CIT consultant and merit aid specialist Suzy Fallon Q + A: The hands-down best source of merit scholarships, the long arc of the merit scholarship process during the application year, and what every family must do right now to maximize merit offers
Q: Families are as concerned as they ever have been about paying for college.
A: Yes they are. Especially now that college students are living at home, while tuition and fees remain steady. The price of college is on families’ minds more than ever – how much are they paying, and what exactly are they paying for?
Clearly, the entire experience of college has become increasingly commodified. Parents are scrutinizing the bills.
Q: What’s the most frequent client question you get about paying for college?
A: Does School X give scholarships? And that is such a great question. The answer varies according to student, family, and institution. Everyone wants a discount, whether they can afford full price or not. People want value, and they want the hard work of their children recognized in the form of a scholarship.
Q: Let’s begin our chat about scholarships by distinguishing need based aid from merit aid, then.
A: When a parent asks will my child get a scholarship, they are really asking about free money. Free money falls into two buckets: need based aid, and merit aid. Need based aid is a function of the parents’ income and assets. You qualify or you don’t — and that can depend on the school as well, and the total cost of attendance of that school. A caveat here is: What percentage of need the school meets.
Merit aid is based on what the student brings to the table: grades, test scores, activities, the opinions of teachers, demonstrated ability to write and think well, portfolios: what makes a student, a student. And a catch here is that not all schools give merit aid.
Q: How does all of this figure in to how you advise clients when it comes to the composition of a college list?
A: Families need to understand their college budget. And so with some families, I devote a great deal of time and attention to surfacing both concrete and figurative resources: what they have to spend, and what they want to spend. There can be a lot of emotion at this level of the process – the emotion, the reality, and the myths around schools and what they both cost and give, all come into play.
If we can all get on the same page early about the budget, the clear understanding of a family budget facilitates a list that solves the financial piece of the puzzle. I can show a student 10,000 colleges he may love, but if the family can’t afford the school, that is an empty exercise.
Q: What is the most effective tool you use to help a family agree to a specific budget figure?
A: We start with an intake questionnaire, an Expected Family Contribution tool, and then at CIT we have developed a New Client Financial Aid Education package — and we work through that process with them. It starts there, but money is an ongoing conversation with many of my families. It begins our college conversation, and we are still talking about money when I present my spreadsheet and cost analysis of college offers to them once the student’s awards have come in.
Q: What is the single most important thing you’d like families to know about merit scholarships – families either preparing for the college search, or in the midst of applications right now?
A: I’d like them to know that very nearly every student out there can find merit money. And if that is one of the ways you want to pay for school, families have to be open to looking at schools that award that money. The correct college list is the ticket to merit scholarships. If schools don’t give merit money, or they give full rides but to three students in the nation, then that is the policy and we can’t change it.
I find the specific schools that will award merit money to my specific client.
Q: So part of your job is to look at individual college’s scholarship philosophy, with the family.
A: Exactly. This is what we know, then: the best source of merit scholarship money is the schools themselves.
Q: Hand down the best source.
A: We work very hard to match students to schools, because we know that minimally, correct matches result in the most lucrative packages for our families. That has been the CIT philosophy from the outset, and it is a formula that has never failed us or our clients. It’s a win for the colleges and a win for the students. Strong matches equal strong offers. And we look at four year offers rather than one time awards.
I would add that we have a very low transfer rate because of this practice. The national transfer rate has hovered at around 37% for the last several years; at College Inside Track, we have a 4% transfer rate.
Q: Social media abound with offers: scholarship searches, infinite databases and spreadsheets, promises of inside info that will pay off in huge money awards for students.
A: These offers play into the myth that there is a big bucket of money at the end of the rainbow, and all the family has to do is subscribe to the right service, buy the right book, attend the right webinar, and the secret formula will be revealed to them and them alone.
We have and we continue to look for this ourselves, this magic bucket of money, but every year we come to the same conclusion. It doesn’t exist. Even this year our consultant team vetted a product that claimed to solve the issue of merit aid and was endorsed by a number of organizations and it took a 30 minute meeting to figure out that this big data product didn’t do anything new or different.
Q: How much effort should students spend looking for external scholarships from private foundations or institutions?
A: Merit scholarships from colleges or institutions account for 60% of money families get for college. 6% comes from private sources. The rest comes from grants, federal and state need-based awards. To me it’s a no brainer: focus on the institutions themselves.
Q: Is there any downside to devoting effort to a private scholarship search?
A: Yes. Most awards are one time only, and are rarely in excess of $1000. And, many schools will reduce both need and merit awards, when the student declares those awards to the financial aid office of the college they have chosen. And the student *must* declare those awards.
The practice of permitting multiple scholarships is called “stacking”, and the practice of disallowing multiple sources of aid is called “scholarship reduction” or “scholarship displacement”. Every school has its own scholarship reduction and stacking policies, and it can be very difficult to determine exactly what the policies are. Further, most students haven’t determined the college they will attend while engaging in the private scholarship search, so they could very well be wasting their time entirely, because the college will take that check right away.
Q: Have you seen this happen?
A: Every year we see it happen, and it’s frustrating. The student spends time hustling, only to be told they won’t see the money. And so I suggest students look at local opportunities, check in with their high school counseling offices, their places of worship and family employers. Work within a closer circle or a narrow band of interest, if you need to do that external scholarship search. If a family really wants to pursue it, they understand the real effort it will take.
Q: Any other sources of merit money you’d like to discuss, Suzy?
A: Sure. Additional funding often becomes available once a student is accepted to a school and declares a major. Once again, students have to hustle for it, working the financial aid office at their college. The college is not going to just throw the money the student’s way. We also find scholarships through post-application honors programs, fellowships, and mission-centric paths at the school the student will attend.
I work hard with my clients to maximize their awards. The students who get awards have worked for them. The merit scholarship effort is a long arc, and I support them from beginning to the end.
College Inside Track consultant and merit aid expert Suzy Fallon has successfully ushered hundreds of kids through the college admissions process. Before turning to admissions work, Suzy worked as an attorney and a small business entrepreneur.
Suzy and her Newfoundland puppy, Sully