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Expensive colleges can be affordable for many

Todd Johnson, a college admissions consultant, speaks to parents and students at a college fair Monday at Willmar Senior High School. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

The college that seems the most expensive could be the most affordable for some families, a fact to keep in mind when looking for colleges.

College admissions consultant Todd Johnson spoke with parents of high school juniors at the Willmar College Fair this week.

The college fair was attended by representatives from 23 colleges, mostly in Minnesota. In a workshop, Johnson spelled out a series of questions to ask about financial aid when considering a college.

"There is no one answer for everybody," he said, but it is important to look at financial aid issues in choosing a college.

Johnson is a Willmar attorney who has an online college admissions consulting business. He volunteers his services to students in the Willmar School District and organizes the college fair each spring. He also offers a series of monthly lectures on college and financial aid topics at the Willmar Public Library.

Financial aid will most likely come in a combination of "free money" like grants and scholarships along with student loans and work study, Johnson said.

The federal government will determine the amount of money a family is expected to contribute through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, first filed during a student's senior year.

The family contribution will be the same, regardless of what school a student chooses, Johnson said.

However, depending on the college, a family may end up paying more. The difference between the family contribution and the cost of a year at the school is called the family need.

Only three schools in Minnesota -- Carleton, Macalester and St. Olaf -- provide financial aid to meet 100 percent of family need, Johnson said. At many other schools, financial aid will provide a percentage of need that could range from 50 percent to more than 90 percent. The student and family would have to make up the difference.

Johnson suggests that be the first question parents ask financial aid officers:

* What percent of need does the college meet?

* How is merit aid -- like academic, athletic or talent-related scholarships -- handled? How does a student keep it beyond the first year?

* How will aid be determined after the first year? How much will loans increase after the first year?

* What is the average loan amount at graduation?

* What is the policy on outside scholarships? Some schools may use outside scholarships to reduce grants; others may use them to reduce loans.

* How is financial aid packaged? Is it heavier on grants than on loans, and does that vary from student to student?

* What is the four-year graduation rate? Many people don't think to ask about that, but they should, Johnson said. "How many years of school do you want to pay for?"

* What is the college's endowment per student?

Endowments often support financial aid programs.

* Are financial aid forms beyond the FAFSA required for a particular school? Some schools require a more detailed form called a Profile.

Everyone should file the FAFSA, even families that probably won't qualify for financial aid, Johnson said. If a family's financial situation changes during a year, the college will have some information to work with in determining a new aid package.

Johnson answered several questions after his talk. College nest eggs may count against a family in determining financial aid, he said, "but you're better off having them than not."

It's also a good idea to keep the college savings in the parents' names and not in a student's name, he said. College aid taps more deeply into student assets than into parent assets.

Many at the meeting took notes as Johnson talked. Afterward, Sue Anderson of Spicer said, "I thought it was very informational."

It was interesting to hear about the colleges that provide 100 percent of a family's need, she said.

Cheryl Kallhoff of Willmar said the workshop had given her what she was looking for. Both the women have sons who are juniors.

"It's nice to know the questions you should ask the colleges," Kallhoff said.

Johnson said he was willing to talk with local students who are seeking advice. He may be reached at todd@collegeadmissions or by calling 320-262-9955.