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Decisions, Decisions

March 5th, 2010

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Decisions, Decisions

College building

Make sure you understand the financial aid package, including the difference between grant awards and loans.

On April 1st, the world shifts for high school seniors. April Fool’s Day is generally the final day by which seniors receive their college decisions. Then the tables turn as admissions officers begin their campaign to convince seniors to matriculate at their college next fall. Making the decision about where to attend college is significant. Here are a few considerations for students and families to consider.

1. Understanding the merit scholarship. If you are a strong student near the top of the applicant pool for a given college then you may receive a merit aid scholarship, which should be announced in a letter that you should receive before April 1. It is important to read the fine print and determine if the award will be given for each year that the student attends the college and if a certain grade point average must be maintained to keep the scholarship. Students and parents should contact the financial aid office if they have questions.

2. Reading the Financial Aid Award letter. At first glance, the financial aid package might look very generous. However, it is important to distinguish between grant money, which is aid that is an outright gift and does not need to be repaid, versus loans, which must eventually be repaid but may be beneficial if they offer deferred interest rates and payments until after college graduation. Work study grants are often included in the financial aid award letter. Each offer will be different and it important to compare to be certain which college is offering the best value. To learn more about the potential pitfalls of student loans, the new book, The Student Loan Scam, might be useful. A review of the book is available on the Wall Street Journal‘s site.

students enjoying campus commons

Take a second look at the culture on campus and make sure it is the right fit for you.

3. Take a second look. Be honest with yourself. Did you do a thorough job reviewing the college before you applied? If not, take out your college guide book and review the entry. Visit websites such as Unigo, Niche and Youniversity TV and see what current students have to say about the college. Visit the school web site and look at the requirements and the majors in which you are interested. Do you have a clear understanding of what is expected? Do the students seem like people you want to be with? Do the offerings match the criteria that you established for yourself back at the beginning of the process?

4. Visit or re-visit. Never choose a college that you have not seen, and even if you have previously visited, consider a second visit if you are not sure (assuming your family can afford to make the trip). This time around, sit in on a class and spend more time talking with students on campus. One student, Jake, transferred after one semester because he felt like an outsider at his Southern college which drew mostly from the surrounding region and had little cultural or racial diversity.

“I was so excited about the great weather and the nearby beach when I visited that I didn’t take the time to notice that the students weren’t much like me,” recalls Jake. “I made a few friends, but I was really unhappy with the narrow views of some of the other students.”

The lesson: Focus on the qualities of campus life that matter: the peer group, academic offerings and campus culture — not just the palm trees.

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