Financial Aid and Scholarships
                            (A Tutorial for Parents and Students)

                                          November-December Black Excel Newsletter

Starting with the July-August edition of the Black Excel Newsletter we began a new series of  Q & A's on our counseling ideas/strategies that have helped students get into an "honor roll" of colleges and universities across the US. This Nov.-Dec. edition of the Black Excel Newsletter
will continue our series of helpful Q & A counseling.

We are hopeful that these "special" editions will be circulated to our students, parents, mentors, and educators as an ongoing counseling tool.    -Isaac Black, Founder Black Excel: The College Help Network (

                        Financial Aid and Scholarships
                   (A Tutorial for Parents and Students)

Question: How Do You Get the "Best" College Aid Package? What should your strategy be?"

Black Excel Founder:

First, you MUSTget and fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Students Aid)  form. That's pivotal. The data you put on that form is generally the key to how much a student and parent will pay for college. That form, then, is your major hurdle. There are other issues that come into play (I will discuss them below) but that form, for most, is our waterloo or bottom line.  Why?  Because an evaluation of that form tells colleges what you (theoretically) can pay.  That estimated total is called the EXPECTED FAMILY CONTRIBUTION or EFC.  That estimation does the damage. That estimation is sent to all the colleges you apply to, and is their guide.  If the final EFC says you can pay $2,000, $5,000, $10,000, or more, that's your nightmare.  That's what your college financial aid officer will be looking at and trying to use as his or her guide.  You following?  So if that estimation is $2,000 per year, for example, the aid officer will look at that total and try to make you pay approx. $2,000, or stay in that range. That estimated "can pay" figure will be a major obstacle.
What the FAFSA says is all-important.

Question: Besides the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and FAFSA, what else is important to us?


Well, be very aware of this---that the majority of students who
go to college get their "deal" after submitting that FAFSA
form. This form determines your eligibility for PELL Federal
Grants, Stafford Loans, Work-study, and for most of the state
aid that is awarded to students across the nation.  Simply put,
the FAFSA is a filing must for us.  If you are a low-income family,
the Pell Grant is crucial.  It you get that grant (maximum per year
$4,500) with other expected giveaways (a college grant,
state money, and a loan or two), you are on your way.  Tip:
get the FAFSA done as soon after January 1 as you can,
each year.

Question: How do we get a LOWER estimated EFC?

Well, the FAFSA or EFC estimate is based on data that is taken from a student's and parent's last Federal Income Tax filing. From the tax form you must report savings and other "assets" (stocks and bonds, for example).  To say the least, it's better to be poorer, if you legally can be.  Indeed, there are books that tell you how to shelter money in regard to the need-analysis process.  Generally, most of us don't have money to shelter (sadly), but there are some strategies that you should consider.  Here are a couple:

  • You will be better off if any savings/cash is in the parents' account and not that of the child. Colleges love to see a student with large savings.  That money will factor into "the aid package," hurting you. So, shift that money to the parent. Be aware that the govenment/college will take 35 percent of a student's assets, but only 5.6 percent from a parent's savings. Save that balance!
  • Too many of us discover the FAFSA form at the last minute, and that's often too late to do anything. Legally, you can "ready" your tax returns.  For example, I've known teachers who decide to not do overtime (after school or summer work) to minimize their yearly gross income. Also, some people shift income into retirement/  pension plans, reducing their income. Some calculate that it's to their advantage financially to legally reduce income and gain a better aid package for their student/family.

Question: What other ways can you save tuition money?

Often students and parents don't take a close look at their college and university selections.  I've always said that you should apply to a wide range of schools, including many with
"best buy" or "bargain" price tags.  After you get accepts
from you pool of schools, then you decide what school to pick, based on all factors.  A question?  If you were looking for a car and a dealer presented a model for $25,000 and another for $10,000 and they were almost identical, which model would you drive off the lot? Well, oftentimes we get this same situation in regard to colleges.  Why pay double and triple the amount of money for one college, when a few miles away there's another school that's its equal in prestige, environment, academics, and so forth? Often we are picking schools without any rhyme or reason, without making sound comparisons. Of course, cheaper schools are not necessarily the better choices. In fact, some schools with higher price tags will (and can) offer you better aid and tuition packages.  My point is that you must do your homework.  Keep in mind, too, that "great students" will get good packages no matter what a published price tag says. The key is to apply across the board and then look at your aid packages after your accepts.  Make your pick after intelligent review of all the factors that are important to you. Read on.

Question: If your child were accepted to Harvard or Spelman, would you be willing to pay a higher tuition?

Yes, is my answer. You must analyze your accepts.  Also, a key question is, "What can I afford to spend?"  To me, it's always wise to take a close look at schools that have a track record of delivering "the goods" for their graduates--that is, great careers and eventual success, one way or another. Of course, I've seen students excel from institutions of all levels and reputations.  I could site a list of such achievers from less known schools a mile long.  Without question, you must look at your options.  A person- al aside?  When my daughter received her acceptances, there was a wide range of aid packages, ranging from free tuition to higher amounts due.  We selected a school with a "rep" and an acceptable money deal over better out-of-pocket deals.  It was a strategic decision.  My daughter eventually earned her MD. My son was an inspiring artist/animator and was accepted to several top colleges for artists.  Again, the aid packages varied with regard to out-of-pocket money due.  We opted for a strong Bachelor of Fine Arts program at a fine public, state university. The cost was a third of the tuition at a couple  more famous schools.  My son graduated, worked on TV commercials and has already won a few awards for his work.  The point is that this is like a chess game (picking your money option).  Needless to say, your pocketbook could be a major factor.  If you can get a comparable education (and results) for less money, why pay two or three times more?

Question: What about scholarships?  What should we
know?  What's the first step?

Generally, our folks have no clue about how scholarships work. We are misinformed.  Maybe 90% of the time a parent/student
will contact me after they get an acceptance letter and aid package in April.  Sadly, they think there is some magic answer to getting a scholarship and relief. The real deal? It takes months to plan and apply successfully for private scholarships.  You're entering competitions!  You should be creating your target lists during your high schools year with an "attack" plan.  The kind of effort you put into finding a college and applying is what's also necessary to "get the money."  Keep reading.

Question: What's the "scholarship" equation and answers? What should we know and do?

A majority of the time, students "get the money" when they are accepted to a specific college.  The aid package will usually
include 1) a Federal Pell grant (that's free if you're eligible), 2) Scholarships/Grants (free money amounts decided by the college), 3) State Grants/Awards (free money for instate  tudents), 4) Loans (a variety of them that must be paid back), and 5) Work Study (extra money that you must do work for).  The grants and scholarships are jackpots and are free. That's where most the of the save-you-money help will come from.  Louder? Most students are getting most of their free money from the colleges where they are accepted and will attend.  That's the pivotal battleground.  Read on.

Question: But what about those private scholarships
we all want and hope for?  Are they there?  Don't they

Again, most of your free money will come from the specific colleges where you are accepted (and enroll) and the federal
government.  That's why selecting the right college, filling out the aid forms (the FAFSA, for example) and being a good student is all-important.  Free money is factored into the process.  The statistics?  One source says that private scholarships (not from the colleges and the government) only accounts for 1% of the free money.  Another top expert says those private scholarships only account for about 4% of the money we can win.  If these totals are in the correct range, that means that the largest percentage of students across the country (96%?) will get "free money" based on the good will of their colleges and the government.  That's what we generally don't understand.

Do students apply for and win private scholarships?  Yes, they do. Do they pay off? Yes, most certainly? That's why we encourage students to apply for these scholarships and tell them how to search for them and "win the money."  It's not easy, but it can be done, especially if you are a strong student with the necessary "extras" that make you stand out.

But here is the bad news. Those private scholarship awards are generally treated like extra income by the colleges. Here's a real example of what happens.  A student who was accepted to a major college called me and said, "Mom and I got our financial aid package, and we only have to pay $3,000."  They were overjoyed.  A few days later the student was notified by an outside organization that she'd won a scholarship in the amount of $3,000.  The school (based on a typical formula colleges use) immediately readjusted their original aid package offer, reducing the prior "gift" by $3,000.  In the end, the family/student still owed $3,000. It's important to understand how this works. Usually when you win extra money the colleges simply reduce what they had intended to give you--that is, that extra grant money or loan, depending on the college.  As one experts says, "If you find other money, the school is going to reassess your need and make you a lower offer." That's the truth.

The good news?  By winning a scholarship you can reduce the amount of your loans (your future debt). Indeed, if you win several scholarships ,or one very large one, you can substantially change your overall financial situation with regard to loans (debt) or out-of- pocket tuition expenses.  You can "beat" the formula, (or greatly improve your cash drain), by applying for and winning these scholarships year by year and then getting the usual scholarship renewals.  Needless to say, better students who are vigilant do "work the system" and often get sizable dollar relief.  Still, unfortunately, there is usually no quick fix to bail us out in the twilight hour.  You must strategize, and do your homework.

Help Note:

In the Black Excel African American Student's College Guide (John Wiley & Sons), which I wrote, I lay out the aid and scholarship "rules" in a more comprehensive way. The guide was written to enlighten, inspire, and rally our aspiring college students and parents.  It's a counseling tutorial, A to Z, about everything you need to know.  It's available at, and at major bookstores (if it's sold out, order it  using ISBN 0-471-28552-3).

The Guide is also a featured book at the Black Expressions
Book Club ( Go to the
"Reference" or "Culture and Heritage" sections.

In the next edition of the Newsletter I will talk about "College Loans, Debt, and Money Savers."  The overall theme of all these newsletters will be to give you info on how to present your child/student to "Best Advantage" during the admissions process and beyond.

Bio of Isaac Black

Isaac Black is the Founder of Black Excel: The College Help
Network ( He is also the author of the
Black Excel African American Student's College Guide
(see above).  Isaac has been a keynote speaker for the
College Board (NYC), and has lectured at college fairs, high
schools, and colleges and universities, including Howard
(for the Urban League) and Harvard.

Over 500 colleges and a larger number of cultural and
other organizations, post Back Excel resource materials
at their websites.

Our 100 Minority Scholarship Gateway List is at

Newsletter by Isaac Black, Founder
Black Excel: The College Help Network


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