Some perspective on the college process

I thought I had a pretty good handle on the college application and financial process before this year. I’ve done applicant interviews for my university for I don’t know how many years, and I’ve kept up with changes to financial aid, scholarships and grants. But I really had no idea how much more there was to know until we went through the process with our daughter. So, I thought my readers might be interested in hearing what we learned – and maybe it can help you a little bit.

There are many, many pros and cons to either finding the most affordable school or forking out high tuition for highly competitive schools, and people usually come out strongly on one side or the other of the discussion. I’m one who’s on both sides – and while I’m happy to share my opinions with anyone who’s interested, that’s not for this article. If you’d like to hear my thoughts, feel free to email me.

But the purpose of this article is really to talk about the financial aspect – and I’d like to stress that this reflects only my knowledge. There is a whole lot more, and every situation is different. A financial advisor who has experience with the college financial and application process is your best bet for complete information as well as info that fits your specific situation.

That said, here are my thoughts & experiences.

Private vs. Public Schools

First, don’t be afraid of applying to private schools. Yes, the price tags are high – but going to a private college is like buying a car. There is so much play and negotiation in the “price” that, until you work through the process, you have no idea how much “your cost” will actually be.

Of course, if you are like most people and have price limitations, make sure your child understands that, even if s/he gets in to that “dream school,” the price may not be negotiable enough to make it affordable. It’s a wait-and-see game, and then the big decision: do you & your child want to spend $X on this specific school? We had some where Natalie’s feelings were yes, she’d be willing to spend that amount; and others where there was no question, no way was it worth that much to her.

Public (in-state) schools start out much more affordably, but they also (in general) have more limited scholarship funds. A talented student with great grades, strong scores and solid activities can often be offered just as much from a private school. An out-of-state public school usually gives solid scholarships to out-of-state applicants, but the price is often still high.

On the other hand, some public schools (in-state AND out-of-state) have very competitive scholarship programs. NKU, for instance, which is working hard to attract high-achieving students, offers full rides and full tuition based on scores and grades. Since this is not a set amount, even an out-of-state student can receive a full ride at NKU.

UC offers solid scholarships but these are more limited and not pre-determined – you are not guaranteed a certain scholarship based on criteria. Be sure to research the options for each school carefully to understand how much is available and what your child will qualify for.

Grants vs. Academic Scholarships

When looking at the financials, first remember that there is a HUGE difference between “grants” (sometimes also called “scholarships”) and “academic scholarships.” Schools today give grants/scholarships for “financial need.”

Schools take the FAFSA or CSS Profile (two ways to evaluate your financial strength, based on income, assets, number in your family, ages, etc) and then apply their own formulas as well. The FAFSA will give you an “Expected Family Contribution,” or EFC – this is what the federal government says you can “afford” to pay.

If a college starts off at $60,000 for everything (tuition, room/board, fees) and your EFC is $30,000, they will usually come down to at least this number. In this case, at most schools, the student would receive $30,000 in grants and academic scholarships; some of this will be based on financial need, some on academics.

Academic scholarships are usually set out for the 4 years, as long as the student meets certain academic requirements – for instance, $80,000 over 4 years, or $20,000 a year. This is money you can count on every year (assuming your child keeps his/her grades up). It brings the cost from $60,000 to a net of $40,000.

But in this case, the family’s EFC was $30,000 – so the school needs to make up the difference. The $10,000 difference between the $40,000/year cost after the academic scholarship and the $30,000 EFC is provided based on financial need. It can change every year, based on your financial situation. If your income goes up, or if you have a child entering or leaving college, or other changes to your financial situation, you could end up with more or less in this portion.

So if the family in this example had another child in college, and that child was graduating next year, the additional $10,000 would likely be lost as soon as that child graduated. The net $30,000 in cost would then go up to $40,000. This is something to take into account, since unlike academic scholarships, financial need grants/scholarships are flexible and can change greatly.

Stacking vs. Gapping

The next issue is “stacking” vs. “gapping.” Let’s continue with the above example, where cost is $60,000 but the family’s EFC is $30,000.

The way I described the academic scholarship and financial need grant above reflects the “gap” scenario. The student has qualified for $20,000/year in academic scholarships, which is applied to the tuition prior to any financial need – the cost starts at $60,000 and the $20,000 is applied first, bringing the cost to $40,000. Then, the college only provides $10,000 in “financial aid” grants/scholarships. In effect, the academic scholarship is going to pay for some of the family’s financial need. This is the method we saw from all schools Natalie applied to.

In a “stacking” scenario, the college would account for the financial need first. They would bring the cost from the $60,000 start to the EFC amount of $30,000. THEN they would apply the scholarship of $20,000/year, resulting in a net cost of $10,000 to the family. As you can see, there is a huge difference. One friend of ours applied to a school where stacking was used – this is the only school I saw that figured it this way.


While there is not a lot of play in what public schools offer, private schools often have much room for negotiation. The more competitive a school, the less negotiation; but the more up-and-coming a school, the more room there is for highly talented students to be offered more money.

The highly competitive schools (the Ivies and the two to three tiers below) do not negotiate. They will come down to your EFC and that’s it. The feeling, rightly, is that all students are so highly talented, how can the school differentiate between them?

As you go to the next tiers below this, some negotiation is available. If you are offered $30,000 in scholarships, they may be willing to give another 10% or so. This is especially true if your child will fill a niche they want or need – which is virtually impossible to know until you ask.

When you go to the next level down – private schools that are still excellent, are not yet as competitive, but want to increase their competitiveness – a highly talented student can receive much more than originally offered. In fact, to woo these students, schools will offer more and more, even up to full rides.


As I stated at the beginning of this article, this is only the portion of the process we learned through our own experiences; there is much more to understand. Personally I was most shocked when, from a highly competitive school, our daughter was basically offered enough “academic scholarship” just to bring her to our EFC. I called the school and asked about it; this was the first I heard about gapping vs. stacking. On the other hand, other schools continued to increase her scholarship offers all the way through the process since they wanted her and her skill sets.

I’m thrilled to say that, after an extensive college search process and much back-and-forth, Natalie will be attending NKU next year 🙂 This is the only school that ended up meeting her unique program requirements perfectly, and those programs also happen to be excellent at the university. With a great financial package, it’s a win all the way around for us!

I hope you all have as much luck in your college search process as we did, whether that be this coming year or in many years. And I also hope this article helped give you a little more perspective on what schools are offering and what it means for your specific financial situation.


1 thought on “Some perspective on the college process

  1. Pingback: Highlights from 6/19/15 school board meeting | Andrea Brady's Blog

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