Hosted by the La Jolla Cluster Association, college expert and blogger Lynn O’Shaughnessy made a presentation to about 150 parents at La Jolla High School on April 21, giving them the lowdown on paying for a college education.
The author of the best-selling “The College Solution: A guide for everyone looking for the right school at the right price,” she also writes the blog “The College Solution,” and put her own two children through college, recently. She’s considered by some to be the ultimate insider.
“This whole process does not have to be as scary or as expensive if you are an empowered college shopper,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Frankly, most people aren’t. But if you are a smart college shopper, you’re going to understand this whole process.”
She suggested steps parents take before their child applies for a college and outlined the different types of financial assistance available, and the tools available to determine the actual cost of college.
Seeking the perfect match
First and foremost, she advised, ignore the myth that there are only a handful of colleges and universities students should strive to attend.
“When you believe that, you are doing a horrible disservice to your children. There are many schools out there, some you might have never heard of, that are better for undergraduates and might be better for your child,” O’Shaughnessy said. Citing the University of Arkansas as an example to business majors, she pointed out that Walmart has its headquarters in Arkansas and requires any company it does business with to have a corporate office there. Some 300 companies (many Fortune 500) have branches in Arkansas and constantly offer internships. “That’s a school that would never be on someone’s radar,” she said, and because it’s away from the coasts and not very well known, it’s significantly cheaper.
Resources such as O’Shaughnessy’s blog and collegeboard.org can help in the search for schools that specialize in particular majors, their selectivity, location and sport options.
“You can evaluate if a school is going to be generous to your child before he or she applies,” O’Shaughnessy said. “If money is an issue, you need to research the school to see what chance your child has for getting money from that school.”
A tool to help determine that chance involves using a Net Price Calculator, found on college websites. Using financial information and details about the student, it will determine the cost of attending that school. “The Net Price Calculator looks at grades and possibility of financial aid from the state or federal government or from the school. It adds all that up and subtracts from the total cost of attendance and gives you your price,” she said. “Most people apply to schools blindly without knowing whether the school will give them money until they get a financial-aid package. The Net Price Calculator is a powerful tool because it tells you if the school will give you money. If it’s going to cost you too much, don’t apply, look elsewhere.”
O’Shaughnessy cautioned however, that some schools have “terrible” calculators that do not give a complete picture. She said if the calculator only takes a minute or two to complete, it’s probably lacking. The best take about 20 minutes to complete.
“Colleges are priced like airline tickets, everyone pays a different price,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Some schools will be very generous to your child, even B- and C-average students can get money.”
One source of aid that comes straight from the school is a merit scholarship, which rewards talent, academics, and/or artistic or athletic accomplishments. O’Shaughnessy said they are great for high-income students and can supplement a private scholarship.
If a student were to receive private scholarships, that amount would not affect what they might receive in a merit scholarship. Conversely, should a student receive need-based aid or support from the state or federal government, private scholarships might affect how much the student receives.
“If you get need-based aid from the school and then get a scholarship from a local Rotary, the school can deduct (the Rotary contribution) from the financial aid package,” she said, adding parents can contact the school and ask what the school’s policy is on outside scholarships and how they affect school-based aid.
When seeking private scholarships, O’Shaughnessy said, look for applications that require one or more essays. “These weed competition out quickly because most kids don’t want to write essays,” she joked.
College or university?
“A university is there for research and there might be 600 students in a class. Graduate students are typically the teachers. Research universities have bigger and better facilities, they have Nobel Prize winners (as professors), but undergrads aren’t typically going to have access to them, unless the student is super brilliant,” she said. “A college might be smaller and have smaller classrooms and will focus on undergraduates.”
Attending a college also provides the opportunity to complete prerequisite courses in smaller more intimate environments and possibly transfer to another school to complete the major.
“My daughter thought she wanted to go to Berkeley, but it became apparent to me sooner than it did for her that she wasn’t in the top 10 percent of her class. She was a very bright kid with a social IQ off the chart, but she was not a 4.0 (GPA) student, more like a 3.5 student,” she said. O’Shaughnessy started looking at colleges, and after realizing how many of them could offer assistance, focused on smaller colleges. Her daughter graduated from Juniata College in 2011 and is now a marketing director for Rokenbok Toy Company in Solana Beach. After seeing the path his sister took, O’Shaughnessy’s son attended Beloit College and is now in graduate school.
Several parents said they were encouraged by the talk. Noelle Mayne, whose son is a sophomore, said, “she confirmed some of my thinking about colleges perhaps being a better fit for my son, and a better value, based on the financial aid options and (faculty/student) interaction. After hearing a lot of my friends who’ve gone through this process over the last few years, I see that it’s daunting, so I was glad to have some resources.”
Dana Irwin, who has twins in college and a sophomore at La Jolla High, said she appreciated the up-to-date information. “Every time you come to something like this — and I’ve been to many over the years — you learn something new. Things change every few years. These presentations are always worth coming to,” she said. “People in our community think there’s no help for them financially, but there are schools where you can get a great education and also some merit aid to take some pressure off your family.”
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