Having touched upon financial aid topics in previous columns, I thought it might be beneficial to focus an entire discussion on this subject. To do so, I turned to Don Betterton, a good friend and colleague who previously served as the financial aid director and an admissions committee member at Princeton University for more than 30 years. What follows is a candid conversation between the two of us about many of the financial aid issues that students may encounter worldwide. I hope you find Don’s insight and advice as informative as I did!

Lee Stetson

Lee Stetson

Lee Stetson: How can students find out if they can afford the colleges they’re interested in attending?

Don Betterton: It is quite possible to find this information, but know that the types and amounts of financial aid available will vary a great deal depending on your academic achievement or talent (merit scholarships) or your family’s income (need-based aid).

Because every college does financial aid differently (much as they do admissions), you must research both the merit and need policies at each one of your colleges. It is a common mistake to concentrate on preparing for admission and to put off how you are going to pay the bill until late in the process. Don’t let this happen to you.

LS: How can a student go about finding out more about whether he or she can receive a merit scholarship?

DB: Go to the section of each of your colleges’ Web sites that describes the eligibility rules for the merit scholarships they offer. If you believe you will qualify, write down the requirements, application procedure and deadlines. If you don’t believe you will qualify for any of the colleges’ merit scholarships, then you should consider the possibility of receiving need-based aid or external scholarships and awards.

LS: How can a student go about finding out if he or she will qualify for need-based aid?

DB: Go to the area of the college Web site that describes the cost of attendance and need-based aid policies and procedures. Write down which applications are required (all colleges ask for the federal FAFSA application and, in addition, some will ask for the College Board’s PROFILE application) and the deadlines.

Next you have to make an estimate of whether you might qualify for need aid. To do this, it is necessary to submit enough family financial information so you can calculate your Expected Family Contribution (commonly called the “EFC”), the amount the need algorithm calculates that you and your family can pay for college. Click here for the College Board’s calculator and follow the instructions for calculating your EFC. If at least one of your schools requires the PROFILE aid application, you will check “Both FM and IM” to get two separate EFCs.

Subtract the EFC(s) from the cost of attendance to see if you might have financial need at that college. For every college where you believe you will have need, plan to apply for aid. Understand that at this time you are only making an estimate whether it is worthwhile to plan to apply for aid.

Although calculating your EFC is a good exercise to see how you stand, it is only an early estimate. When it comes to the possibility of receiving need-based aid, the cardinal rule is: IF YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT YOUR ABILITY TO PAY THE FULL COST OF ANY OF YOUR COLLEGES, PLAN TO APPLY FOR AID.

LS: Assuming that a student qualifies for a merit scholarship, what kind of help can be expected?

DB: If you win a merit scholarship, it will be in the form of gift aid, meaning you do not have to pay any of it back. It is the best form of aid, but check to see what you need to do in college (for example, maintain a 3.0 GPA) to continue to receive the scholarship. For scholarships other than for academics, like athletic grants in aid or an award for dance, expect that you will have to demonstrate your talent before receiving the scholarship.

LS: Assuming that a student qualifies for a need-based award, what can be expected?

Need aid is awarded differently than a merit scholarship. If you have financial need, expect to receive a “package” of assistance. An aid package usually consists of a grant (gift aid), a low-interest student loan and a work-study job. Do note that a work-study job will likely require you to work on campus between 10 and 15 hours per week. Repayment on the loan is not due until after graduation (but be careful not borrow so much that you will have trouble repaying the loan).

LS: Any final advice?

DB: Yes, do your financial aid homework, and start early. By halfway through your junior year in high school, you should have evaluated your prospects for receiving a college merit award and at the same time entered your family’s financial info in an EFC calculator to judge possible need eligibility. With some sense of how much help you might receive, you can make a judgment about which of your colleges appear to be affordable. Depending on this outcome, it may be necessary for you to alter your college list, taking into account which ones you can afford. The possibility that you might have to add or subtract colleges based on the bottom-line reality of whether they are affordable is all the more reason to start early.

With solid aid knowledge and good planning, you should be able continue with your college search without undue concern about whether you can afford to pay the bill.

Have a question about the college admissions process? E-mail it to info@global-ed.com.

— Lee Stetson is chairman of the Admissions Advisory Board for Global Education Opportunities, a private admissions counseling firm. He has dedicated his life to higher education, serving as dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania for the past 30 years. He was also a College Board trustee, and has authored numerous articles on the admissions process.