Deciding Where to Apply, When to Accept and How to Afford College: A Q&A With Sabrina Manville

Published 10/28/2019

With Sabrina Manville

Throughout her career in higher education, Sabrina Manville has focused on the issues of education costs and lack of transparency around college pricing central to today's educational landscape. As co-founder of the college counseling service Edmit, she previously served as an Assistant Vice President at Southern New Hampshire University. Her new book, Better Off After College: A Guide to Paying for College With More Aid and Less Debt, with Edmit co-founder Nick Ducoff will be released in November 2019.

In this Q&A, Sabrina addresses how parents and students can make smart college choices and what to consider before accepting an offer from a college or university.

1—What are three essential facts that students should know when applying to a college?

·        The price on the website is probably not the price you'll be asked to pay.

·        You can appeal your financial aid if you don't receive enough and your price is still too high. This works better if you have other offers from similar schools, or if you’re a strong candidate relative to the rest of the applicant pool. It's good to apply to some small private schools with flexibility in their financial aid if you want this option at the end of the process.

·        A more expensive school can be worth it. Look at career and earnings outcomes, among other metrics, to evaluate how well students from that college fare after they graduate.

2—How should a student begin to research schools with less name recognition to find schools that match their educational goals, professional goals and overall budget?

As students start to narrow down what type of school they want to attend (small or large, rural or urban or regional preference, etc.), they can use online tools to find similar schools to expand their list. It's important to look at schools at which the student is considered a strong applicant (for example, where the student’s scores are in the top 25% of the class) as those schools will be the ones that could offer greater merit scholarships. In the same way students have admissions safety schools, they should have financial safety schools — schools where there are scholarships for which a student would qualify or schools that are more generous with financial aid, and thus will be more affordable.

3—What is the difference between a scholarship and “merit money”?

Often these terms are used interchangeably, though scholarship is a broader term that could encompass many things. Merit money specifically refers to grants or scholarships (money that does not have to be paid back) that a college awards to a student based on academics, extracurriculars or other qualities. It's different than “need-based aid,” which is awarded based on a student's financial situation. 

It's also important to know is that scholarship can sometimes refer to a private scholarship, offered by an organization that is separate from the college or university, such as a foundation or a community organization. Those scholarships tend to be smaller in size than financial aid or scholarships awarded by a college. They are usually competitive and applying for them can take time. I recommend that parents focus on institutional scholarships — those scholarships awarded by the college — as they often don't require a separate application and are more substantial. Plus, private scholarships can sometimes interfere with your financial aid, which is doubly unfortunate!

 4—What do you tell students who want to apply to their dream school (regardless of budget and suitability)?  

Just as students will have some safety schools, it's fine to have some reach schools. Note that reach schools are often (though not always) going to be more expensive as students are less likely to receive merit scholarships from a more competitive school. It's important to set the stage (whether student or parent) and to set expectations accordingly. When families go into the application season, they should have some defined boundaries about how much can be spent for college and what they are willing to take out in loans. The benchmark we use is that students should not take out more in loans over all four years than they will make in their first year after college.

 So, if a student expects to make about $50,000 per year at a first job based on the major and college choice, loans should not exceed $50,000. This ensures there will be enough money to live on and still make loan payments! If a top-choice school would require a student to take out a much larger loan (or require parents to cut back or sacrifice their retirement savings), the student should think hard about making that stretch. There are many great colleges and universities, and our belief is that there isn't one perfect fit for each student. While college choice is important, what happens during college can matter much more in terms of happiness long term.

5—What criteria should students and parents use to evaluate an offer/acceptance from a school?

From a financial position, it's important to understand how much each school will actually cost. Parents and students should make sure they know what financial aid has been awarded, whether it applies to all four years of studies, and whether there are conditions the student will need to meet to stay qualified. Understand the difference between loans (which have to be paid back, with interest) and grants or scholarships, which are sometimes all listed together on a financial aid letter.

 When it is clear what the bill will be, families should make a plan for where the money will come from whether savings, income earned by the student, or cash contributed from the family's income. It's also useful to evaluate a college's career and academic services. This can help ensure that a student will be supported through and after college while graduating on time and securing a good job after college can ensure a college investment will have good ROI.

6—What brings you the most satisfaction since you formed Edmit?

I love speaking with parents and students and helping them understand how the system works and hearing the relief in their voices when they realize there is a way! College is one of the best investments we can make — it just doesn't pay off equally for everyone. We're helping people avoid the pitfalls and position themselves for a successful future.


About Edmit

Edmit’s mission is to help families be better off after college, reducing debt and improving outcomes for students and their families. The Edmit algorithm compares colleges by using a variety of data to produce tuition estimates based on college characteristics and individual student data. For more information, visit www.Edmit.Me or follow @EdmitEDU on Twitter or Facebook. 

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