by Joyce Slayton Mitchell
Seniors, the month of April is your month. It is when the power to choose your college and send your deposit to reserve your freshman place is all yours. Due May 1.
April is your month. Pandemic year. This year is different. Questions are different. You have to ask: Is the campus planning to be open next September or not? Is the college bringing freshman to their dorms or not? What is the meal plan on campus? Are classes in-person or online? Or both? These are the basic questions for you to ask and results (for the moment) to understand before you deposit.
You’ve got your acceptances and your waitlists. Tend to those waitlists first! If you like your acceptances, then don’t bother staying on a waitlist. Move on to learning more about your acceptances. Remember this, we all like best what we know best.
You have all of April to check out the colleges that you can afford and to decide which is best for you.
You’ve received your financial packages telling you how much you have to pay, how much your parents have to pay, how much your loans are worth, and how much aid, scholarship or grants you are receiving from the colleges. Often you learn that there’s a gap of a few or more thousand dollars with no idea where that money is coming from.
Let’s say the college costs $63,000 a year. The expected contributions from you and your parents, the loans, and work-study all amount to $40,000. That difference between what the college has figured out for you and what you’ve got or can borrow is $23,000 and is called “gapping.” The colleges realize from the forms you sent them, that you need more money than is accounted for. They do that because they can’t afford to pay 100% of your need. They have also found that sometimes grandparents or others come up with the difference in cost, or there is money available not reported. It doesn’t really matter why they gap, the point you should know is that it isn’t a mistake in calculations on their part.
What can you do about it? If you have more than one acceptance, you can go to the college that you can afford. Often students tell me that they like best the college with the least amount of money offered to them. That happens.
You and your family have to decide how much indebtedness a particular college is worth to you; others can’t decide it for you. Many families have no idea how much indebtedness to manage, because it’s such a new thing in the family experience. Parents can’t compare your debt with what debt they had for college, or even for older siblings. The cost of higher education takes much more of a family’s income than it used to, regardless of inflation and changing economic times. Just to give you a ballpark figure, $25,000 to $50,000 isn’t unusual for a four-year indebtedness.
Can you negotiate? Yes, you can, and you have the advantage if you have a better package from another college in order to make your case. And if there has been a major change in the family economics (a parent has lost her job since applying to the college, major medical bills), then by all means, call the director of financial aid and explain the changed circumstances.
Finally, the website sponsored by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators is the best resource for you, other than the college financial aid director. That address is finaid.org. Check it out and don’t hesitate to send in your questions to the financial aid website before you get in touch with the college.
Now for all of those pandemic-related questions. Never have there been more unanswered questions for you about the college experience than during these pandemic years. So, whether they can be answered or not, ask! The best information you can get will be to ask what they did this past year with freshmen: housing on campus, remote learning from campus or home or both? All freshman on campus at once or half for each semester and at home for the alternate semester?
What did they do with students who tested positive for COVID-19 after they were on campus? Sent them home, or placed them in one dormitory? How was the meal plan organized? Anything you wonder and worry about that is pandemic-related – anything at all – don’t ask what the policy is, ask what action was taken for the freshman class of 2020-2021.
As bad as it is, and as difficult it is to make decisions this COVID-19 year, at least the colleges have had a year of experience in the pandemic to learn from and tell you about.
You can be sure that the colleges will keep you up to date when they expect you on campus, and keep you informed of their pandemic rules and regulations. As questions occur during this summer, keep up with all of the “pandemic year 2021-2022” news until you are packed and on your way in the fall.
Ask your school counselor who your high school rep is from the college where you send your deposit. Get his or her email and stay in touch with any new pandemic questions that arise.
The more you know about where you are going and changes being made as we all plough through this pandemic season, the better you will be able to handle the situation. After all, you have pandemic experience this high school year and know a thing or two about how to handle it best for you.
[Editor’s note: Joyce Slayton Mitchell is a part-time resident of Hardwick and author of “Who Is This Kid? Colleges Want to Know! Writing Exercises for Winning Applications.”]