As students start to think about the next step in their education, they might hear the phrase “college fit” when exploring schools. College fit is the idea that students do better at schools that are best in tune with their academic, philosophical and personal needs.
While the idea of college fit might sound like it comes with a number of things to consider, one of the easiest ways to start tackling the idea of finding a school that works for you is to ask a simple question: What IS college?
While it might seem basic, taking the time to get to know the difference between different schools, including their affiliations, missions and more can help students make subtle, and often important, decisions in choosing the school that fits them best.
When students are deciding on a college or university, the school’s mission might not be the first consideration, but it is something to consider. It can impact a school’s size, cost of tuition, campus climate and more. In short, it can influence the entire student experience.
Here are some categories of schools and what to expect when attending:
Community colleges are usually publicly-funded, two-year institutions with mission statements reflecting their service to the needs of surrounding region. As a result, access is important to community colleges, welcoming all students and offering low-cost tuition. While community college students can graduate with a technical or vocational associate’s degrees, many students use the two years of community college as a starting point before transferring to a four-year institution to complete a bachelor’s degree. Because of that, most community colleges have “articulation agreements” with colleges and universities that guarantee a student’s community college coursework will be accepted for credit at the four-year institution.
Major research universities
Large institutions (either private or public) where research comes first will be called universities. As a result of the interest in research, these schools often have a portion of their faculty members ho are purely “research faculty,” meaning that they teach minimally (and then only advanced graduate students) or not at all. Their work is focused on the generation of new knowledge, often in conjunction with lucrative grants from external sources.
Putting research first doesn’t leave undergraduates at a disadvantage, though. Large institutions may have larger classes, but typically break into small discussion groups to help personalize learning. Academic departments will work closely to reach out to their undergraduate students and communities form in residence halls and through campus clubs to create a breadth of opportunities to students.
Liberal arts colleges
Often promoted as an alternative to large research universities, liberal arts colleges are usually private institutions that focus on a more individualized approach to learning and building relationships in smaller-sized classes. As a result of this focus on the personal experience, these schools tend to prioritize teaching over research. Students are likely to find smaller classes taught by full-time faculty and not graduate assistants.
The focus away from research doesn’t mean that faculty at these types of schools are any less well-qualified than those at larger institutions. Rather, it is more of a philosophical reflection of the teaching vs. research divide between the two types of schools.
As the name would suggest, these institutions (virtually all privately-held) emphasize faith development in addition to educational achievement. These types of institutions range from small Bible colleges to nationally known Jesuit institutions like Georgetown University. For those students who are looking for an education that develops them both academically and spiritually, these types of colleges and universities offer an experience often specifically tailored to their religion.
While the national conversation around the importance of continuing education past high school gains much attention, so to does the issues surrounding paying for it. Regardless of politics, the fact remains that paying for college stands as one of the biggest challenges for students and their families.
Getting a head-start on putting together a financial plan is always a good idea for any prospective student. Here are some tips for families to consider now to ensure that they limit the amount of student loan debt accrued while still in school:
Borrow only the amount you need
Many borrowers make the mistake of taking out more loans than necessary. To avoid doing this, create a budget to determine how much loan money will be needed and avoid using loan money to pay for unnecessary expenses, such as trips to the movie theater or expensive dinners.
Consider a part-time job
If a student’s academic schedule allows, they should consider finding a part-time job on campus to help supplement the cost of unexpected expenses. Be sure to check with the financial aid office to see if students qualify for work study, which gives the opportunity to work on campus.
Compare award letters
Once a student receives their financial aid award letter, compare loan offers by reading the fine print. If federal loans are not enough to cover the cost of education and a student is considering private loan offers, be sure to shop around for the best interest rates and repayment options.
Take college credit while in high school
Taking AP, dual credit or college credit courses while in high school can give students a head start on achieving your intended major. Find out the general education requirements at the college a student plans to attend and take courses that will fulfill those requirements. Doing this can help students graduate from college early, which means borrowing less in student loans.
Consider paying loan interest while still in school
Students who start making interest payments on their student loans while still in college will reduce the total amount they have to repay after graduation. Interest payments are usually manageable. By paying off interest as they go, students can keep outstanding interest from capitalizing on any balances. Allowing interest to capitalize increases loan balances essentially requiring students to pay interest on the interest that has been accrued!
Apply for scholarships
Scholarships can pay for portions or all of a student’s education during an academic year. But students can’t earn scholarships if they don’t apply! Find scholarships specific to a school or department by talking to a representative from the school’s financial aid office or department chair. In addition, the following sites are just a few places to check for scholarships:
- Fast Web – www.FastWeb.com
- Big Future by the College Board – https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org
- Sallie Mae Scholarship Search – www.salliemae.com/scholarships
- Scholarship America – https://scholarshipamerica.org/
Choose a school that fits into the family budget
Review the financial aid packages from the colleges where students applied and consider how much needs to be borrowed in order to attend each. Keep the goal in mind and select a college where loan debt can be kept at a reasonable level against future income potential.
Get more tips in Iowa College Aid’s “Path to College.”
They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.
Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.
Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.
Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.
- Find “free money”
Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
- Consider loans and work study options separately
To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
- Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
- Determine if awards are for one year or more.
Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
- Make sure the award letter is final.
In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.
Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.
December and the start of the new year is crunch time for students filling out college applications. Some students who submitted for a variety of early admission programs have received word while others are hoping to find replies from regular admission programs in the coming weeks.
To better understand the “why” of college admissions, it’s important to appreciate the “how” used by admissions officers to determine which students are the best prospective fit for their incoming class. While many of the factors are obvious, other elements about a student and their application that families might fear as negatives can actually be positives.
Many of the leading criteria for a student application are the ones that most people immediately consider when targeting a prospective school: academic criteria, talent and community involvement are all major parts of an application.
Academics are the best predictor of a student’s academic success at a highly selective college, including grades and standardized test scores. The competitiveness of a student’s high school letters of recommendation from the guidance counselor and the teachers who know the student the best are also considered other highly significant academic factors.
Having a particular talent also can be a key way to individualize a student application. Borin points out in the article that when a college has received almost 20,000 or more applicants, a talented oboist is only competing against other talented oboists with similar grades and standardized test scores. The most competitive colleges are always seeking to form a well-rounded class of talented students. Having a particular talent can help set a student apart.
Other facts that impact an application are ones that might not immediately jump into a family’s mind. For example, while some families might consider geography a negative influence on applications, it can actually work to their benefit. If a student is applying to a highly competitive school, but is from a state that has fewer applicants, they could have an edge as, once again, the most competitive schools try to maintain diversity in their student body not only in race and socioeconomic status, but in geographical representation as well.
Many other factors can influence a student’s chances with an admissions officer. The all-important essay and the willingness to show a commitment to the school through such things as early-decision applications are major factors, but being a legacy at a school (having relatives that attended the same school) can apply at any college, and not just if a student comes from a wealthy family.
The number of things that can influence an admissions officer can seem overwhelming. But, in the end, the best way to make an impact is for students to not only be unique, but authentic. Being able to show a student who can balance academics with extracurricular activities and involvement in their community is appealing to any admissions officer. These students are the ones who often show the passion and drive that will make them a success both in the classroom and in life. And that is appealing to any school.
Many students see getting to college as an educational goal achieved. Once they get there, though, stress and other issues related to life on a college campus becomes a new challenge to be overcome. An increasing number of studies show that many college freshman give up on their education due to mental health problems, as that variety of pressures a new environment can make students think that school is more than they can bear. Throw winter into the mix and it can become even more difficult for students to maintain their path on the course to success.
Here are some easy ways for students to deal with the change of season while staying on top of their mental health during the winter:
The usual routine of leaving a warm dorm bed minutes before class won’t cut it come winter time. Take at least 5-10 minutes extra to account for ice on your path to class, snow and time to admire the cute squirrels. Not only will this change help students overcome the perils of winter, but a change in routine is an easy way to get out of a rut that can lead to depression.
Maintain a healthy diet
Physical health is tied to mental health. While dining halls might offer more hot chocolate and marshmallows during the colder days, comfort food doesn’t always mean healthy food. A 2010 study found that the quality of diet impacts levels of depression in college students more than other factors such as socioeconomic or family issues. 
Take personal time, but don’t be afraid to talk to someone
College is challenging, but it’s important that students remember that they can succeed. Having support both from home and campus can mean a great deal to students dealing with the stress and emotional difficulties of facing college on their own. Having time to sit back and watch TV, read a book or just relax is an important part of a student’s day. And while calling home or writing letters or emails to touch base with family is important, the support of friends, social groups or even the mental health services available on campus can be more important in staying mentally healthy and addressing the depression that can come with winter. Talking to someone and asking for support is NOT a sign of weakness, it’s an important part of dealing with difficulties and staying on the road to success.
Financial Aid Awareness month encourages students who are getting ready to attend (or are currently attending) college to put together a game plan that helps them achieve their college dreams in the most cost effective way possible. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step and a vital one. But once that’s done, where do students go to figure out how to get the money they need for college.
Iowa College Aid not only awards and administers state grants and scholarships for Iowa students, but helps students stay on top of all the resources available to help them graduate college with as little debt as possible.
The financial expert team from Iowa College Aid ranked the ways for students to fill that gap between the money awarded to students in a school’s financial aid award package and the cost of attending the school of their dreams. Here are their top picks:
You filed your FAFSA, you submitted the State’s Financial Aid Application, you met the deadlines and you’ve done the math – your financial aid is just short of covering your tuition bill. You still need a few more dollars to pay for the semester and buy books, what else can you tap into?
Savings and 529 Plans: The first resource to explore is your own savings account or 529 account. If you (or your parents) have been saving money for college, now is the time to use it! Not only has the money been set aside for this purpose, but using savings or college investment accounts could reduce or eliminate the need to borrow additional loans.
Explore private scholarships: There are many scholarship search websites that allow you to create a profile and search for scholarships that fit your skills, abilities and interests and often scholarship essays can be tweaked and customized allowing you to use the same essay multiple times. Make sure to read directions carefully and pay attention to deadlines. And don’t rule out “fun” scholarships like those found on unigo.com – who knows, maybe your creative 250 word essay on what flavor of ice cream would you be could score you a $1,500 scholarship?
Payment plans and paychecks: Since colleges bill you for the entire semester at once, it can be overwhelming to get a bill in the mail for the whole semester. But what if the amount you owe could be divided into 4 or 5 monthly payments? If you’re working part-time, maybe it becomes more manageable to think about making monthly payments to your college when you know you have a paycheck coming.
Parent PLUS and other student loan options: If borrowing more money becomes an option, talk to your Financial Aid Office about which loans are available to you (and your parents) and which loans have the best repayment terms and interest. Your student loan options will differ depending on if you have a co-signer, or if you want to start repayment after you graduate (versus starting repayment while you’re still in school), or if you want a fixed or a variable interest rate. Your Financial Aid Office can help you sort through options and pick the loan that works best for you.
College Application Month focuses on encouraging students to take the first step toward their future by completing their college application. But for many students and families the process of what makes a good application can seem a mystery.
Once students have found a school that seems a good match, completing the application and essay that goes with it can be a stressful process that, when done well, can help a student stand out from the pack. But how to do that? Drake University professor Jeff Inman serves as an interviewer and application reviewer for some of the school’s most prestigious scholarships, but even he admits that the upcoming application process his 15-year-old son will be undertaking in a few short years can be daunting.
To better help students and families gain focus on the process, he offers some advice on what makes a student’s college application stand out:
While I am always impressed with the resumes of the applying students, many of who are so busy I always wonder if they have to go without sleep to get everything done, it’s the essay that really solidifies the standouts for me. Those students who don’t just answer the question, but tell a story, really catch my eye. They don’t just talk about a fictional character they relate to or a quote they are inspired by. They find a moment in their life, an epiphany they had, or a failure they learned from and relate it to the question. To me, that shows they not only understand the essence of the question but also can make the kind of connections college demands of them. That said, typos undermine everything.
As with other educators, Inman also thinks that students who limit their college search to just one application are putting themselves at a disadvantage.
There are benefits from filling out multiple applications. There are lots of amazing schools out there where students will have a great experience, learn amazing things, and grow as people. I might be in the minority here, but I don’t feel there is one perfect school for any student. So apply to the schools you feel comfortable at, provide you the opportunities and experiences you want, and work for your family.