Big day last Friday!  First, we’ve got the start of Florida’s annual ‘Back-to-School’ tax holiday!  If you’re in town, and you don’t mind crowds, you can buy school related supplies tax free… which can save you about $14.00 on a $200.00 purchase.
Which is nice.   But it’s not going to help you pay the college bill…

…this next point, however, just might!

You see, Friday was also the day that the   2014-15 Common Application officially opens.  There are now more than 500 schools that use/accept the Common Application for Admissions.  And though none of them are named UF, FSU or UCF; the ‘opening’ of The Common App marks the official beginning of the ‘College Application Season’ for the Class of 2015.

And when it comes to college, Early is generally better.  Both when it comes to your student’s Admissions options AND your Savings opportunities (which in today’s college world go hand-in-hand).  Early on ALL your college stuff is the one thing I drill into all my students’ heads (note that I say this for all students, not just to those who are considering a binding or non-binding decision option).  Many schools have rolling and/or priority deadlines for admission AND for merit scholarship consideration: Indiana, Tulane, Gettysburg, Michigan, Wake, UNF, FSU to name a few. In fact, some schools will be doing their first reads as early as Monday and doling out scholarships to students who impress on a first-come, first-served basis.

The same (the earlier the better) is true for parents as well.   There is a real (and often significant) difference between what a college costs (on paper) and what percentage of that cost you will actually have to bear.   It is possible that the pricey, but generous, private school that you’re reflexively ruling out might be the same or less than the public university you’re insisting stay on the list.  Colleges have two main instruments when it comes to their discounting strategies:  1) need-based Aid and  2) merit-based (or non-need based) Aid.  Schools utilize both tools — though certainly not in equal measure — to induce students to attend their institution.
The reality is that  2/3 of first-time, full-time undergraduates will receive some type of grant (that’s free money) in the form of a ‘discount’ when they matriculate.  And  that discount rate is expected to reach an all-time high of nearly 46% this Fall.    Financial aid and other financial inducements (for merit and talent) are widely available to middle class families, but the rules are complicated and most families leave thousands on the table because they don’t understand the nuances of those rules.   Or they don’t adapt to them early enough!

For most families, regardless of income, there are a number of Admissions strategies that can reduce the amount of money that you will be expected to pay for college. But if you are the parent of 12th grader, that window is closing.  If you want to avoid potential disappointments in May and/or needlessly limiting your child’s options this Fall, you need to take control of the Admissions process before she finalizes her applications and hits submit.   Understanding how the colleges on your child’s wish list set and then discount their prices, whether they make Admissions decisions based on your need,  her merit, neither, both… offer scholarships or loans…will help you ensure that your child is applying to schools that will meet his academic and social needs, and your budget.  For need-based financial aid, not every school will meet need at 100% and further, you have just 4 months before your ‘look-back’ year is over (colleges will use your income from 2014 to determine what you can afford to pay for your child’s education)… which will be the starting point when it comes to your financial aid awards next Spring.
As for parents with younger high school children, the Common App opening literally puts you ‘on the clock’.  Most of the scholarship and grant offers your child will receive will be based on your income from January of your child’s 11th grade year to December of 12th grade.  And It’s worth noting that schools are increasingly looking back even further and inquiring about your finances from the year prior as well.  I highly recommend that your college funding strategy be in place BEFORE the end of your child’s junior year, or even better, at the end of December of your child’s junior year. A simple mistake in how you handle your finances in your ‘look-back’ years can easily cost you thousands in lost financial aid down the road.

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