Right now, thousands of families are finding college acceptance letters and financial assistance offers in their mailboxes. Seven years ago, I applied to several schools and was accepted at all of them. The full-price tuitions at those schools ranged from $4,000 per semester to over $17,000 per semester. However, all the schools offered various financial assistance packages that reduced the tuition rates by a little or a lot. At the time, I compared the bottom line (tuition minus assistance) to determine how much each school would cost me. But I made a big mistake in not comparing what kinds of assistance they were offering.
The biggest mistake I made was in assuming that merit scholarships were guaranteed. One school offered me a $4,000 per year merit scholarship and I ended up accepting their offer. In high school I was a straight-A student with no academic worries. I did not anticipate the academic struggles I would face when I was competing with the country’s smartest students. Lots of students were their high school valedictorians (I wasn’t). In classes where my grade was determined by my rank in the class rather than the average of my scores, I was at the bottom of the heap. My GPA slipped so low I no longer qualified for the merit scholarship. In addition, the scholarship stipulated that you could not re-gain the scholarship if you later improved. My freshman year struggles cost me $16,000 over 4 years, even though I recovered and graduated with a good GPA.
So, if you are comparing offers, beware of merit-based scholarship offers. Even the best students struggle with the transition to college. Be sure you understand the requirements for the scholarship and be aware of any risks involved so you can make a realistic comparison between financial packages.