First the essays were written. Then the mailbox was staked out. Finally, the letters were opened. Now, high school seniors are faced with what could be the most difficult component of the college application process: deciding what school to attend in the fall.
“My heart aches for students at this time,” said Kerri Johnston, associate dean of enrollment and director of undergraduate admissions at University of Massachusetts Lowell . “There’s so much pressure on them . . . but it’s also such an exciting time.”
They have a lot to consider when turning a Facebook status from “I got into Blank University!” to “Blank University Class of 2018!” Many college admissions and financial aid experts believe cost is the key.
“It’s so, so expensive that a majority of times it is coming down to the bottom line, the price,” said Erika Vardaro, director of admissions at Bentley University in Waltham.
Adelaide Greco, the counseling department coordinator at Hopkinton High School, said her staff is pushing students to see beyond fit, and focus on the dollar. That means discerning between grants, scholarships, work study, and loans when looking at financial aid packages. Many students also have to keep younger siblings and long-term goals, such as law or medical school, in mind when picking an undergraduate school.
“They don’t know if they can afford to go to the schools they applied to,” Greco said.
Many schools have already sent out financial aid packages, and any students still waiting to hear should contact the school to see when they can expect it, according to Martha Savery, director of public affairs and communications at the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority .
At Bentley, financial aid information was sent to admitted students shortly after March 21, the regular decision release date. More than 70 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid, according to Vardaro . Similarly, 80 percent of the incoming freshman class at UMass Lowell will receive financial aid, Johnston said.
Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts, said that at most of the private colleges represented by his organization, more than 75 percent of students receive some sort of aid, with the average amount from 35 to 50 percent of the total cost of attendance. Additionally, Doherty said, 35 to 40 percent of their students graduate with no debt .
“That’s a combination, I think, of wealthy students that don’t take out any loans, but it is also a product of students that basically get full rides,” Doherty said.
At Bentley, less than 1 percent of students will receive full tuition scholarships, according to Vardaro.
In fiscal year 2012, the average grant awarded to Massachusetts residents who attended a community college, state university, or UMass campus (excluding UMass Medical School in Worcester) was $6,762, according to the state’s Department of Higher Education. The average grant for a Massachusetts resident attending a UMass campus was $8,034.
Savery recommends that all families file a Free Application For Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, if they haven’t already. The state deadline to file is May 1, although Savery said most colleges will require a FAFSA to be on file before they award financial aid.
Students can also consider submitting appeals to schools for more aid, especially if their first choice gave them noticeably less than others. In some cases, if there is proof of a higher offer from another school, a college may try to match it. However, Savery said, “It’s not something we want families to get their hopes up about.”
Assistance offers can also be affected by the waiting list process. When a wait-listed student is accepted by a school, they might not get much — or any — financial aid, according to Savery.
If a student is wait-listed at their first-choice school, she recommends sending a letter to the admissions office accepting the wait-list spot, explaining why it is their first choice, and including updated grades or new academic or extracurricular achievements. Some schools won’t keep students on the waiting list if they stay quiet.
“In the meantime, most families are going to have to make a choice of another college and submit a deposit by May 1,” Savery said, because students can be kept on a waiting list until almost the beginning of the school year. Students need to understand “they may lose that deposit to the other college if they get off the wait-list.”
It is also important for high school seniors to consider the campus “feel,” which is why high schools and colleges encourage campus visits.
“I always tell students if you’re going to buy a car that’s $100,000, you’re not just going to look at it on the Internet,” said Kerran Goff, a guidance counselor at Pembroke High School . “You want to test drive it before you make that commitment.”
UMass Lowell runs campus tours daily Mondays through Saturdays, and will add extra tours during April vacation. At Bentley, high school juniors and seniors are split up on tours because they have different concerns.
“Accepted students are more focused on outcomes,” Vardaro said. “The juniors have that glazed-over look.”
Greco recommends that prospective students see the dorms, try the food, and after the tour explore beyond campus to see whether the surrounding community is welcoming.
“What’s the infrastructure in the area?” Greco said. “They’re going to be living there for four years. They want to know there’s more than just a dry cleaner and a pizza parlor.”
Welcome days and open houses are also becoming popular for accepted students at many colleges. Bentley and UMass Lowell will both host admitted students and their families this month in an effort to provide them with a taste of campus life.
“We encourage students to engage with current students and really get a feel for what it’s like for them on campus,” Johnston said. “Talk to faculty. Ask about internships, co-ops, job opportunities after graduation — those things really can distinguish one school from another.”
As seniors enter the home stretch, online tools can help make decisions easier. A monthly payment calculator for loans can be found online at www.mefa.org , as well as the webinar version of MEFA’s “After the Acceptance” seminar on paying for college. Students can still sign up for in-person versions of the seminar.
Many colleges have Facebook groups for admitted students, where high school students can get to know other people in their incoming class, look for potential roommates, and ask questions of current students or admissions staff.
While this can seem like an overwhelming amount of work for high school students, admissions experts agree that the right discussions and research will get families through to graduation day.
“Everybody needs to take a deep breath at this point, and really celebrate and be excited about the opportunities that lay ahead,” Savery said.