Weighing The Cost Of Getting Into Your Top Choice School

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Emily Soto works on her college applications with Joe Maurer, a counselor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged students get into college. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Emily Soto works on her college applications with Joe Maurer, a counselor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged students get into college. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Many high school seniors will breathe a sigh of relief after pushing the "send" button on their Common Application for college on Wednesday. The so-called Common App is accepted by more than 400 colleges and universities. Wednesday's deadline is for early decision and early action applications, for those hoping to get a jump on figuring out which school they can attend and afford.

Starting The Process

Seventeen-year-old Emily Soto sits in her living room with her dark brown hair tightly pulled back in a pony tail. She’s wearing a suit jacket and dress pants because earlier in the day she had an interview at Brandeis University, one of her top choice schools. Soto's parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic the year before she was born. Now she’s a senior at the Edward Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in Boston.

"I have good, solid GPA, you know, 3.5. My SATs, I'm taking them over again. I'm not too much of a big test taker," Soto said.

Even though she’s at a health-focused charter school, she wants to study nonprofit business management in college. She's applying to 10 colleges, including four state schools. Even though she thinks she can get a full scholarship to a state school, she wants to see what private schools offer her so she can weigh her choices.

"The ones that I’m really concerned with is just [Boston University] and Brandeis, Providence College, which are my main three. With Emmanuel, Wheelock and Simmons, I’m just on the edge of if I might get accepted or not. But it’s more about financial aid with those schools," Soto explained.

And money is critical in Soto's decision making. Her father works for a cleaning company, her mother is unemployed. They live in public housing in Roslindale and use food stamps. They have not been able to save for college.

Soto has been working on her applications since early summer. Every few weeks since June, she’s been meeting with Joe Maurer, a counselor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged students go to college.

"So right now we’re editing the activities section of the Common App," Maurer explained. "It's where students have 10 spots to tell colleges about every club, sport, work experience, volunteer experience and significant family responsibility they’ve had in the past four years."

Soto takes her extracurricular activities very seriously. She had to pick from 18 for the application. She was president of her school's branch of the National Honor Society and she started a club to raise money and awareness about teen dating violence.

Soto has several people advising her in this process, including her guidance counselor. They've all encouraged her to finish her applications early because that's when schools start keeping track of students who need financial aid.

"Because the early deadlines sometimes end up being the only deadlines for kids, there are pools of money that run out that if you didn’t get in early," said Bob Giannino-Racine, head of uAspire, a nonprofit that helps students figure out how to pay for college. "You miss out and then there’s no money left."

Closing The Gap 

Soto will need a lot of grants, scholarships and loans to attend college.

"I know that I’m going to get the aid that I need because of my situation. But at the same time I know that there’s an EFC — an expected family contribution — and we can take out loans and stuff but it’s kind of concerning to see the amount that we’re going to have to contribute," Soto said. "That’s probably the concern: Are we going to be able to pay that price?"

Soto has been told their expected family contribution might be as high as $8,000 a year.

"And it’s like, where are we going to get $8,000 from?" she said.

Her family would have trouble covering $2,000 a year, Soto says.

Giannino-Racine, of uAspire, says that's common. Colleges often ask families for a high contribution even when the federal government’s assessment is that the family can’t afford to pay anything.

"We see a broad range of gaps that are left for students across the board, and unfortunately fewer and fewer schools where that gap is manageable," Giannino-Racine said.

Soto has also discovered aid packages might not cover the full four years.

"The funny thing is, the schools won’t highlight it, but my college adviser and my guidance counselor and people who have seen the financial aid packages will tell you straight up they do not meet your full need the second and third year of college," Soto said. "So these are people who have seen students come back and say, 'I have to stop going to school because I can’t afford my second year.' "

Being a savvy consumer is something that will serve Soto well when she has to weigh her college acceptances with financial aid offers.

This whole process is new for her family. Neither of Soto's parents nor any close relatives went to college. She's an example for her two younger siblings.

The Money Factor

After a college interview and part-time shift at a paper store, Soto relaxes with her mother by watching a telenovela in Spanish. Ingrid Vittini, Soto's mother, says while she’s worried about the finances, she wants her daughter to go to her top choice school.

But Soto's mom says she'd prefer a school that has a complete financial aid package so the family wouldn’t have to stress about the money.

At this point, as Emily Soto meets her first college application deadline, the money is a factor, but it's not the deciding factor. It will become more and more important as she moves through the college decision making process.

We’ll continue to follow Emily Soto’s story as she struggles to complete the many forms required to apply for and receive financial aid.

This program aired on November 21, 2012.


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