The Appeal of Large Public Universities – Part 2

IMG_14532Opportunity – That’s one thing that large public universities can offer.

Last week, I wrote about the “cost” appeal of large public universities.  This week, I am focusing on the tremendous opportunities they can provide.

Opportunities Offered by Large Public Universities

  1. Majors/fields of study
  2. Student Organizations
  3. Research Opportunities
  4. Sports
  5. Cultural Diversity

University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC), which I recently visited with my middle daughter, offers over 150 majors.  That seems insane when compared with colleges with 5,000 or fewer students that typically offer less than 100 majors.  For the student who isn’t sure what to study, this can be a definite plus – more to choose from, more to try out, and definitely less risk of deciding you want to study something that isn’t even offered at your school.  There are over 1,000 registered student organizations to participate in.  At small schools, there are usually less than 100 student organizations.

Opportunities go beyond just majors and student organizations.  At many large public universities, research is a major focus.  Undergraduates can find great opportunities to get involved in fascinating research studies, both as participants and as assistants.

Don’t forget about the sports.  In addition to massive football stadiums and basketball arenas filled with screaming fans (think Big Ten or other major conference), large public universities offer a wide variety of intramural and club sports that any students can get involved in.  Most also offer state-of-the-art workout facilities.

Cultural diversity is also prevalent at large public universities.  Back to my UIUC example – it is the #3 university in the United States for international students.  It attracts students from all over the world.

Think of a large public university as a microcosm representing a large metropolitan area.  These campuses really are like their own cities offering everything a student would need either right on campus or close by, including restaurant and shopping options.  A student population of 20,000 or more attracts many more businesses in the surrounding area than a student population of 5,000 or fewer.

Are large public universities for everyone?  Of course not.  Some students will be much more comfortable in a smaller environment.  My advice to parents is just don’t assume that your child won’t be interested in one.  You might be surprised.  The first wave of college visits should include visiting campuses of all different sizes to help your student narrow down what feels most comfortable to him or her.  Find out if size is going to be a deciding factor or if your student is fine with schools of all different sizes.

The cost/value and opportunity at large public universities may be appealing enough to keep them on your student’s college list.



College Search

The Appeal of Large Public Universities – Part One

Football GameBack when I was looking at colleges, I never would have considered any large public universities.  I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Wisconsin Badgers are king, had been around the campus of UW-Madison several times, and my mother spoke very highly of her alma mater.  But I didn’t even consider it.  I didn’t want to be a face in the crowd.  I was convinced that small to medium-sized private colleges were the only ones for me.

When I started the college search with my oldest daughter and saw how well regarded both UW-Madison and our home-state flagship University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC) were, I started reconsidering large public universities.  However, there was no selling my oldest daughter on even visiting UIUC – not from me,  her teachers, or her friends.  Like me, she was looking for a small to medium-sized private college.

The first thing I find potentially appealing about large public universities is the cost.  In many cases, the only appealing cost option will be your in-state options.  Unless, of course, your state has good reciprocity agreements with other states.  This is demonstrated in my example below.

My middle daughter has been a Badger fan ever since she was little.  She has often talked about going to UW-Madison.  When I dug into the cost difference between UW-Madison and UIUC, I said, “No way.  You are going to have to learn to like the Illini.”  Illinois does not have a true reciprocity program with another state for students to go out of state at reduced tuition.  There are some agreements with smaller Wisconsin campuses for reduced out-of-state tuition, but nothing like Minnesota and Wisconsin’s reciprocity agreement.  Minnesota students can attend UW-Madison at 25% above the in-state tuition cost.  Illinois students (and other non-residents) pay 2.5 times the in-state tuition rate!

UW-Madison Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • WI Resident – $19,010
  • MN Resident – $21,796
  • Other State Residents – $35,260

U of I Urbana Champaign Base Yearly Tuition Plus Room & Board:

  • Illinois Resident – $26,450
  • Other State Residents – $41,076

So this tells me that for my daughter to be a Badger, I’d have to be prepared to fork out an additional $9,000 per year, $36,000 total assuming she graduates in four years.  Would it be worth it?  I’d have to say, No Way.  The schools are neck and neck in most college rankings, including US News and Forbes.  Money Magazine ranks UIUC a slightly better value for your money.

Do I think it is unfair that as a resident of Illinois, I pay $7,400 more per year for my child to attend my state flagship school than if I was a Wisconsin state resident paying for the Wisconsin state flagship university?  Of course I do, but I am told I pay less in state tax and property tax so I guess it all evens out.

Here’s where the value proposition really comes in.  The sticker price of UIUC is less than or equal to the net price I would pay at many private colleges IF my child gets a major merit scholarship.  And Illinois is a high-priced school.  Many states have much lower in-state costs that make the large public option more appealing than private college options.

As a parent, can I count on my child receiving a large merit scholarship at a private college?  Well, no, not really.  I can work with my child to narrow down the college list to schools that offer merit scholarships that would put us in the right net price range, but unless the school offers guaranteed merit amounts based on GPA and ACT scores, it’s out of my hands.  It depends on how well she sells herself and what her competition looks like.

To me, the best thing about the cost of the in-state public university is, it’s a sure thing.  I don’t need to hope for merit scholarships, although if they offer some, that’s great.  I basically know the maximum I am going to pay up front.  Also, in the case of Illinois, and many other states, the tuition amount is guaranteed not to increase for four years of continuous enrollment.  Compare this to my oldest daughter’s private college where rates go up approximately 5% per year with no corresponding increase in merit aid!

So cost can be a major appeal of large public universities.  Next week, in part two, I will focus on why the size of large public universities can be appealing.

College Search

Are You Too Wealthy for Financial Aid?

1195437419219858921johnny_automatic_bag_of_money.svg.medHow do you know if you are too wealthy for financial aid?  The answer is, there’s no easy answer!  Generally speaking, most schools will not give need-based financial aid to families making $150,000 or more per year, but there are exceptions.  Princeton University, for example, is known to be the most generous ivy league school, is on the list of schools that meet 100% of an applicants need, and may give a small amount of aid even to families making over $200,000.

When information like this is shared, it is always based on having one child in college.  One important thing to keep in mind:  The more dependent children you have in college at the same time, the more financial aid you may qualify for.

Strictly speaking, if you have two kids in college at the same time and your expected family contribution for one child in college is around say $40,000, your expected contribution for each of the two kids will be around $20,000.  However, you may find that this doesn’t come into play at a school unless you make under a certain income amount that the school considers to be low enough for need-based aid.

In a prior post, Determining Your Eligibility for Need-Based Financial Aid, I talked about other variables besides the number of kids in college that go into financial aid determination and how to calculate your eligibility.  Make sure you estimate your general eligibility for financial aid through the FAFSA4caster and make sure you estimate your school-specific eligibility through Net Price Calculators.  Don’t just assume you’re too wealthy for financial aid across the board.

If you find that your family is unlikely to receive any need-based financial aid based on these calculations, there are other ways to save money on your student’s college education.  In another prior post, How High-Income Families Can Save Money on College, I listed some tips.

One other thing to note: Just because the net price calculator for a school doesn’t show any need-based aid does not mean that you definitely won’t receive any.  Sometimes, a school that admits your student will come up with a small amount of aid as an extra way to attract him or her to attend.  It may not be much, but every little bit helps!



Financial Aid

College Preparation Timelines – Is Your Student on Track?

ChecklistWondering whether you are on target for preparing your high school student for college?  There are some great college preparation timelines you can use as guides.

Here are some options to check out:

  1. adMission Possible – Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz has detailed college preparation timelines for freshman through senior year of high school.
  2. Petersons – There are separate college preparation timelines for students and parents
  3. Big Future – This site has parent action plans for each year of high school

Check with your high school counseling office to see if they have their own college preparation timelines for students to follow each year.

Once you have decided on a timeline to follow, make sure you have a way to track progress.  This could be a paper checklist, an Excel spreadsheet, online task management software, or a whiteboard.  It can be as high-tech or as low-tech as you want.  The important thing is having the tasks in front of you and your student and establishing deadlines for getting them done.

College preparation timelines give you a guideline for making sure your student is on track for college admissions.  Using them every year of high school will help you and your student avoid extra stress in the college preparation process.


The Lowdown on College Scholarships

1317230_29811116One of the topics I think perspective college students and their parents often misunderstand going into the college search is College Scholarships.  Misunderstandings usually lead families to believe one of two things – either assuming that they will get scholarships to make college more affordable or assuming they won’t qualify for any college scholarships.  Here are some facts to clear up the confusion:

  1. There are four basic kinds of college scholarships – merit-based, talent-based, need-based, and combined.  Merit-based scholarships are based primarily on GPA and ACT/SAT scores.  Talent-based scholarships are awarded to students with a particular talent, often things like athletic talent (Division 1 & 2 schools and a few other types offer athletic scholarships), musical talent (primarily for students planning to be music majors), artistic talent (primarily for students planning to be art majors), theatrical talent (primarily for students planning to be theater majors), and a few other odds and ends.  Need-based scholarships are based primarily on a student’s need for financial assistance to go to college.  These are usually based on the FAFSA or other reporting of your family financial picture that includes household income.  There are also some scholarships that look at a combination of factors, like merit, leadership and financial aid.  These are usually looking for “great students” who also have a large financial need.  I only separate this category out because there is a clear line between college scholarships with no financial need component and those with a financial need component.
  2. The largest source of college scholarships is from the colleges themselves.  Colleges usually offer all four types of scholarships mentioned above ad these vary from a few thousand dollars all the way up to full-ride scholarships.  Check the college websites for details.
  3. Not many students can hit the “jackpot” – Yes, there are full-ride scholarships out there and they aren’t all for athletes.  There are merit-based and need-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships, but they are out of reach for a majority of students.  That doesn’t mean they are impossible to find, though.  Once again, fact #2 applies.  My Full Scholarship List is a collection of merit-based full-ride scholarships and full-tuition scholarships offered at colleges around the country.  It is worth checking into if your student has a top GPA and high ACT/SAT score.
  4. Private scholarships, like the ones listed on sites like fastweb, and cappex are a crap shoot.  Private scholarships usually get thousands of applicants and your student has a very low probability of winning one.  It’s better to look into the next category.
  5. Local private scholarships can be a good source for small amounts of supplemental college money.  These aren’t listed on the big scholarship websites. Most high school counseling offices have a list of local college scholarships offered to their students.  These also tend to be written up in the local newspapers.  Clubs like Kiwanis, VFW, Rotary and others award scholarships to high school seniors in their community based on certain criteria.
  6. Colleges have rules when it comes to outside scholarship money.  Many schools limit the amount of outside scholarship money (private scholarships) that can be applied on top of the school’s own discounts.  In other words, a school might reduce the aid it is providing a student if a student is also coming in with scholarships from outside sources.  Make sure you understand the rules for college scholarships at your student’s chosen school.

College scholarships are a great way to make college more affordable.  Just be sure you understand the different types and what your student may be eligible for.  Talk to the colleges about your student’s chances at different types of merit and talent based scholarships.  Ask about their criteria for need-based scholarships to see if your family may qualify.  And when it comes to outside scholarships, make sure your student spends his or her time wisely, applying for those where he/she has a realistic chance at winning.

Paying for College, Scholarships

Don’t Break the Budget on ACT and SAT Prep Resources

Standardized TestACT and SAT prep resources can help your student be better prepared to take the tests and achieve higher scores.  Some of these resources run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars.  Does spending that much really result in a score increase that justifies the cost?  I have not seen any data that supports this.  I would argue that with enough time and discipline, your student can benefit just as much from low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources.

I have listed some great low-cost and free test prep resources below that I would encourage you to check out.  You can also see the full range of ACT resources out there in my spreadsheet, ACT Prep Resources.

Low-Cost ACT Prep Resources

  1. Books – There are some great guides available through Amazon or your local bookstore including The Real ACT Prep Guide, Barron’s ACT 36 and Cracking the ACT.
  2. Official ACT Online Prep Program – $24.95 for a year of access
  3. YouTube – Type “ACT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on ACT topics
  4. Free Online ACT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  5. Free Online ACT Prep Course through

Low-Cost SAT Prep Resources

  1. Books – Some of the best ones include The Official SAT Study Guide, Cracking the SAT, and Kaplan SAT.
  2. YouTube – Type “SAT Test Prep” in the search box and you can choose from many different videos on SAT topics
  3. Free Online SAT Practice Tests – Available through sites like PowerScore
  4. Free Online SAT Prep Course through

Are there others you have found?  If so, please leave a comment with the details so that other parents can benefit from these great low-cost ACT and SAT prep resources!

ACT/SAT Tests ,

Getting the Most Out of College Fairs

College fairs are great for students and parents just starting to think about the college search.  They give you the opportunity to learn about many different colleges at the same time.  However, college fairs can get really overwhelming if you go in expecting too much.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of College Fairs:

  1. Don’t expect to talk to people at each booth – If you stop to talk at each booth, you are going to have information overload before you even make it all the way down one aisle.  Stop and talk only at colleges you or your child already has interest in, not those you have never heard of.
  2. Gathering information to take home should be your main goal – Pick up lots of brochures, take them home, and sort them into piles like “interested,” “not interested,” and “maybe.”  These can help you get to the next step in the college search and decide which schools to investigate further.  Put the “interested” and “maybe” schools on a college search spreadsheet.
  3. Focus on the basics – For booths you stop and talk at, focus on the basic questions like “how many years of science are required for admission?”, “what’s the typical ACT score range for admitted students?”, and “when are your scheduled visit days?”  While all of this information can be found on the college website with some digging, the reps are there to provide fast answers.  If you have more complex questions, get contact information for the admissions rep and call or email.
  4. Think “demonstrated interest” – If there is a school your student is definitely interested in, have him or her stop at the booth, talk to the rep, and share his/her contact information.
  5. Selectively pick the right college fairs – Some fairs attract colleges all over the country while others only attract regional schools.  Pick the right college fair according to how far your student wants to travel from home.  The big national college fairs are great if your student wants to keep their options wide open.  Students who only want to go a few hours from home will be better served through college fairs that offer a large selection of regional schools.

Again, college fairs can be a great first step in the college search and can get your student excited about looking at schools.  Just be sure to maximize the opportunity by not getting into too much detail at this point.

College Search

Don’t Focus on College Acceptance Rates!

Today, I’d like to share a very interesting graphic from that emphasizes the reason that college-bound kids and their parents should not focus on college acceptance rates.  When you look at the shear numbers, it is actually easier to get into college now than it was around 30 years ago.  Pay special attention to the tips at the bottom!
The Reality of College Admissions
Brought to you by: Noodle

Applying to Colleges ,

College Applications and Extracurricular Activities

A common question high school students ask is, “What do colleges want to see for extracurricular activities?”  The answer is, they want to see depth, not breadth.

  • If your child is in a sport, he or she should try to become a captain by junior or senior year of high school.
  • If your child is in a club, he or she should try to get elected to a leadership position by junior or senior year.
  • Community service is pretty much expected these days.  Encourage your student to focus his or her service activity into something that is of great interest.  For example, this could be working with kids, working with the elderly, working outdoors, volunteering at a local museum, church or community center.
  • Your student should try to focus on activities outside of school that match his or her passions – this might be art, music, theater, sports, or computers, just to name a few.
  • Jobs and summer programs in your student’s main area of interest are always looked upon favorably.

Encourage your student to narrow down to just a few activities by junior and year to allow enough time to focus on grades, ACT/SAT tests, college visits, and then the college application process during senior year.


Applying to Colleges

3 Reasons Your Junior Should Take the PSAT

Standardized TestThe PSAT/NMSQT test is offered by high schools around the country in October.  It is an important test for college-bound high school juniors.  If your junior is not already signed up, understand why this test is beneficial and get them signed up soon.

Why Your Junior Should Take the PSAT

  1. Test Prep – The PSAT format is the same as the SAT test.  If your student is planning to take the SAT, the PSAT will serve as an initial practice test.  With the scores, your student will receive feedback on how to prepare for the SAT.  Even if your student is planning to take the ACT instead of the SAT, the experience will be helpful to prepare for a multi-hour test.  It will also help in determining which test your student is better suited for.  Since the ACT and SAT currently are set up differently, to test somewhat different skill sets, some students will do better on one test vs. the other.  As the Princeton Review indicates, it’s all about getting a high score, so a student should stick with the test that gives them the potential to achieve the highest score.  Most colleges will accept both tests.  For students looking to get into very competitive schools that take either test, I recommend having a high school junior take the PSAT in October, followed by the ACT in either October or December (if your student hasn’t taken it previously).  Then analyze the results from both tests to see which one makes more sense to focus on going forward.
  2. Scholarships – The NMSQT component of the PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.  The test is used to select candidates for the National Merit Scholarship Program.  It is a very competitive program and is based on the highest PSAT scores state by state.  That means each state has its own cutoff score for eligibility.  You can read more about the National Merit Scholarship Program here: National Merit Scholarship Program.  There is also the National Achievement Scholarship Program to recognize outstanding African American students and the National Hispanic Recognition Program.  Through the National Merit Scholarship Program, students may be eligible for scholarships directly from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, scholarships sponsored by colleges and universities, and scholarships sponsored by corporations.  The student guide for the National Merit Scholarship Program lists out all corporations and colleges currently offering scholarships through the program.  However, it does not indicate scholarship amounts for each.  My Full Scholarship List includes schools that offer full-tuition and full-ride scholarships for finalists and semi-finalists in the national merit programs.
  3. Information – Taking the PSAT will open up several avenues of information for your student.  With the test results, your student will receive feedback on strengths and weaknesses and ways to prepare for college.  Your student will also receive feedback on suitable majors and careers and a list of colleges to consider.  Taking the test puts your student into a data bank that will make them accessible to schools around the country – meaning your student will get information from lots of colleges!  This used to mean stacks of college brochures in the mail, but has now turned into tons of emails in your students inbox.

To find out all the details on the PSAT test, visit the College Board’s official PSAT site.  Even if your student’s school is not offering the test, the site will help you find a nearby school that is.  The test is typically offered both during the school day and on a Saturday, so you should be able to find one that is doable.  And finally, the test costs only $14 so it is definitely worth the price for all of the benefits.

ACT/SAT Tests, Scholarships ,