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Dollars and Decisions: Choose a College Based on Financial Aid

Dollars and decisions require students to choose a college based on aid.

Jeremy Ogul

February 23, 2007

Dollars and Decisions: Choose a College Based on Financial Aid

My dad and my uncle were born and raised in Los Angeles and spent their whole childhoods rooting for UCLA in sports and thus treating the University of Southern California as their mortal enemy. When it came time for my uncle (who was the older sibling) to go to college, he applied and got into both schools, but USC offered him a full-ride scholarship. Coming from a low-income family, he couldn't afford not to take it.

My dad has called him a traitor ever since. So when I talk to my dad about the possibility of me getting into and attending UCLA, he gets really hopeful and says, "That would be the end to 30 years of shame." (He's only half joking.)

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I haven't gotten word from UCLA yet (that comes at the end of March), but college acceptances have begun to trickle in, and I'm starting to have to make decisions - like my uncle - taking into account financial factors.

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The first school I got acceptance notification from was American University in Washington, D.C. They have top political science and international relations programs, and because of their location in the nation's capital, they have outstanding internship programs in Washington. From alumni I've talked to, I understand it's a great place to go if you really want to get involved in politics, which is something I'm interested in. The only problem with my admission to American is financial aid. I was awarded a Dean's Scholarship in the amount of $15,000, with an additional $3,000 in student loans, but the annual cost of attendance is about $45,000. That leaves me paying $27,000 a year, and according to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), my family is not even able to afford half that. Because I am not willing to take out $14,000 a year in student loans to finance an education at American, especially when I can get a state school education for far less, American has been almost completely ruled out.

When I was researching colleges and completing applications, I never considered the possibility that financial aid would be a factor in my final decision. Now I'm beginning to realize that there is more to this equation than just what I want in a school as far as size and programs go. If you are not yet a senior, I recommend putting some thought and research into what kind of financial aid you can expect from the colleges you're looking at. What is the cost of attendance? There's a big difference between state schools and private schools, and the difference isn't always corrected by better financial aid from the private schools. How much of demonstrated need does the financial aid department meet? The top-tier private schools, such as Princeton, Duke and Dartmouth, have endowments large enough to meet all the demonstrated need of all admitted students. Other schools, however, will only meet 70 percent or 50 percent of demonstrated need. If you see numbers like that, expect to take out a lot of money in loans.

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On the bright side, I have also received acceptance letters from UC-Davis and UC-Santa Cruz, and my financial aid package from Davis is generous and all of my demonstrated need is met through scholarships and subsidized federal loans. So right now, based on financial aid, it's looking like Davis is my top choice.

That, of course, hinges on decisions from UCLA and UC-Berkeley, which will be out soon. I am anxiously awaiting notification, hoping that if I get into UCLA, financial factors won't prevent me from ending "30 years of shame."

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