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Navigating college financial aid options pays off

| Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, 10:00 p.m.
David Collins, who recently retired as director of financial aid at St. Vincent College, is volunteering his skills to help families facing the convoluted process of accessing and understanding college financial aid.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
David Collins, who recently retired as director of financial aid at St. Vincent College, is volunteering his skills to help families facing the convoluted process of accessing and understanding college financial aid.

When Joyce Montag began visiting colleges with her daughter Angela, she was stunned by the costs and what the family would be asked to contribute.

Her daughter's preferred school, Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, where tuition, room and board cost $60,119 a year, told the family that it could offer no aid.

“I was in sticker shock,” said Montag of Slippery Rock.

A friend, David Collins, who recently retired from St. Vincent College after four decades in college admissions and financial aid, jumped in to help. He talked with Angela, learned about her interests, and came up with several schools he thought might be a good fit.

In the end, Angela fell in love with one of Collins' suggested choices and secured a full scholarship to Juniata College, a small liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania that costs $51,740 a year to attend. She earned a degree there and went to law school at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., on a partial scholarship. Today she is senior counsel to Netflix.

Collins loves to hear stories like that. It's the reason he started offering free financial aid counseling to those looking to find a college that will meet their needs at a cost they can afford. He said he wants to help families negotiate what can be an opaque and difficult course to receiving financial aid.

“I have had a great career. I have a passion for college counseling, and now that I have time, I want to give something back,” said the 63-year-old, who lives in Unity.

At this time of year, when students are applying to colleges and parents are reeling from the skyrocketing cost of higher education, tapping the wisdom of experts like Collins who know the intricacies of the financial aid maze is crucial.

The College Board, a website that offers tools to those getting ready for college, said $238.3 billion in grants, scholarships, federal work study dollars, loans and tax credits were awarded to students in 2013-14. And $10 billion in private loans was given out. Making sure students get a piece of the money available is what Collins has set out to do.

“There's definitely a need for that,” said Greensburg Salem High School guidance counselor Laura Klipa, because comparing and contrasting financial aid packages can be daunting.

“They don't know the ins and outs of how to go after money students don't have to repay.”

The federal Education Department recently started collegescorecard.ed. gov, an online tool to eliminate some of the confusion about college costs and benefits for families with children in college. Colleges are required to post on the site net price calculators to help families estimate costs based on income and other circumstances. But experts say many families are foundering.

“It can be a very confusing and intimidating process for certain students, especially those whose parents aren't as financially savvy as some and haven't gone through it themselves,” said Megan McClean, a director at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Who gets what and how much debt a student incurs can vary dramatically from one school to the next. Experts say it's critical that families do their homework, ask questions, ask colleges if they can increase their aid offers, weigh alternatives, and remember that the sticker price colleges quote for tuition can be misleading. Some of the confusion can be from how a particular college handles financial aid.

“There are so many gotchas, so many things that can skew your thinking,” Collins said.

Collins cited a few examples:

• Packages that make it appear mandatory that parents take out loans for their children.

• Work study that appears to directly lower tuition but is part of an aid package requiring the student to find a job on campus.

• Some schools deduct from aid packages the money a student brings in from outside scholarships. For instance, if a student gets a $1,000 Elks scholarship, that amount is deducted from a student's financial aid package.

• Large grants offered to freshmen for only one year.

As families search for help with financial aid, experts stress that high school guidance offices are a good place to start.

At Canon McMillan High School, guidance counselor Karen Rubican has developed an online site where she and others post links to scholarships. Rubican keeps an eye out for ways to help a student fill the gaps on college finances, as well as for information to ease confusion about aid.

“I troll Twitter for scholarships. I've found lots of links there,” Rubican said. “I just found something on CollegeRaptor.com — ‘Everything you think you know about college scholarships is wrong' — that might help some families.”

Klipa and Rubican urge families to take advantage of free advice whenever they can. The counselors invite representatives from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency to their schools twice a year to advise families on college finances and help them fill out federal income disclosure forms used to determine aid awards.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, who has testified in front of Congress about financial aid several times, said families should begin planning for college early, focus on net price, rather than sticker price, and always include a school in their planning that can be afforded without any financial aid.

Kim McCurdy, a PHEAA Higher Education access partner who provides services to Allegheny County schools, said that's the same advice she gives to families to help them avoid last-minute problems. She steers them to MySmartBorrowing.org, an online financial planning tool PHEAA has developed.

“I still get a phone call every summer from a parent who owes $10,000 to their student's university, and they can't afford to send them. We really want to avoid that kind of thing,” she said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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