Seniors visit the counseling office often this time of year as they narrow their college choices. (Photo by Meera Goswitz)

College letters arrive

Seniors visit the counseling office often this time of year as they narrow their college choices. (Photo by Meera Goswitz)

Seniors wait for the big letter. Not the acceptance letter, the financial aid letter.

by Meera Goswitz
Talon staff writer

It was the best of times. Senior Spencer Summers received an acceptance letter from Stanford University on December 10, a goal he had been working towards since sophomore year. It was the toughest of times. He did not receive an official amount of aid for the $55,385 price tag. Summers is hoping to attend Stanford next fall, but if other schools offer him more aid, he may have to turn down the school of his dreams.

Seniors across the country are now receiving acceptance letters from the colleges they applied to last fall. However, there is always one thought lurking behind the joy of being accepted: tuition. It is not uncommon to hear that one-year’s tuition bill will be around $50,000, and what happens to the students who receive little to no financial aid? Being accepted is one step in the college application process, but choosing a school may be the toughest part.

Students who are considering colleges can consider the two types of aid available. Most schools provide need-based aid, which consist of grants, student loans or student employment. This is based on the ability the student’s family has to pay for college. There is also merit-based aid, which can be provided by the schools or by a private organization. Merit-based aid can be based on grades or other achievements. Highly selective schools usually do not offer merit-based aid because of the students they accept; most students receive top grades and excel at the extracurricular activities they pursue.

“When we [at St. Olaf] award financial aid, the formulas we use are intended to treat families equitably, both horizontally and vertically,” said St. Olaf Assistant Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Student Financial Aid Kathy Ruby. “This means that families in similar financial circumstances will be treated similarly, and families who have a greater need for aid will receive more than those who come from higher income families.”

Although there are many factors that go into making the college decision, there are a few that hold the most weight.

“I think that there is a national trend that students will make a decision based on a couple factors,” said Minnehaha counselor Richard Harris. “Most [Minnehaha] students would prefer to live in the Midwest. And a lot of times that was because when you live closer it’s cheaper.”

Students may receive in-state tuition or reciprocity with states like Wisconsin. This lowered tuition can be the deciding factor for many students. For example, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a Wisconsin resident would pay $21,617 for the 2010-2011 school year. A Minnesota resident would pay $23,878, and a nonresident would pay $37,757. The difference for a Minnesotan and a nonresident is substantial, but Harris said that it comes down to what the students want.

“The real question is in the value of the school,” said Harris. “Does it really make a difference if you’re attending an Ivy League or [another] highly selective school or a state school?”

Minnehaha students have become more sensitive to college costs, but the degree of sensitivity varies from student to student.

“Not every student chooses the school that gives them the most money,” said Minnehaha counselor Caleb Bjorklund. “We have a lot of students that choose [a school] because it’s the best fit for them. However, money has become increasingly important in a lot of students’ decisions.”

Minnehaha senior Annie Wright will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison next fall, and while she is happy with her choice, Madison wasn’t always her top school.

“My first choice was probably Indiana University, but they didn’t give me any form of a scholarship and my other three schools did, including Madison,” said Wright, “so I decided to go in a different direction.”

After deciding against Indiana, Wright narrowed her choices to Madison, Illinois Wesleyan University and DePaul University. Wright weighed the size, music programs, feel of the schools and the financial and merit-based aid, and while Madison didn’t give her any financial aid, it ended up being the cheapest school.

“I definitely made the right choice,” said Wright. “I’m a Badger through and through!”

Some students at Minnehaha do not have to consider costs in their decision. Last fall, senior Mari Marcotte applied early decision, which is binding, to Vassar College in New York. For the 2010-2011 school year, Vassar cost around $53,000 and they do not give merit-based aid.

“My parents are paying for my education, so they told me ‘wherever you are happiest, that’s where we are going to send you,’” said Marcotte. “I’m really grateful for that. I didn’t really have to take into consideration the cost of the school I’m going to.”

Marcotte was accepted at Vassar and will be attending the school next fall.

The financial situations of students greatly varies, some look for schools with the lowest costs, while some are able to look at schools without factoring in the costs.

Ruby recommends that “students and their parents should evaluate the net cost, after financial aid, of each institution and then decide the value of the education they want to pursue.”

Summers is waiting to hear from Stanford and other schools about the amount of aid he will receive before making a final decision.

“Ultimately I will go wherever I can get the best education for what I have to pay,” said Summers. “[Going to] Stanford would be an incredible experience for what I would have to pay.”


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