‘Keep an Open Mind’: Edmit Speaks with David Sheridan, Director of Financial Aid at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

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“The whole college application process creates anxiety,” says David Sheridan, director of financial aid at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. In addition to his work at Columbia, Sheridan regularly visits local high schools in New Jersey, where he lives, to advise parents on the college financial aid process. “I tell parents paying for college is the intersection of the two things that might be the most important things in the world to you,” he says, “your kid and your money.”


Edmit recently spoke with Sheridan about how parents and students can tackle the college decision process.


Edmit: What are some key steps families can take to ensure they’re making a well-informed college decision—and not taking on too much debt?  


Sheridan: People need to learn their options. I’ve seen a lot of people very determined to be focused on the name-brand school of the kid’s dreams, and sometimes—for a number of reasons, price only being one of them--it might not be the best option. I try to impress upon families—and I think guidance counselors do this as well—to keep a very open mind.


The real key is planning well in advance, that’s easier for some families than for others. Take advantage of the information that’s out there, make sure you’re getting it from reliable sources, and take every opportunity you might have to visit colleges and learn a little more about the fit as well as the affordability. When college representatives are visiting a high school, students should make every effort to go speak to them and see what they have to say, what they can learn about schools that might be of interest to them, and how to prepare for the application and four years of paying for college.


One of my jobs previously was at a community college, where I oversaw both admissions and financial aid. We used to tell people “nobody’s bachelor’s degree has an asterisk next to it because they started at a community college.” If cost is a concern, if uncertainty about what the kid wants to study is a concern, the local community college might be a good solution for those first two years.


I’ve often told people the world is full of happy successful people who did not go to a school that’s in top 10 of US News and World Report’s rankings. It’s not about impressing your friends, it’s about finding a good and affordable fit for you.


Edmit: You’ve worked in financial aid at Columbia and several other schools. How can students and parents get a better sense of what they’ll be expected to pay—and find out about which types of financial aid are available specifically at the schools that interest them?


Sheridan: Each individual school provides information on their website about their costs. The college publishes a cost of attendance; people have to look at that and understand what goes into it. It’s an estimate, it might be a typical cost, you’d have to ask the college if there are circumstances under which a student may pay more. For instance, especially at a public college, there’s a good chance that tuition is paid on a per-credit basis. What they might publish is the cost of 12 credits or 15 credits--but some students might get ambitious and take 18 credits. That’s going to cost more.


There might be different dorms and meal plans at a college, what they’re publishing as the estimated cost of attendance might be an average or most popular meal plan or a typical dorm with two students in a room. What if you want a more expensive meal plan or a single room? That might cost more money.


People need to keep in mind transportation costs. If a student is going to have to fly back and forth between school and home a couple of times a year, that has to be factored in. If they’re going to be attending school somewhere in a different climate, that has to be factored in. My daughter went to school in central Ohio, and she had a classmate from Hawaii who had to buy a lot of winter clothes when they started school.

One of the most basic things that people overlook is [college is] a four-year commitment, and chances are whatever the school is publishing as the costs right now, it’s probably going to go up a little bit each year. People need to factor that in as well: See if they can find out what a typical increase has been in recent years, if the school can say you can count on a 3- or 4 percent increase in tuition costs each year.


The financial aid office is usually your best first stop for learning about what’s available through the university. If there are scholarships that initiate in an academic department, maybe the physics department has some scholarships they can award to students, usually the financial aid office has that information and can help the student understand what’s available to them.


Edmit: What else should parents and students keep in mind when it comes to paying for college?

Sheridan:  Some of the high schools I visit invite junior and even sophomore parents to [my] presentation, which I think is a great idea because the earlier you start getting a handle on what you need to do and what you need to look for, the better. When it comes to outside scholarships, things that you might find on Fastweb.com, scholarships from private organizations, churches, fraternal organizations, professional associations, the local Lions club, I tell people even if your kid’s a junior in high school, it’s not too early to start looking for those. Stick to the sites where there’s no fee because on sites such as Fastweb or Scholarships.com, there’s a lot of information out there that nobody has to pay for. Save the money for when you’re going to need it.


I also try to make sure people understand there’s never any harm in applying. At some of these high school presentations, at the end, somebody will walk up to me and say “I was talking to my next-door neighbor’s brother-in-law, who told me that since I make $80,000 a year I shouldn’t even bother applying [for financial aid]. Is that true?” There is no circumstance under which it’s not worth applying.


Even if a family is not financially needy, they should fill out the FAFSA, the CSS/PROFILE if the school requires it, because at some schools reviewing those forms is still part of the process, even for merit-based scholarships. You have nothing to lose by applying, just fill out the forms. The worst-case scenario is they tell you, “OK, well your kid can get a student loan”, and they may or may not want that, but there’s the very real possibility that if [you think] you’re not going to qualify for anything, so you don’t bother applying, you might be missing out on something that you could have received.


Never assume that you don’t qualify. Believe it or not, I have seen people pleasantly surprised by the amount of financial aid they receive. I have seen people who wind up qualifying for more aid than they think they might, so just apply and see what happens.  


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