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College Acceptance, What Now?

By Terry Savage on March 29, 2020

In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, high school seniors and their families will receive the long-anticipated college admissions letters in the coming days.

They will learn which schools have accepted them and which have put them on the waiting list. They will also be asked to make a nonrefundable deposit with the school of their choice — a decision that must be made within 30 days. That deposit may range from $100 to as much as $1,000, so a commitment now will be costly to change later.

Along with the admissions letter, they’ll also receive an aid package from each school, based on the FAFSA form the family may have filed in a different lifetime, last October. For many students, the decision on which school to attend will depend on the “total cost” the family is expected to provide, after the aid offer.

What happens if your family’s finances are in crisis — unemployment, business shutdown or illness? What if your college savings have been decimated by the stock market decline?

Here’s some advice on how to approach the decision process from Casey Near, executive director of counseling at CollegeWise — a service dedicated to helping families with the admissions process, from application to understanding financial aid to essay writing.

Deadlines Delayed

The good news, according to Near, is that hundreds of schools are now extending the deposit deadline from May 1 to June 1. (Here’s a link to a real-time deadline database.)

But the rules are the rules. You are allowed to make an acceptance deposit at only one school. Check with your school to make sure of the deadline.

A delayed deadline will give admitted students a chance to review their aid packages and go back to the schools that accepted them to request more money if their family circumstances have changed. Of course, this will deluge the financial aid offices at colleges across the country. Near counsels that your request will be viewed more favorably if it is well documented, showing specifics of loss of income.

Wealthy schools with large endowments may be able to immediately increase their offer, based on your substantiated request. Smaller colleges may have less flexibility to add to their offer. The result will be a lot of uncertainty for the schools about which families will actually commit to attend. Near expects that schools will expand their waiting lists this year, because of all the uncertainty.

Important note: If your child is on a waiting list, actively confirm that you are still interested. At this point, a well-written letter to the admissions department saying this school is a ‘first choice’ may be helpful to your standing.

Making Decisions

Of course, when you are on the waiting list you don’t know what the eventual aid package will be. And you might not hear about the acceptance until later in the summer — close to the August deadlines for first semester tuition payments at the school that accepted you!

This will be a maddening process for those still hoping to get accepted to a first-choice school that may not notify you until mid-summer.

Two important new issues come to the bottom line here when making college decisions:

—First, this year students (and their paying parents) have some leverage in the financial aid process. Schools will be worried about having enough enrollment this coming fall, meaning you could get more aid.

—And second, this next two weeks will be the time for a family discussion about what is really financially possible, not only for the coming year but for the next four years — for this child and younger siblings.

Hoping for more financial aid has its limitations. Parents have always hoped for their child to go to the “best” school. And they’ve been willing to go into debt to make that happen — with some ugly consequences.

This is the time for a serious discussion with your children. Consider the savings if they stay home — each of them, to spread the pain evenly — for the first year, saving costs for living expenses.

Now, they may be willing to understand the need for sacrifice. And in the long run, they will value their education more, no matter where they get it. And that’s The Savage Truth.

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