A+ Advice for Parents

Navigating the World of College Financial Aid

Q: Our daughter is a rising senior, looking at colleges. She's an A student and top athlete who can probably get a soccer scholarship. We'd rather she focus on her studies and not have obligations to a team. She'd be the first in our family to graduate from college. Are there good, affordable four-year schools?

A: "The fact that your daughter is an A student while playing on her high school's soccer team is commendable," says Kevin McMullin, founder of Collegewise, which provides admissions counseling to prospective college students, and co-author of "If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted" (Random House/The Princeton Review, 2014). "These credentials will serve her well, not only with regard to her prospects for admission but also her chances for getting financial aid."

McMullin also says admissions officers will value the fact that your daughter may be the first in your family to attend and potentially graduate from college.

Don't be scared by the sticker price, McMullin tells parents and students: "Financial aid offices have power to offer more generous aid packages to students that the admissions office would most like to enroll. If a school really wants a student, it also can offer a merit-aid scholarship that has nothing to do with financial need."

Start by listing colleges where your daughter has a particularly strong chance of admission based on her test scores and application stats, suggests McMullin. Her guidance counselor should be able to help compile it. Look for prospects in "The Best Value Colleges, 2014 Edition" (Random House/The Princeton Review, 2014).

Next, identify schools where her aid chances are strong. The Princeton Review publishes Financial Aid Ratings (FAR) for more than 600 schools. "These numerical scores from 60 to 99 are based on more than 30 factors, covering data on cost of attendance, generosity with aid and academics," says McMullin. "Sometimes it costs less to attend a pricey college than a less expensive one due to the generous scholarships and grants many schools dole out that don't have to be paid back." For example, Princeton and Yale made the Review's 2014 Financial Aid Rating Honor Roll with perfect FAR scores (www.princetonreview.com).

A critically important part of the applications process is submitting applications for financial aid. The primary one is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); FAFSA forms for your daughter's applications will be released in January 2015.

"This is a complex form with more than 100 questions. It is used by colleges to get a financial snapshot of the family resources to determine the family's 'EFC,' or estimated financial contribution," says McMullin. "That means what the colleges expect you to ante up."

Each calculates EFC differently, so your daughter's aid eligibility could be higher at one college and lower at another based on which aid form the colleges use.

McMullin encourages your daughter to apply to a financial safety school that you could afford if she receives no financial aid.

"Good prospects are public universities in your state," he says.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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