Part 3: Answers to Your Questions on Making the Final Colleg
USINFO | 2013-09-23 15:38

The Choice has invited Marie Bigham, a former college admissions officer and veteran college counselor, and Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert, to answer your questions about comparing financial aid offers and deciding where to enroll in the blog’s virtual Guidance Office, a forum for college applicants and their families seeking expert advice.
The moderated Q. and A. session, which began Monday, will continue throughout the week.
In this third installment of answers, the panelists respond to questions about the importance of college rankings, choosing a college near a boyfriend and calculating a family’s expected contribution.
Some questions, and answers, below have been edited, including for length and style. — Tanya Abrams
Do Rankings Matter?

Q.My son got accepted at the following undergraduate business schools: Indiana University at Bloomington, Bentley University, Syracuse University and Northeastern University. He wants to go to Northeastern. However, Indiana is better ranked. Do rankings matter? Should you go by rankings or where you feel you fit in better? What should he do?
— Anu

Q.How much should prestige factor into the decision-making process? I’ve been accepted to two top 10 graduate programs in my field. One is in the Ivy League and will likely leave me with a tab of around $120,000 to $130,000 of debt. The other is a reputable school in Washington that would leave me with roughly half that debt. The more expensive school is ranked higher. It’s also in New York, which brings a higher cost of living. Is the name brand and a few more spots up in ranking worth twice the cost?
— Rand
A.“Keep in mind that the data used in rankings can be suspect, as evidenced by stories of data fudging by some prominent colleges.”
— Marie Bigham
Ms. Bigham: Rankings are the bane of a college counselor’s existence. We like to rank and list things in this country, but we don’t seem to question methodology.
Before you get too wrapped up in the rankings, ask yourself two questions: what does the ranking value, and what do you value. If the ranking values alumni giving, ask how that will impact your day-to-day life at the college. If the ranking values small class size, ask how that fits into your needs at a college.
Finally, and sadly, keep in mind that the data used in rankings can be suspect, as evidenced by stories of data fudging by some prominent colleges.
“People prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi or vice versa because they taste different, not because one is ranked No. 1 in sales and the other is ranked No. 2.”
— Mark Kantrowitz
Mr. Kantrowitz: Rankings cannot be trusted. Current rankings are based on unaudited data of questionable accuracy. Even if the data were accurate, however, a difference of an epsilon or two in the raw score is statistically insignificant.
When choosing among several colleges, visit the colleges while classes are in session to see how comfortable you feel at each college. That matters a lot more than whether you will get your diploma from the college ranked No. 13 instead of the college ranked No. 17. Do you really think that employers will say, “Oooh, he graduated from the No. 23 ranked school, too bad, he was otherwise the perfect candidate?” They will hire you because of your skills, knowledge and experience, not the name printed on a piece of parchment.
The difference in prestige between one college and another a few rungs down the rankings is negligible. It may give your parents better bragging rights, but that’s about it.
People prefer Coca-Cola over Pepsi or vice versa because they taste different, not because one is ranked No. 1 in sales and the other is ranked No. 2.
When in doubt, choose the college that will leave you with the least debt at graduation. You will feel much better about your degree if you are able to pay off your debt quicker.

Deciding From the Heart, Romantically Speaking

Q.My daughter got accepted into Cornell University as well as Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. She is more inclined on going to Macaulay because she wants to stay in New York City near her boyfriend. I feel if she goes to an Ivy League school, she’d be appropriately challenged; she’s an academically brilliant kid.
How can I advise her to make a decision based on school merit and not out of a young foolish heart? (Financially speaking, Cornell’s package comes out to be $40,000 a year and Macaulay is tuition-free for four years. She insists she’s making things financially easier for our family and that we can help her for law school in the future instead.)
— Concerned parent

A.Ms. Bigham: I tell students that all factors are fair game and on the table, except following a beloved to college. High school boyfriends or girlfriends rarely become college boyfriends or girlfriends, and to make a significant decision based on someone else’s path just seems wrong at this age.
College is a time of tremendous growth and change. Why start college by clinging to what you already know?
Encourage your daughter to explore both colleges based solely on her academic and career aspirations, and the social and personal fit of the college. Saving some money may be helpful in the long run, but please encourage your daughter to have more of a big-picture approach to this decision. If they are meant to be together, they will be together, regardless of where she spends the next four years.
Mr. Kantrowitz: Your daughter is going to college to get a bachelor’s degree, not a degree in Mrs. She’s pre-law, not pre-wed.
If her love is true, it will survive a long-distance relationship. But chances are that she and he will both make new friends in college and their interests will change. People do grow apart even when they enroll at the same college, so choosing a college based on young love may be unwise. If she stays near her boyfriend, he may represent too much of a distraction from academics.
But CUNY is much less expensive than Cornell. It may be better to save the cash and send her to the cheaper college.
Have your daughter visit each college for two days by herself. Sometimes visiting the college will help a student reach the right decision.

Re-calculating the Expected Family Contribution

Q.I have received two financial aid packets for two different schools. One school says it has determined that my family contribution is $35,000 a year while the other one said that it was $61,000 a year. Why is there such a discrepancy? Is there anyway to get the second’s estimate closer to the first school’s?
— BR

Q.If a family’s financial circumstances change between the time that the Fafsa is submitted and the decision on which college to attend is made (e.g. the parent who is the primary earner loses a job of 33 years tenure), is it appropriate for the parents to notify the colleges of the change and ask for the financial aid packages to be recalculated?
— Dixie Lee
“You can appeal to the college for more financial aid at any point in time.”
— Mark Kantrowitz
A.Mr. Kantrowitz: There are many reasons one college may have a different family contribution than another. Some colleges rely on the federal need analysis formula calculated by the Fafsa while others rely on an institutional financial aid formula, like the one calculated by the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form.
Sometimes one college has access to information that was not available to the other college. For example, some colleges ask about unusual family financial circumstances on their financial aid application forms. Sometimes a college makes a mistake. Sometimes one college is much more generous than the other. Sometimes one college includes more loans in the financial aid package to make it look as though the college is less expensive.
The PROFILE form asks more questions than the Fafsa in part to prevent wealthy students from looking poor. The PROFILE form counts more assets than the Fafsa, disregards paper losses, considers the finances of both parents in divorce situations, and makes a smaller adjustment when there are multiple children in college at the same time. But a $26,000 difference in the calculated family contributions seems a bit extreme.
If there are any unusual family financial circumstances, make sure that both colleges are aware of all the circumstances. Ask the college with the higher family contribution to explain the discrepancy between the two financial aid offers.
You can appeal to the college for more financial aid at any point in time. Tell the college financial aid administrator about the change in family financial circumstances and ask for a professional judgment review. Provide the college with copies of documentation of the unusual circumstances to expedite the process. Most colleges will make an adjustment for job loss or salary reduction.
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