February 15 — 10:55 am, 2019

When scholarship offers don’t make sense

Melissa Rowe

Recently, I sat with a few students to examine their financial aid award letters from colleges that are offering them admission. The young people were filled with excitement and relief that there was a light at the end of their college-admission tunnel.

As much as I wanted to meet them with cheer, I felt angst. My concern was that with the high cost of a bachelor’s degree, these financial aid packages might not cover my students’ full need. It’s always hard to explain to a student why a “generous” scholarship offer still might not be enough.

One student, Autumn, had been admitted to her dream school. The university offered Autumn a $20,000 annual scholarship and two grants, in addition to her federal Pell Grant, a Pennsylvania State Grant, and the full allotment of $5,500 in federal student loans. Her grand total was more than $37,000 in aid.

It was a pretty solid package, in my opinion, until we examined the total cost of attendance. This particular university charged almost $35,000 for annual tuition alone. Then we calculated the cost of room, board, and other fees. In total, it would cost Autumn and her family close to $47,000 a year to attend.

Autumn’s total annual household income is less than $30,000. The financial aid package would leave Autumn and her parents with more than $9,000 in out-of-pocket annual costs (and more if tuition increases).

So, what do you tell students when their dream school might cause them and their family nightmares?

Here are some suggestions to help young people who are facing massive funding gaps:

Choose another school
Telling a student to choose a school other than their top choice is very difficult. They’ve worked hard to gain admission, and the only advice they want to hear is that which allows them to see their dream come true. Even so, I still present it as a logical option.

Choosing a college can be similar to dating. You might really like a person, but they don’t have the same feelings for you. When colleges present our students with financial aid offers that will leave them in financial distress, it can be their way of saying, “We’re just not that into you.”

Appeal the offer
Most students don’t know this, but appealing a financial aid package is becoming more common, especially for students receiving scholarship offers. To use this strategy, compile all of the student’s college acceptances and scholarship offers, then show the top-choice school that the student has been offered admission to other comparable programs at a lower out-of-pocket cost. Help the financial aid officer understand that if all packages were equal, the student would accept admission to their dream school in a second.

Eliminate room and board
Choosing not to live on campus is not the ideal college experience for most young people. However, it is the easiest way to reduce a huge expense. When students are adamant about attending a particular university, removing campus living can reduce the cost by $10,000 or more. In Autumn’s case, she would eliminate $12,000 and essentially get rid of the funding gap of $9,000.

Be mindful that this option is only viable for students who can live at home or are savvy enough to secure cheaper housing options near campus, possibly with friends or relatives. It is also important to help students think through the cost and time factor of commuting and assess their access to reliable transportation.

After presenting these three options, I’d like to leave students and parents with this piece of advice: Do not take out private loans or sign up for a monthly payment plan when the gap in funding is extremely high. Between high interest rates, unfavorable repayment terms, and monthly costs that require working another job, the risk is too great to take on massive funding gaps. If a college or university isn’t willing to increase aid for a family with real financial need, then it probably is not your best option.

Melissa A. Rowe, M.Ed., is the founder of Capture Greatness! – Scholarship & College Coaching. Learn more at CaptureGreatness.org.

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