Paying for College

College financial aid packages are a combination of grants or scholarships, loans, and work-study opportunities. Financial aid is calculated for each academic year, and the net price is the full cost of attendance (COA) minus financial aid (excluding parent loans). Each college and university has its own policies governing financial aid awards. It is premature to screen colleges for application purposes solely based on the published cost of attendance (tuition, room, board, books, fees, and other living expenses), because financial aid occurs with an offer of admission and considers an individual's unique situation.

Colleges range from need-blind (ability to pay is not part of the admission decision) to need-aware, need-conscious, or need-sensitive (ability to pay may determine admission). But mind the fine print. Need-blind colleges may not meet an admitted student's full financial need, a situation called gapping. Need-aware policies may affect only the applicants who are at the lower end of a college's applicant pool. In general, students with financial need and who have excellent grades and outstanding test scores receive significant financial aid awards.

Financial aid terminology is often technical and confusing. For example, some of the most competitive colleges do not offer merit-based scholarships. If they did so, then everyone on campus would receive them. Rather, these colleges offer need-based scholarships and grants. Public universities may allocate a percentage of admissions slots for out-of-state students who typically pay more tuition than in-state students. For California students, out-of-state arrangements may be competitive with in-state tuition.

Athletic scholarships can be the ticket for a college education, and are available at NCAA Division I and Division II colleges. NCAA Division III and NAIA colleges do not offer scholarships related to athletic ability. (For student-athletes, environments without athletic scholarships equate to less pressure to win. Each year, the NACDA Director's Cup is awarded to the university with the best record in athletics in all intercollegiate sports). The NCAA limits colleges' financial aid for each sport, however. As a result, top athletic scholarships are available in a few sports such as football, basketball, or ice hockey. Otherwise, most athletic scholarships will disappoint those with full-ride scholarship expectations, though sports excellence may provide an edge in a competitive admissions process. California's Students-Athletes' Right to Know Act requires colleges to detail the terms of a scholarship.

High schools typically dedicate an evening explaining financial aid to parents. Several other organizations offer websites demystifying financial aid:

FinAid
NY Times Student Loans
National Association of Financial Aid Administrators
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
CSS/Financial Aid Profile