College Admissions/Financing Questions-

Hi all. Long-time lurker here. I have a few general questions about college admissions and financing that I hope the collective knowledge of the Dope can help answer. For background:

  • My daughter will graduate this spring from a large high school in the western burbs of Chicago. She has a weighted GPA of 4.54 out of 4.
  • She took the SAT and scored well but not outstanding. Because all of the schools she applied to were test-optional, she decided not to retake it for a better score.
  • We filled out the FAFSA last fall and it gave us an EFC of somewhere between 20 and 25% of our household income, which is insane. So we are not eligible for need-based aid.
  • She applied to a variety of schools, some private, some public, some in state, and some out.
  • All of the schools that we have heard from have accepted her, but she has yet to hear from her two reach schools or the state flagship school (U of I).
  • She’s received some very generous offers from some of the schools but has yet to hear anything financial from others. As it stands now, most have a “final” cost of about $28-30k/yr. Some out of state schools are more and a few of her safety schools are considerably less.
  • Her current plan is to be a physical therapist, so depending on what each school offers her major would be Pre-PT, Kinesiology, or similar.

Sorry for the novel. If you’re still with me, here are my questions:

  1. For the schools that made an offer with their acceptance, is there the possibility of more to come? Or is that generally their best offer?
  2. I’ve read that merit aid offers are negotiable. How often does that work? Seems unlikely.
  3. Aside from the obvious (graduating with honors, more challenging classes, etc) what are the usual benefits of honors programs? Do they cost more? Do they offer additional aid?
  4. To be a practicing PT she will need to go onto a graduate PT program. Would she be better off going to a big school regardless of cost to help with admission to such a program or should her goal be to get her undergrad with as little debt as possible? It seems obvious, but maybe not. I’m not sure how much going to Big State U would help with grad admissions vs going to Little State U in their honors program and coming out with less debt.
  5. She’s applied to as many scholarships as she can find, including some school specific scholarships. She also searched via which offered a few other options, but those all seem like longshots since I assume they have tons of applicants. Any other advice/options?
  6. Am I missing anything? Or any advice you want to add? I’m all ears!

Thanks in advance! Can’t wait to read the replies!

Congratulations to your daughter! One important thing to note is that outside scholarships tend to reduce grant offers from the schools. So it’s not necessarily an unmitigated good to win, say, $1000 from the local Elks Club unless it’s payable directly to the student and not to the school. Any scholarship payable to the school directly will impact the financial aid package.

As for asking for more money that is possible but requires a reason. The first offer IME is the offer you get unless family circumstances change.

Source: am parent to two college recent grads and we just got off the FAFSA treadmill.

I can’t really speak to questions 1, 2, and 5, but from a professor’s perspective:

It depends a lot on the school and the specific program, but the benefits of honors programs usually include:

– Better access to faculty mentors, and a stronger emphasis on undergraduate research and learning experiences outside of the classroom (community projects, internships, study abroad / away, etc.)

– Many honors colleges have a speaker series of some sort. It’s usually open to the public, but honors students sometimes get special perks like a chance to have a seminar or small-group reception with the speaker (and, depending on the school’s resources, it can be someone quite impressive – think nationally-known authors, politicians, etc.) Usually, the honors program website will have lots of information about these events, so you can get a feel for what is typically offered.

– If it’s a residential honors program, or if students simply take lots of classes as a cohort, students get a ready-made social group. This can be a huge benefit if you’re a shy, nerdy kid at a big school, in particular. OTOH, if you don’t click well with the students in your cohort, it can be … awkward. I’d definitely recommend a campus visit so she can get a feel for whether they’re her people or not. Honors colleges can vary a lot in character; some attract artsy-quirky types and others very polished perfectionists.

– Generally, honors courses tend to be different in atmosphere, not just more challenging. You have smaller classes and a stronger cohort of classmates. This is a real benefit for students who thrive on the discussion-driven seminar format. (It’s sometimes not ideal for the ones who would rather disappear into the crowd, or who are uncomfortable in a group of intellectually competitive “strivers.”)

– Sometimes, honors students get access to study-abroad or study-away programs that are not open to other students, and / or financial aid covering the costs of these programs.

Honors programs should NOT cost more, at least not in terms of baseline tuition (there may be extra fees for stuff like study abroad, which is a required element of some programs). Sometimes they do offer additional aid, in the form of scholarships set aside for Honors students, summer research stipends, funding for students to attend conferences, etc.

Bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better, by any means. The reputation of the undergraduate school does matter up to a point, but much more important, when it comes to graduate admissions, are 1) undergraduate grades; and 2) relationships with individual faculty members, the people who will be writing letters of recommendation and supervising her thesis project (if she does one, and it’s certainly a good idea for any student planning on grad school). If all other things are equal or nearly equal, I’d go with the small-school honors program, since mentorship is exactly what these programs tend to do best. But it’s also possible that the larger school may offer an opportunity that isn’t available elsewhere, like an internship doing exactly what she wants to do professionally. In general, that sort of experience is more valuable than just having attended State Flagship U. in the abstract.

It worked for us. Our son was offered a $12000 scholarship at his top choice. We had hired an admissions advisor who wrote a letter for us saying basically “I’m really interested in attending your school, but the finances are tight, so can you do any better with the merit aid?” The advisor told us to attach photocopies of the other scholarship offers that our son received; some of them were $24000 and $29000, but from lower-tier schools. I asked if it was worth including them; the advisor said definitely and that he sees successful negotiations all the time. The school came back with an offer of $5000 more.

This is great information. Thank you!

That’s great. Did you only negotiate with the one school he was most interested in?

Good point, thanks. I guess I should research whether the schools applied to stack aid or not.

You can typically find the answer by searching the schools’ websites for “outside scholarships” – it’s often one of the FAQs in the Financial Aid section but sometimes it’s buried deeper. Any school that says it is “no loan” or “meets 100% of need” is going to be a stickler. The problem is that they way the schools define “need” is not the same way families define it. If your FAFSA says you can afford $20K per year the school’s number is not likely to be much different. And if you get outside scholarships it will just go to changing your “need” downward.

I should say too that I was able to negotiate an offer by showing one school the offer from another. But none of the schools we talked with were able to put much of a dent in that EFC once the FAFSA had come up with it.

We negotiated with his top school only; at that point he wasn’t really interested in the other schools.

@CBStine Sent you a PM with a couple of research links