The Real Cost of College: Most Students Don't Pay the Full Sticker Price for a College Education-Especially If They Actively Seek Financial Aid
Rauf, Don, Careers & Colleges
Sisters who are just a little over a year apart in age, Lauren and Katie Pilgram spent a lot of time together growing up. They both attended Owensville High School in Gerald, Missouri, they played on the same softball team, and they shared a room at home.
So when Lauren started at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, it was a big change for them. But their time apart didn't last long. Katie followed in her sister's footsteps a year later, when she too enrolled at the college.
"I was a little leery at first," says Lauren. "We had gone through every single thing together. Katie would complain sometimes that I had done everything first, and it wasn't fair for her. So I was a little worried when she decided to come here."
While they shared some concerns about getting along, both sisters knew they were lucky to be at Westminster at all. With a total cost of about $18,000 a year, the college at first seemed to be out of reach for the Pilgram sisters. They were both seriously considering attending a local community college when a friend of Lauren's talked her into going on an overnight campus visit at the school. She met professors and students and "fell in love with the atmosphere."
Fortunately, the school's financial aid staff members opened her eyes to the world of college funding. Because Lauren (like her sister Katie) was in the top of her class, she was eligible to receive the school's prestigious Churchill Scholarship, which would pay for her education after any other outside awards were factored in.
Having smarts really paid off for the sisters. Their high GPAs and ACT scores not only earned them the Churchill award, but also funding from the state of Missouri, the Elks Club, a professional organization, and a local business. Because their family demonstrated financial need, the two qualified for federal dollars as well. Both received Pell grants of about $4,000 each, and Katie also snagged an SEOG grant of $1,560. Westminster even gave Katie a special scholarship just because her sister was already attending the school. Ultimately, they both went to college for free.
With their financial concerns taken care of, how did Lauren and Katie handle being at college together?
"It was the best possible thing that could have happened to us," says Lauren, who is now 22 and a recent graduate. "It made us even closer."
In fact, the sisters played on the same college softball team, joined the same sorority, and lived in buildings facing each other. Katie especially appreciated Lauren being there: "College was easier for me because I had an older sister there who had already done it and was there to help me," she says. "You just have to be your own person and choose your own path."
Lauren and Katie advise college-bound students to not get discouraged by the financial aid process. Even if you have limited resources, they attest, there's always a way to reach your college goals.
Financial Aid Basics
There are two types of financial aid: merit-based and need-based.
Merit-based aid is typically a scholarship given by a private institution, your college, or the government. These awards recognize your individual talents.
Need-based aid is awarded according to your ability to pay for college. To figure out your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), colleges look at your family's income, assets, and other financial data that you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and often on the College Board's PROFILE form. (For more information, check out www.fafsa.ed.gov and http://profileonline.collegeboard.com.) Colleges calculate your need using this formula:
Cost of attendance--Your EFC--Outside aid (scholarships) = Need
Colleges then put together an aid package comprised of loans, grants, and work-study.
Don't Rule Yourself Out
A lot of students think they're not "needy" enough to qualify for financial aid. …