Kids & Money

Getting schooled in financial aid has a big payoff

After reading Carol Stack and Ruth Vedvik’s book on college financial aid, I came to one inescapable conclusion: It’s much better to be a payee than a payer.

That means when it comes to deciding where to go to college, go with the school that will pay for your education with scholarships, grants and other forms of aid.

The flip side? Forget most schools — no matter how highly selective they are — that put most of the financial burden on you to attend.

By charging you closer to the sticker price, the authors argue, schools are essentially saying they will use your money to fund the college education of the students they’re really after.

Stack and Vedvik lay out this thesis convincingly in “The Financial Aid Handbook: Getting the Education You Want for the Price You Can Afford” (Career Press, $16.99).

Their book, published last year, is not a compilation of tips on how to negotiate with financial aid officers or how to game the system. Rather, the authors make their case largely with numbers and plenty of anecdotal evidence gained from what they’ve observed.

Stack and Vedvikhave worked a total of more than 70 years in college admissions and financial aid.

The women wrote their book with the promise of helping high school seniors “get into and pay for the right school … and graduate with a reasonable amount of debt.”

For students, this means ranking in the top 25 percent of the incoming freshman class (based on grades and standardized test scores) of the schools they want to attend.

Students can find out how they stack up in terms of class ranking by going to the College Board website at and going to the college’s name for further information.

Finish in the top quarter, the authors write, and “there’s a very good chance that the college’s advertised price will be heavily discounted, just for you, regardless of your family’s financial situation.”

Compare that to Brand X, your son’s or daughter’s highly selective and expensive dream school, which sends out the acceptance letter with nary a dime of financial assistance.

The choice should be clear-cut, yet the authors note that many families succumb to the mostly mistaken notion that the more expensive and selective the college, the better the college.

There are some exceptions where price and quality education are on the same scale. The eight original Ivy League schools and a slew of top engineering colleges are worth the price because they provide the potential for the “highest dollar amount of lifetime earnings,” according to Stack and Vedvik.

Among the authors’ other cardinal rules:

• Don’t take out more than $32,000 in federal student loans, or roughly $8,000 a year, or else your son or daughter might not be able to pay them back and live the lifestyle they’d like to.(The $32,000 is based on federal borrowing limits.)

• Don’t be misled into thinking that private schools cost more than public institutions. The ability to graduate in four years from a private university is “significantly higher” than from a public university, the authors note. That can make the private school more price competitive overall to State U.

• Fill out the FAFSA. This is the Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As the authors emphasize, you don’t have to be poor to receive federal financial aid.

• Know the end game. If your postgraduate goal includes buying an expensive car and living in a nice apartment in the big city, then it may be difficult to juggle those bills with the monthly student loan lug.