Wednesday, August 30, 2017

IRS Data Retrieval Tool Returns to FAFSA

Families who plan to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for the 2018-19 academic year may find the process easier this year, thanks to the relaunch of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. After being shut down last spring following ID hacking that may have put up to 100,000 tax payers at risk, the tool has been revamped to address security issues. Starting October 1, families can use the tool to upload their tax information for 2016 directly from the IRS to their FAFSA, saving time and the potential headaches of entering data by hand.

As part of the new process, the exact income numbers from filers returns will be "masked" once they have uploaded. The data fields on the student aid report will simply say "transferred from the IRS". This new data security measure is worrying to some, who are concerned that potential errors in their tax returns that they are unable to see on the FAFSA could damage their eligibility for financial aid. If accuracy is a worry, however, entering data by hand directly from returns is still an option.

Whether you decide to utilize the Data Retrieval Tool or not, it's a great idea to get started on your FAFSA as soon as the site goes live on October 1. You'll be well ahead of submission deadlines and you'll be able to determine your family's expected family contribution toward college costs prior to submitting college applications, which can be valuable if you are trying to adhere to a budget and want to be sure your college choices are affordable.

Want to learn more about financial aid for college? Check out my previous blog posts on understanding financial aid and tips for planning a successful financial aid process. Additionally, here are some useful links to help you navigate financial aid.


Expected Family Contribution Calculator

How Federal Student Aid Is Determined

Smart Tips for College Financial Planning

For many families, the cost of a college education today is daunting. The total cost for a year at a CSU is now around $26,000; at a UC, $33,000; and many private colleges have sticker prices of $40,000 or more. 

To help manage college costs and make informed financial decisions, I recommend families do three things: 
  • Plan ahead
  • Set clear priorities
  • Understand actual costs
Planning ahead means not just saving money for college, but understanding early on what the cost of college is likely to be and how much financial aid through scholarships and loans your student can expect to receive. You can get a head start by using the FAFSA Forecaster to determine how much colleges expect you to pay toward the cost of college (your Expected Family Contribution). Knowing your EFC can help you estimate what your actual costs will be at various colleges and use this information to make smart choices about where to apply. 

Setting clear priorities early can also help guide a successful college search. What are the top three to five things that matter to your student and family? If cost is one of those factors, be sure to make it a priority in your search. Looking only at schools that are within your financial parameters or that you can reasonably assume might be with the assistance of scholarship dollars can help you avoid disappointment and wasted time. 

Understanding the actual cost of colleges can be tricky. While at a public college you can generally expect to pay close to the "advertised price" (most public colleges offer few scholarships), the actual cost of a private college can vary widely and is usually far less than their "advertised price" (thanks to plentiful scholarship offerings). But many other factors such as graduation rates, travel costs, and extremely varying costs of living at certain campuses also impact the overall total cost. 

In an effort at transparency, colleges now provide a net price calculator to help families get an estimate of the total cost of attendance based on the college's financial aid policies. These tools are very helpful and can easily be found on the financial aid page of college's websites. 

If you need help navigating the complex world of college financial planning, I provide basic guidance on the necessary forms and timelines as part of my comprehensive packages. For families in need of more extensive guidance, I offer three options to provide you with in-depth understanding of the financial aid process and your expected costs, detailed financial comparison of various colleges and expected scholarship dollars tailored to your specific situation, and much more. I'm happy to work with your family to make college a rewarding and affordable experience!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Legal Housekeeping for College Students & Their Families

There's a lot to think about when your kid goes off to college. In the scramble to take care of the big things -- packing, shopping for dorm decor, negotiating travel logistics, trying not to have a nervous breakdown -- it's easy to forget some of the less exciting but nonetheless essential signing advanced health care directives.

When kids turn 18, they are legal adults, which means that parents lose the legal authority to make decisions for them. You won't legally be able to access their medical, academic or financial information or represent them in these areas. Should the student have an accident or become otherwise incapacitated, you won't be able to act on their behalf unless documentation is in place. You may not be even be able to get information from hospitals about their condition in the event of an emergency.

You'll need the following to be able to continue to assist your kid with regard to medical and financial information and decisions: 

Durable Power of Attorney
This document will able you to act of behalf of your adult child in legal and financial matters without them losing any ability to act on their own. It gives you the ability to do things such as pay bills, apply for loans, and access or transfer funds, which can be useful if your child is studying abroad, sick or injured, or just overwhelmed with school work and in need of some help managing his/her affairs. This document can be drafted to become effective immediately upon signing and can be revoked at any time, as long as the adult child isn't under a disability. 

Advanced Health Care Directive
If your adult child has an accident or other health emergency and is incapacitated, this document gives you the authority to make decisions on their behalf. It can also include information about the child's wishes regarding organ donation and end of life decisions. A HIPAA waiver will give you access to your child's medical records so you are able to make informed decisions regarding care. 

You might also consider as a separate document an Advanced Directive for mental health care, which would enable you to make decisions and direct care for your child should they experience a mental disability and need you to represent them. 

FERPA Release 
Parents are sometimes surprised to learn that they are not able to speak to colleges to discuss their adult child's grades and academic progress. A FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) form must be signed for you to access records and talk to colleges about your child. The forms may be requested from colleges. 

While most families see the benefit of advanced health care directives and durable powers of attorney, the FERPA release can be tricky. Should students have privacy regarding their academic records and progress? Is it healthy/valuable for parents to monitor adult children in this way? At what point do students become responsible for their own educations? 

While we all hope there will never be a need to intervene in a medical or legal situation on behalf of our children, for many families, knowing that you do have the ability to make decisions and direct care in an emergency is comforting. Clearly, whether or not to create these documents is a decision that should be made only after clear discussion and agreement between parents and adult children. For young adults, privacy is often a sticky subject, and it may be difficult for them to see the benefit of what may, on the surface, look like intrusion into their new adulthood. 

Regardless of what you and your child decide, this is a worthwhile conversation about issues that all responsible adults should address. None of us can predict the future, and thorny situations and emergencies unfortunately do arise. Investing a small amount of time and energy now can enable you to contribute to your child's well being in critical times, and by negotiating and navigating the process, they'll take another small step on their path to becoming a grown up.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

SAT or ACT: Which is Best for Me?

Many college and universities require applicants to take the SAT or ACT (for a list of those that don’t or are test-optional, check out Fairtest). All colleges that require a standardized test will accept either the SAT or ACT. There is no need to take both!

Until recently, there were significant differences between the two tests. The SAT, introduced in the 1920s, was a “reasoning” test designed to assess “college readiness”, not what students learned in school, while the ACT was aligned with high school curricula. In 2016, the SAT changed its purpose and format and is now much more like the ACT. However, there are still differences that may make one test preferable for students. Here are some things to consider:

Overall Testing Experience
The SAT is a “slower” test, giving you considerably more time per problem than the ACT does. If you like to pace yourself and take your time with each question, the SAT will probably be better for you. If you can move through problems quickly and with good focus, the ACT will suit you.

  • How quickly can you read with a high level of accuracy and comprehension? The ACT is a fast test and is text-heavy, so students who read more slowly will probably do better on the SAT.

Science Reasoning
  • The ACT has a science section, while the SAT doesn’t. The ACT science section tests critical thinking ability rather than specific science knowledge, and requires students to read accurately and with strong comprehension at a fast pace.

  • Both tests cover arithmetic, Algebra I & II, Geometry and Trigonometry. The SAT also covers Data Analysis.
  • The SAT has math sections where you may not use a calculator. If you need a calculator for math, the ACT is a better choice.
  • On the ACT, all questions are multiple choice. The SAT has 13 “fill in the blank” questions as well as multiple choice.

  • The SAT writing section tests comprehension of a source text; it requires you to come up with an argument and support it.  The ACT writing section, on the other hand, tests your ability to analyze and evaluate complex issues; it gives you an argument and asks you to evaluate it.

The easiest way to determine which test is best for you is to take full-length practice tests. You’ll get the most useful insights if you take the tests under realistic testing conditions. Many test prep companies offer proctored practice tests free of charge. You can also use practice tests from the Official SAT Study Guide and the Official ACT Prep Guide.

Remember, standardized tests are just one piece of your college application. Do your best, but don’t stress. If your college list is well-balanced and includes schools that are great fits for you, you’re sure to be accepted to the colleges where you will thrive.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Staying Safe at College: Simple Ways to Be Prepared & Protected

Kids have many things on their minds when they head off to college, from what classes to take to how to decorate their dorm rooms. In all the excitement, it can be easy to overlook one of the most important aspects of being a college student: Safety. While college campuses might seem like special worlds where real life is far away, they aren't exempt from emergencies and natural disasters. Students can also face dangerous situations in their personal lives both on and off campus. While you don't want to spend your college years worrying about the worst that can happen, it's just smart to be well prepared.

All campuses have plans in place to respond efficiently and protect students in the event of an emergency. Pay close attention when emergency preparedness comes up in orientations (especially if you are attending college in a part of the country whose potential natural hazards are unfamiliar to you--Californians, for example, know how to respond in an earthquake, but may be clueless about tornadoes). If you need a refresher, find the campus safety page on your college's website and check it out. The Office of Emergency Management page at UC Berkeley is a great example of the kinds of information you should be looking for. Be sure to sign up for text and email alerts so you (and your parents) can receive immediate information about emergency situations on campus; these notifications have proven vital in many recent campus incidents. Some colleges may also have a "crisis management" app that can assist students with information and instructions during an emergency.

What else should you do to protect your safety at college?

  • Trust your instincts & take care of yourself. Sometimes the most important things you can do to stay safe are listening to your gut and doing what it takes to protect yourself. If the little voice inside your head says, "I don't know if I should" or "This doesn't feel right"...listen. Don't be afraid to ask for help or walk away when you need to. Taking care of yourself is part of being a responsible adult. 
  • Use campus escort services and shuttles when out and about at night. Find out how to contact transportation and escort services and keep this info on your phone. Many colleges offer door-to-door service throughout the night, and some also provide students with transportation via services like Uber and Lyft.
  • Memorize the phone numbers of key people. Thanks to "intelligent assistants" and cell phone contact banks, many people don't even know their parents' phone numbers, let alone their friends'. Commit the numbers of some key people to memory in case you lose or are separated from your phone and need to contact someone for help.
  • Consider using a personal safety app like Companion. It lets you enter a destination and enable friends and family to check in on you as you travel. You can alert your companions if you're feeling unsafe and also call 911 with a single tap. 
  • If you choose to drink at parties and social events, have a designated "sober friend". The vast majority of sexual assaults, medical emergencies and accidents on college campuses happen in situations where there is alcohol and drug use. Discuss in advance what constitutes a dangerous situation and then take turns looking out for each other. When you are the "sober friend", don't hesitate to call for help if you feel anyone is in danger. You could be saving someone's life. 
  • Know your limits. It is easier than you'd think to overdose on drugs and alcohol, and consuming to the point of impairment also makes you far more vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. Know when to quit. Also be sure to watch your drinks. Never leave a drink unattended or drink something that you didn't pour or watch being poured yourself. Incidents of drinks being spiked with drugs are not uncommon at college parties.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. When you go into a restaurant, party or concert, it only takes a few seconds to locate your closest exits in case you need to leave quickly during an emergency. If you sense that something isn't right or someone seems out of place, don't hesitate to leave. Never stay at a party or event where you can't find clearly marked and easily accessible exits.
  • Lock your doors. In dorm or co-op situations where you feel comfortable with your fellow students and have the added security of locked main doors and even security guards, you may feel like it's safe to leave your door unlocked at night. It isn't. Non-residents can and do access dorms. Your neighbors might also not be as trustworthy as you think. Always lock your door when you leave your room (even if you're just going to the bathroom down the hall) and never go to sleep without locking up. 
It can be difficult (if not impossible) to prevent or predict dangerous or threatening situations, and you can't go through life constantly looking over your shoulder or worrying about what-ifs. But it's easy to be prepared and maximize your safety both on and off campus. The added peace of mind and sense of personal responsibility that comes from taking care of yourself will make your college experience even more rewarding and enjoyable. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

More Changes to the SAT

Just when we think the dust is settling around the new SAT, more changes come our way. Fortunately, the latest changes bring good news! While I'm still not a big fan of standardized testing, I think these developments will benefit kids and families and make what can be a "necessary evil" of the college admissions process a bit less stressful.

Added Test Dates

It might not seem significant, but the addition of a late August test date is something to smile about. In the past, the first time the SAT has been offered during the school year is early October (the last test administration each year is in June--no testing over the summer). For the 2017-18 school year, College Board is adding a test date of August 26.

This addition is important for a few reasons. First, it gives students a chance to take the test before (or shortly after) the start of school, when workload hasn't kicked into high gear yet. Kids can prep over the summer and take the test right after, without worrying about losing the knowledge they gained or struggle with trying to balance homework and test prep before the October test. Second, for those who plan to applying to colleges using Early Action or Early Decision, they now have an additional chance to take either the main SAT or SAT subject tests and have their scores arrive in time for the November 1 or November 15 deadlines, which was always hit or miss with the October test date.

Want to plan your testing schedule? Check out the test and registration dates for 2017-18 below.

Test Date
Normal Registration
Aug 26, 2017
Jul 28, 2017
Oct 7, 2017
Sep 8, 2017
Nov 4, 2017
Oct 6, 2017
Dec 2, 2017
Nov 3, 2017
Mar 10, 2018
Feb 9, 2018
May 5, 2018
Apr 6, 2018
Jun 2, 2018
May 4, 2018

Changes to Accommodations

It's sometimes been difficult for students with learning differences or special needs to get accommodations for the SAT; at best it involved a long and complicated process that was a challenge for many families and school counselors to navigate. The College Board has announced that, as of January 1, 2017, they are making changes to the accommodations process, creating a streamlined process that allows for automatic approval of accommodations in more situations.

From the College Board press release: "The vast majority of students who are approved for and using testing accommodations at their school through a current Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan will have those same accommodations automatically approved for taking the SAT®, PSAT10, PSAT/NMSQT®, SAT Subject Tests, and AP®Exams. Most private school students with a current, formal school-based plan that meets College Board criteria will also have their current accommodations automatically approved for College Board exams."

To learn more about the recent changes and how the benefit students, visit the College Board website.  

Find Your Best Fit Colleges: Research, Research, Research!

With over 3,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, students today have an almost overwhelming number of higher education choices to consider. When you first begin thinking about which schools might be good matches for your needs and goals, the possibilities might seem overwhelming. But if you develop a plan before you launch your research, you can minimize stress and keep your college search sane.

It's easier than ever to access information about colleges. Official websites, guidebooks, and online college resources like College NavigatorUnigo and Cappex offer many ways to learn about potential schools and explore whether they might be good fits for you.

If you have a list of things your future college must (or must not) have, such as a particular major or extracurricular, location or size) it can facilitate your search to use a search engine that will narrow down possibilities based on your criteria. The old standby, CollegeBoard, can be a good place to start.

Once you have this initial list, however, and you've narrowed it down to around 15 schools, your research should be anything but quick. It takes time and effort to learn about what a college has to offer, and even more time to reflect and assess thoroughly whether it is a place where you will thrive. As with most aspects of the college admissions process, be prepared for this step to take time--a LOT of time. Don't cut corners here, and you'll likely end up saving yourself time later on.

Your goal is to find 8-10 schools that will make your final applications list; 3 safety schools, 3-4 target schools, and 2-3 dream schools is a good mix. If possible, try to visit these campuses when school is in session to sit in on classes, check out the dorms and dining hall, and experience the unique atmosphere of each.

Be open-minded and thorough in your college search and take full advantage of the available resources in your research. It will pay off when you discover the college of your dreams.

Need suggestions about what to look for as you research? Check out these guidelines