I usually devote my monthly column to sharing ways that you can help your clients become better educated consumers when they begin shopping for colleges. Today, however, I want to pass along the story of a wirehouse advisor in Southern California who turned to me for advice.
The advisor heard me speak about college strategies at a Fidelity-sponsored luncheon in June for advisors and their clients in Southern California. Before the talk, the advisor introduced himself and mentioned that his son was thrilled because he would be attending Syracuse University in the fall.
A few days later, the advisor's wife called me. The advisor must have shared the highlights of my college presentation at the Fidelity event, and she decided to track me down. While the parents were happy that their son — I'm going to call him Matt — had gotten into an excellent academic program at Syracuse, they were anxious about paying the tab. Here is what I learned from talking with the mom.
When the family applied for financial aid, their Expected Family Contribution was in the $30,000-plus range. The EFC refers to a dollar figure that a family would be expected to pay, at a minimum, for one year of college. The affluent family's EFC was well above the EFC of most households with college-bound teenagers.
The mother didn't give me the family's exact EFC, but let's assume it was $32,000. Syracuse would expect the family to pay at least $32,000. That amount, however, wouldn't cover the full tab because the school's tuition plus room/board pencils out to close to $51,000. That would leave an unfunded gap of $19,000. Actually the gap would be larger after including such costs as textbooks, travel and incidentals.
Syracuse, however, didn't provide this family with any need-based aid to cover the gap. When I looked at the school's statistics on its profile on the College Board website, I noticed that the school typically meets 95 percent of a student's financial needs. Inside the typical Syracuse aid package is an average loan of $6,500.
Let me pause for a minute to explain how you find stats like this. Type the name of any school into the College Board's College QuickFinder box on the left hand side of the home page (www.collegeboard.com). Once you get to the school's profile, click on the Cost & Financial Aid link and you'll find the figures under the heading, “Financial Aid Statistics.”
When I looked at Syracuse's financial aid stats, it's clear that the school meets the full financial need of many of its students. In fact, Syracuse provided financial aid to 1,660 freshman out of 2,035 first-year students (that's 81.5 percent).
Obviously I'm not privy to why Syracuse didn't throw Matt a bone, but I have a couple of hunches.
If the family's EFC was closer to the $40,000 range, there wouldn't be a compelling reason to give Matt need-based aid when there are so many less fortunate kids who could use the money. A teenager with a higher EFC would have better luck receiving a merit scholarship.
Syracuse does give wealthy students merit awards. According to the College Board stats, the average merit award for Syracuse freshmen is $7,880. You can find the merit-aid figure for any school by looking at the institution's profile on the College Board website. In the Cost & Financial Aid section of a school, look for the line item that says average non-need based aid.
The California teenager didn't receive a merit scholarship from Syracuse either. Here's a possible reason: Most schools in this country reserve their best financial aid and merit aid to the students they truly covet. Colleges and universities possess a finite amount of money to dispense for need-based financial aid and merit scholarships. To get the most bang for their buck, schools want to be most generous with the applicants that they really, truly covet.
To increase a child's chances of receiving a great package, it's often best if a teenager is among the top 25 percent to 33 percent of the applicants who are applying in terms of grade point average and ACT or SAT scores. I don't know what Matt's standardized test scores were, but I think his GPA was 3.4. When I looked at Syracuse's admission stats on its College Board profile, I see that 61 percent of the university's recent freshmen class had earned GPAs of 3.5 or higher.
While 88 percent of students who attend private colleges and universities receive grants from their institutions, Matt was one of the unlucky few. To avoid Matt's fate, families should spend some time on the College Board website scoping out the generosity of the schools on their teenagers' wish lists.
Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a college consultant, author and speaker. She writes three college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch, U.S. News & World Report and TheCollegeSolutionBlog.com.