Many families don’t consider financial factors early enough in the college admissions process.

This is often because it is uncomfortable or painful for parents to discuss the reality of family finances with children.

Given the ever-rising cost of tuition, families really cannot wait until after admissions letters and financial aid offers arrive to evaluate the reality of their financial situation.

In fact, the economic climate has significantly impacted students’ college application patterns: cost-conscious students are applying to public schools in record numbers.

However, public schools are facing their own budgetary crises and are seeking to cap enrollment to cut cost.

The economic crisis has affected not only individuals, but institutions as well. Endowments and state aid are on the decline, and both public and private schools have found it necessary to adjust their budgets and adopt provisional measures that can sometimes dramatically impact a student’s chances.

So although many schools are trying to prioritize student financial aid, opting to reduce operating costs and freeze the hiring of new faculty, others are choosing to turn away students who would have been admitted in a more favorable economic climate.

The effect of all this is a squeeze on students and an increase in selectivity. The UCs, for example, received a record number of in-state applications for 2018, but the overall admission rate for residents went down 4% from 2017, with UCLA and Berkeley’s rates much lower.

What does all of this mean for the family that must take financial considerations into account when developing a college application strategy?

3 Tips for Navigating Financial Factors

Here are three tips for navigating the financial issues around college admissions:

  1. Students must make sure to meet all application deadlines: college application deadlines and financial aid deadlines.
  2. Students must get informed about their financial aid profile.
  3. Students must manage their admissions expectations.

Financial Factor #1: Meet all deadlines

Many students in California rely on the California State University (CSU) system for their “safety” schools—backup options in case admission to a UC or a private university isn’t forthcoming.

However, the CSU system, like the UC system, is getting squeezed on both ends: it has seen a massive increase in applications in the last five years, with Cal Poly, CSUSM, and CSULB receiving record high applications for entrance in 2018.

Simultaneously, it has suffered a major loss of state funding over the last thirty years, leading to denying entrance to 1 in 10 eligible in-state applicants in 2018. There are simply not enough spots for all of the eligible California students.

In order to help cap enrollment, Cal State campuses enforce a November 30 deadline for freshman applicants. Note that the purpose of this earlier deadline is to minimize the number of applications.

Schools are hoping that students will fail to apply on time and thus disqualify themselves. Students who miss critical deadlines will severely limit their college options. They shouldn’t expect that their applications will be considered anyway.

Whatever college a student is applying to, he or she should remember that students who miss application deadlines give colleges a great reason to reject them. And colleges really don’t need any reason at all to reject a candidate—they need reasons to accept a candidate.

Finally, a word about financial aid deadlines. Private student loan programs are affected by the economic downturn. Fortunately, federal student loan programs, which offer the most generous terms, are protected by law.

However, because colleges anticipate greater demand for financial aid, students must be sure to fill out the appropriate forms in a timely fashion and meet all deadlines for both state and federal loan programs.

Financial Factor #2: The financial aid profile: get informed

If there is a silver lining in all this financial turmoil, it’s the fact that families previously ineligible for financial aid may now qualify due to the depreciation they’ve experienced in home and/or investment values.

Families should check their financial aid profile by using online calculators or by consulting with a financial aid specialist. The FAFSA website should be one of their first ports of call for additional information.

Financial Factor #3: Manage admissions expectations

The economic crisis has made college admissions all the more competitive. Colleges are finding that they must turn away students with financial needs; generally this is only true of borderline students.

Colleges will always make room and find financial incentives for the truly exceptional student. But for other candidates, who might very well have been accepted during flusher times, financial need is now something that may factor into the admissions decision.

If finances are a genuine constraint, students must apply to some schools that will view them as exceptional, either because their academic profile is significantly higher than the school’s average or because their extracurricular profile holds something of interest to the school.

These schools are more likely to offer financial aid and/or scholarships as incentives for extraordinary applicants.

Students should also note that private schools may in fact end up offering a better deal than state schools. It may be useful to seek the advice of a college counselor to pinpoint those schools that might find a particular student’s profile compelling.

Also, students who are eyeing public colleges, whether state schools or community colleges, should remember that these historic “safeties” are becoming increasingly competitive.

As I mentioned before, both the UC and the CSU systems are hiking tuition and cutting down on overall numbers, even as record numbers of applications are pouring in. California state funding has significantly impacted both CSUs and UC enrollment of resident students.

Since non-residents and international students pay almost three times the resident tuition, it behooves admissions committees to be more selective and increase admissions standards for residents, while favoring non-resident student admission, a California state audit found.

The days of being guaranteed a spot at one of California’s public schools are over.

Although the situation may seem dire, families shouldn’t despair. Look hard enough—and plan carefully enough—and students will find colleges that they can afford. There are thousands of colleges in the U.S.: many, many more than the average immigrant family is aware of.

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