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Posted at 6:32 AM ET, 04/ 5/2010

All about need-based aid: Flagel, Part 3

By Valerie Strauss

Here is the third part of a financial aid primer written by Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development for George Mason University in Virginia. Check out Flagel’s amusing and forthright “Not Your Average Admissions Blog, A Beneath the Surface Look at Everything College Admissions (With a Few Shameless Plugs).”

By Andrew Flagel
[Written after two big snowstorms in the greater Washington area]

As the giant mountains for snow slowly transform to great gray mushy globs, it’s time for a similarly mushy subject: need-based aid.

But first, a Shameless Plug! I couldn’t think of any way to connect this to today’s topic, but I am thrilled that one of my heroes, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, has joined the George Mason University faculty. He has a whole slew of academic accolades and accomplishments, but I’ll admit to knowing him best as the founder of the PBS show, “Nature,” which is, according to the linked article, “the most popular long-term series on public television.”

Need-based aid is, for the most part, determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or, in street lingo, FAFSA. Actually, it would more likely be “FAFSizzle”, but that’s not important right now.

The U.S. Department of Education works hard every year to make the form easier, but the truth is that any way you cut it the form is going to be somewhat time consuming and confusing. On the upside, lots of the information you’ll need is the same as what you’ll put together for your family’s taxes. As a result, the year you are applying for college is a great year to get your taxes done early.

Once you submit the FAFSA, the Department of Education works much magic to come up with your Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC.

The EFC is how much the government believes you can afford to pay for college. You can do the estimate yourself – just decide how much you can afford to pay for college and assume it’s a lot more than that.

While the government is deciding how much you can pay, the colleges are reporting how much we cost. Our Total Cost includes room, board, books, tuition, and fees.

The basic equation that drives the financial aid system is Total Cost minus EFC equals NEED, the amount of money the government believes you need to afford college.

Colleges then try to meet your need in four ways: scholarships, grants, loans, and workstudy.

You’d think that would make things really clear. That’s, however, when it gets REALLY complicated. Each college will have a different mix, higher or lower percentages of scholarships and grants compared to loans and workstudy. And they all have different Total Costs.

Bottom line – it can take a lot of time and careful examination to determine exactly what each institution is planning to charge you.

Next up: all the many many many ways your scholarships, financial aid, and costs can change.

Be seeing you.

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The other parts of this financial aid series are:

Part 1: An introduction to college funding and basic merit-based aid
“The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students.”

Part 2: Beyond basic merit-based scholarships:
“No matter how incredible your academic record, you’ll likely be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school. How is this possible? Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.”

Part 4: Negotiating college costs
“The months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid. Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families: Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?”

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 5, 2010; 6:32 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  Andrew Flagel, FAFSA, financial aid  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Scholarships: Who gets them and why--Flagel, Part 2
Next: Negotiating the price of college -- Flagel, Part 4

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