Plan Ahead to Make College Affordable


It took a lot of work to become a high-achieving high school senior.

You studied hard, got involved outside the classroom, and took pride in your accomplishments.

You are now in the middle of applying to numerous colleges and universities, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and having staff at your school talk to you about scholarship opportunities. You are being congratulated and celebrated by family, teachers, and community members for your hard work and good grades—and you might have been told that a college is sure to award you a large or full-ride scholarship due to your GPA and achievements.

As a financial aid administrator for 26 years, this is when I get concerned. The false presumption among many students that their top-choice college will surely offer them an attractive financial aid package too often leads to students spending little or no time applying for local scholarships.

Just as concerning, it can also lead many students and families to only apply to schools with the biggest name recognition. Other schools that might be more likely to offer a high-achiever a scholarship are not considered.

The media might highlight smart students like yourself being admitted to all of the Ivy League schools or share stories about students winning six-figure dollar amounts in scholarships funds. But those reports do not provide much detail except that a smart and hardworking student, like yourself, had their efforts rewarded in this manner.

Not every student will receive a full-ride scholarship from the college or university of their choice. When this reality sets in, I usually get the following question: What scholarships can I apply for now? The student (and their family) are often panicked by that time, looking to see whether scholarships might make up the difference between the total cost of going to the school the student has in mind and the (often insufficient) financial aid that has been offered.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here is some proactive advice to consider before January as you apply to and plan for college.

— Understand the six ways colleges and universities award financial aid. This resource will outline what to look for before you are provided with a financial aid award letter.

— Consider applying for colleges that like your profile. Many times high-achieving students apply to Ivy League schools and other institutions with very low admission rates, while ignoring offers from state and private colleges that have reached out about their honors programs. Applying to these other good schools provides a quality back-up plan for college.

— Apply for local, regional, and national scholarships. Colleges are not the only source of scholarship funding. It is best to apply for as many options as possible that match your background and academic aspirations.

Applying to college is an exciting time. College costs can be a sensitive topic for families, but it’s easier and less stressful to have those conversations when you have additional information available. Many colleges and universities provide a quality education with  academic and student experiences that are a good match for students.

Kenneth McGhee is the director of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant Program (DCTAG) within the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in Washington, DC. OSSE is a NACAC member organization.