year of 2017-18) and their parents have been able to do the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) starting October 1. Also for the first time, students and parents will use PRIOR PRIOR year information. Read on….

Starting October 1 current high school seniors and current college students and their parents have been able to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the U.S. government vehicle for determining how much and the various kinds of financial aid that can be offered, based on financial need: grants (free money), work study (work at a job, usually on campus–nontaxable), and student and parent loans (must be repaid).

The first step in this process is to obtain the Federal Student Aid (FSA) I.D. for both the student who will be attending college in Fall 2017 and the parent(s). The FSA I.D. replaces the former four-digit PIN number. This FSA I.D. is even more secure because students and their parents provide a personalized username, password and FIVE security questions of their own design. The I.D. is needed for both the student and parent to sign the FAFSA electronically.

Go to to get the FSA I.D. taken care of and to do the FAFSA, for which you will need your 2015 income information as well as current info of assets. Starting this financial aid season you will use PRIOR PRIOR year income. What that means is that if the student will be attending college during the 2017-18 school year, the student and parents will use their income from TWO years prior to that time, thus the income from 2015. This will continue to be the case for all future years.

Several more important points:

NOTE FOR ALL: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do the FAFSA early. You won’t get a financial aid offer from your various colleges until the FAFSA is done. Also, read EVERYTHING! I’ve had parents make mistakes on the FAFSA that have caused significant problems–or at least delays.

NOTE ON STATE GRANTS: The California deadline for the FAFSA is March 2 for four-year college students who want to be considered for a Cal Grant, which can pay all tuition and fees at a public college in California. Leave a comment here if you want to know your state’s deadline (private colleges will have their own deadlines–check with the financial aid departments).

NOTE FOR ATHLETES: Colleges will want you to do the FAFSA, so that they see you are being proactive about accessing all kinds of financial aid–not just the sports scholarship.

Do you have questions? I am not an accountant, but I can answer basic questions and can point you to helpful resources.

College fairs are your friend

20 Oct
You can learn a LOT in a short amount of time in a college fair!

                              You can learn a LOT in a short amount of time in a college fair!

You can get a lot of bang for your zero-cost buck by attending a College Fair. These events, held typically in the fall and spring around the country bring college recruiters to cities to talk with prospective students and their parents. If you do not have the time or money to travel all over the country or even just your own state, you can get some pertinent information in a short couple of hours.

You can find one in your area by talking to your high school counselor. Some of the major ones are sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and its fairs are on the following schedule: Typically, as many as 200 or more colleges attend these events — and many of my former students found their dream college at one of those fairs.

As you search for these college fairs in your area, make sure that as you register online, that you are registering as a STUDENT and not a college rep. These are most always FREE events, so if the online form asks for payment . . . oops, you’ve got the wrong form!

Often these college reps are from the prospective students or outreach office at their university. However, sometimes you might find that admissions officers and perhaps even the head admissions counselor is standing right in front of you. You do not need to dress in business attire, but you will want to look sharp.

To make the most of these events, engage with the college representatives. As I’ve taken students to college fairs over many years, I give them a pep talk before we enter the event, saying something silly like this: “You’re happy! You’re smart! You’re friendly!” That gets a smile on their faces and helps them understand that they should be the one most proactive about getting the most from the experience.

Do the following:

1. Smile, extend your hand, and introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Sally Smart, and I’m a student from Littletown.”

2. Explain what kind of college program you’re interested in. “I’m interested in mechanical engineering. Can you tell me something about your program?”

3. Engage in conversation about those subjects important to you. Here are some other great questions to ask:

  • “How would you characterize the students at your university?”
  • “What do students like most about the college?” “What do they like the least?”
  • “Is the faculty accessible to students other than the traditional office hours?”
  • “Are any departments being cut back or discontinued? If so, why?”
  • “What percentage of students receive merit-based financial aid? And what percentage of students receive need-based financial aid?”

You and your parents might want to make a list of important questions before you attend the college fair — ones that are most important to you.

I coach my students to ask each college rep at least a couple questions. One that can often catch a rep off-guard is “Do you like your job?” You can find out the true answer to that in their face — and that can say volumes about a school, too! If the rep was a student at that college, ask that person to relate some of their best and worst experiences.

Pick up any and all of the freebies: brochures, flyers, pens, and other trinkets. If you can’t use them, your friends and even your high school counselor probably can.

Any exciting news about college acceptances yet?

Thinking about taking a year off?

18 Oct
Some young people decide to travel for a year after high school graduation.

                     Some young people decide to travel for a year after high school graduation.


Some of you may be thinking that you’re TIRED of school and want to take some time off and work or travel before attending college. Here are some pros and cons:


  • You may be able to save some money for college if you work.
  • You might be more mature and refreshed before starting college studies.
  • You could travel and see more of the world, thus gaining an appreciation for people of other cultures and also for your family, community, and country.
  • You might learn more about yourself and get insights into what kind of college major and career you would like.


  • Some colleges will not hold your admission/registration, and you would have to go through the application process all over again.
  • You will probably be most academically ready for college the fall after high school graduation. It’s possible that you may lose some knowledge for math and English placement tests if you wait a year.
  • The income you earn in a gap year must be reported for purposes of financial aid, and you will still have to also report your parents’ income. A year off does not make you independent for purposes of financial aid.
  • Travel and living expenses can be expensive — and you might find that you can’t save as much money as you thought, especially if you need to buy a car and fuel it for job transportation.
  • Good intentions often dissipate. When I have had students tell me they want to take a year off to travel or work, I have observed that most never attend college later on.
  • College scholarship organizations often do not want to hold a scholarship for a year. They like to see immediate results for their fundraising efforts.
  • College tuition and living expenses are only going up each year, so postponing college can make funding college more expensive.

From the above you can probably imagine that I would not advise a gap year between high school and college. Instead, if students tell me they want to travel abroad, I suggest that they find a college that encourages and supports those kinds of programs. I have numerous former students studying in Europe this year — even a young man who is studying engineering figured out how to arrange his studies so he could go to Scotland for a semester.

If you’re not sure what you want to study, colleges have great career counseling centers — and you could even begin now by taking online tests (one is  — avoid doing any that require you to pay, as there are many that are sponsored by government and educational organizations).

What I’ve sometimes noticed is that students who want to take a year off to work often are simply nervous about leaving home. Visit colleges with your family. Arrange campus tours. Plan an overnight in a dorm with someone you know. Learn to overcome your fears.

However, if you’re got a great plan to travel or do an internship related to a potential career, that could work out well. In any case, talk as a family and then make a proactive plan that includes your college education later.


Worried about declaring a major?

18 Oct
Struggling to decide what your major should be?

Struggling to decide what your major should be?

High school seniors typically fret about their future college major. While it is true that some students have to strap themselves into a carefully matriculated four- or five-year path (such as engineering), other students have time to explore various courses of study.

Questions to consider are as follows:

  • What activities do I enjoy?
  • What high school (or college) courses have I enjoyed the most?
  • What courses were my academic strengths?
  • What kinds of jobs do students with that major typically pursue?

Another consideration should be personality type. Students often do not yet understand who they are as a person. For example, I once had a very shy girl student who was convinced she wanted to go into public relations or sales, so I encouraged her to jump into leadership responsibilities and community service so that she would be more involved with the public. When I found out later that she was studying accounting, I knew that was a better match.

You can Google “personality test” or “Myers-Briggs Personality Test” and find a variety of online tests that can help you determine whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, whether you are a person who is more sensing or more intuitive, whether you are more thinking or more feeling, and whether you are more judging or more perceiving. (A quick one is at NOTE: Most of these sites are selling something–buyer, be aware!) Or . . . you could just ask Mom or Dad. They know you best. Plus, I’ve often found that students choose answers for what they WANT to be, rather than who they ARE.

Many colleges will allow you to enroll as an “undecided” student. That means that you do not have to choose a major right from the get-go. Instead, you take courses that will meet general education requirements for graduation. Chances are that you will change your major twice during the course of your college years anyway.

These steps will help you choose your major:

1. Talk to an advisor about your major options.

2. Enroll in a major and career exploration course at your college.

3. Think through how your interests, values, skills, and personality could work together toward an interesting career path.

4. Generate a list of possible majors and research them.

5. Read the descriptions of the courses you would have to take. If they sound terrible, that’s probably not the major for you!

6. Think about the pros and cons of each major and take an introductory course (one that will meet graduation requirements anyway).

7. Ask questions of professors, advisors, and students in those majors.

Remember that most majors do not equal careers. There can be many different careers that could spring from a major you choose.


Evaluating aid offers

24 Mar

Weighing offers can be confusing!

As your financial aid offers start coming in, you and your parents may be a little confused. The differing formats and terminology may seem like you’re being asked to compare apples with oranges.

Buffy Tanner, a counselor with the BOLD (Bachelor’s through Online and Local Degrees) program at Shasta College, has some helpful advice. (She was formerly part of the College OPTIONS organization, which has a mission to strengthen the college-going culture in the more rural areas of northern California by increasing opportunities for students to pursue and become informed about postsecondary education).

portland-1-jFirst, she says to make sure each college includes all five components of Cost of Attendance (some colleges don’t include all five on their award letters):

  • Tuition/Fees
  • Room/Board
  • Books/Supplies
  • Transportation
  • Personal Expenses

Tanner also says, “Students need to realize that the Cost of Attendance published by each school is an AVERAGE, ESTIMATED cost.  For some students, transportation costs may be more or less, they can save money by tripling up in a dorm, or by living at home, etc.  As much as possible, they should personalize that Cost of Attendance for each college to determine what they will REALLY need.”

The College OPTIONS organization has developed a Financial Aid Offer Comparison Worksheet that can help you evaluate financial aid offers. In this Excel document you can insert the numbers of each type of aid from a college (and then the next college and the next), so as to get an actual “apples to apples” comparison (instead of apples to alligators).  This tool is online:!financial-aid/c8k2. (See the middle column “Tools for Award Letters” — the last bullet. There is also a link for instructions on how to use the tool.)

“There are MANY roads from point A to point B,” Tanner notes. “Some are more scenic than others, others are quicker, still others have hidden gems along the way that they don’t even know about.”

In any case, do not make rash decisions based on a quick glance of the financial aid offers. Weigh your options carefully and make sure any decision is done with the help of your parents.

Finding a community college program

7 Mar
Feather River College in Quincy, California, has an excellent transfer rate, as well as exceptional athletic programs in a beautiful mountain setting.

Feather River College in Quincy, California, has an excellent transfer rate, as well as exceptional athletic programs in a beautiful mountain setting.

If you’re interested in attending a community college but still aren’t sure which one, this California Community Colleges website link is a simple tool to find a college and a particular program:

Use the search tool for the particular program, such as culinary arts or photography. You will get a list of colleges in California that have that program.

If you are out of state, try a Google search to locate your state’s community college website.

Now is the time to apply to your community college, making sure that you have listed any possible schools on your FAFSA. California students will want to make sure that their California schools are at the top of that FAFSA list if they are Cal Grant eligible, so that they will be offered a Board of Governors (BOG) Waiver–the community college equivalent of a Cal Grant.

Applying now to that community college is especially important if you want to secure on-campus housing, which is limited to a handful of community colleges in California, because campus housing can fill up quickly.

You should also be setting up your placement testing in English and math. The Accuplacer (a College Board test) is one of those forms of measurement that your community college would likely use. Some community colleges might now be administering that test on your high school campus.

Again, it’s important to be proactive now about your college plans, so that you get the classes, housing and financial aid that will help support your success!

Negotiating financial aid

2 Mar
You can always plead your financial aid case with a well-written letter.

        You can always plead your financial aid case with a well-written letter.

Some of you may already be getting financial aid offers from the colleges to which you have applied — especially if you did your FAFSA early.

However, some of you may be disappointed with the offers.

Please know you can still plead your case with the financial aid office at those colleges. Do this with a letter addressed to “Financial Aid Officer” and include information that could improve your offer:

  • Information about a parent losing a job or being cut back to part-time.
  • Loss of a job you have had.
  • Information about high and unexpected expenses for situations such as medical care or a car accident.
  • Death of a supporting parent or other close family member — thus creating loss of income or increased expenses.
  • Separation of your parents — so that you now only need report income for the parent with whom you are living (or who provides the greater amount of support).

It is helpful if the school counselor or administrator can write a letter authenticating your case.

Also, the letter may receive quicker attention if the school faxes your letter to the financial aid department(s).

Please don’t delay on this. Some money pots — such as work study — are limited, and colleges can only offer what’s available.