Thursday, March 26, 2015

After The Thrill is Gone: Financial Aid Part II

"What can you do when your dreams come true and
it's not quite like you planned?... After the thrill is gone"
- Eagles, After the Thrill is Gone

I imagine a lot of students, and especially parents, are having that feeling about now.  The excitement and pride of seeing that big envelope arrive and the joy of being admitted to your top choice for college begins to be replaced with the financial realities of paying for college.  As financial aid awards arrive, confusion and uncertainty can quickly set in.  For many, it's not quite like they planned at all. Before the thrill really does fade away there are a couple of important things everyone should consider as they look at those aid awards.

Cost of Attendance:  One of the numbers you will find on your aid award is the Cost of Attendance, or COA.  Remember this is not the amount you need to write a check for.  It is meant to be an estimate of what it realistically might cost to attend for the full year. Everyone's actual costs may be different and there are things you can do to lower those costs.  For example, there are standard allowances for travel, living expenses, and books included in the COA.  Each of those may vary greatly from student to student and each family should try and estimate their own budget.  (For purposes of calculating financial aid, however, financial aid offices are required to use a standard set of costs as an estimate).  Tuition, fees, and room and board costs (living on campus and having a meal plan) are the "fixed costs" that will need to be paid each semester.

Expected Family Contribution (EFC):  This is the result of completing the FAFSA and the federal formula used to determine a family's need.  As imperfect as it may be, it is the number colleges are going to subtract from the cost of attendance to determine how much need you might have at a particular school.  If there are special circumstances (beyond the fact that you don't agree with it), let your school know.  They may be able to make adjustments to your award.  For example, if a family owns their own business and there are large fluctuations in income from year to year; if there are special medical expenses that might not have been reflected on the FAFSA; or if family circumstances have changed since filing the FAFSA - these are all situations you should bring to the attention of the aid office.  However, simply not agreeing with how much you are expected to contribute is not reason enough (although a lot of families will not agree with their EFC!).  

Borrowing:  A lot has been written about student and parent debt.  It is a serious issue, but the fact is that the vast majority of students borrow money to go to college, get good paying jobs, and pay those loans back.  (USD's default rate is among one of the lowest in the nation at less than 2%).  Borrowing amounts through the federal government are set, and provide low interest opportunities to help offset the cost of attending college.  Parent borrowing is a little different.  PLUS loans are credit based and likely to be found in almost all of your awards.  It does not mean that parents should automatically think they have to borrow the full amount, it means that is what you are eligible to borrow.  

Something else families should know about their aid package.  Colleges do their best to spread their financial resources as effectively as they can.  USD, like almost all private institutions, cannot meet all the demonstrated need for all our students.  As I've written about before, we have enrollment goals and priorities to meet and we not only consider those priorities in selecting our class, but in allocating financial aid, too.  Why this matters is that families will sometimes assume that each institution will meet all of the demonstrated need they have (calculated by subtracting EFC from COA - see above).  This is not always the case.  Often, only a percentage of that demonstrated need will be met. This is where parent loans come in - to close the difference.  Each family needs to decide how much they are willing to contribute to their child's education and weigh the costs versus the benefits of attending a particular school.  I encourage you to check out our information at

Payment Plans:  Most schools, certainly USD, have payment options that spread out payment over the course of the year.  These can make a large balance much more manageable.  For more information about how this works at USD, visit

Investment:  Perhaps there is no greater way to invest in our children than to help them obtain a college education.  As I mentioned earlier, each family needs to make a decision that fits their own priorities and budget.  Among the considerations in determining value are graduation rates, average starting salaries, job placement rates, acceptances to graduate schools, but there are many others.  In addition to the pages above, please visit our career center pages, parent and alumni pages, as well as the financial aid section of our website for more information about investing in a USD education.  

Hopefully this helps you look at those awards in a new light.  Ultimately, each family needs to make a sound financial decision.  Our staff is available to help and we wish you well in deciding.  Rather than feel like the "thrill is gone", we want you to have that "peaceful, easy feeling" as you make this important decision.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Financial Aid - Part I

“To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file…

Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
And I feel like a number”

- Bob Seger, “Feel Like a Number”

In keeping with our theme of the last post, feeling as though you’re being reduced to a few short answers and test scores, I turn to Bob Seger and his take on this frustrating feeling.  Last post we focused on the admissions process and how we try and select students for our class and this time, “feeling like a number” refers to the financial aid process, the next step along this college selection journey. 

Talking about financial aid is timely, because in case you weren’t aware, we are coming up on a critically important deadline – March 2.  This is the priority filing date for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and also for the state of California’s Cal Grant Application.  If you and your family have not yet done so, please visit as soon as possible and complete the aid application.  In order to be eligible for any type of need-based financial aid you must complete this by the priority deadline.  As the name implies, it is free, and although it will take a little bit of time to complete, every family should complete it.  It is a really important first step toward helping a family figure out how to pay for college.

At USD, we are starting to send out admissions decisions this week, and will continue to do so for the next three weeks or so.  The excitement of receiving that big envelope is a special moment, but is often followed by the realization of how much it might cost to attend.  (For some words of encouragement for those who receive the small envelope with bad news, I would refer you to a previous post (

Financial aid is a very complex, highly regulated, and extremely misunderstood part of making the college choice.  It can often seem impersonal and inflexible.  And yet institutions try very hard to help every family through the process, and at USD, we take this responsibility very seriously.  Nevertheless, the process remains a mystery to most, and I hope I can provide a few insights here.

Completing the FAFSA, as mentioned earlier is the key first step.  Financial aid is largely determined by the federal formula (or methodology, as it’s called) that is driven by the FAFSA.  Through this formula, which takes into account family income, size of the family, the number of family members in college and a host of other data points, the federal government provides each family with what is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  This represents the amount of money that each family is going to be expected to contribute to their son or daughters education, regardless of where they attend.  The EFC is sent to all the institutions that a student has applied to by way of a code (USD’s code is 010395). 

Two things that can cause families to miss this deadline are waiting until they complete their taxes, and waiting to find out where they get accepted.  Please don’t wait for either one to happen!  If a family is filing their taxes later, they can estimate the information on the FAFSA and it can be verified later.  Also, don’t wait to hear from your schools.  You need to file the forms by the deadline and then send the results.  If you end up not being admitted to one of the schools you list on the form, nothing happens, but if you are late, you may not be considered for all the aid you are eligible for. 

After completing the FAFSA and having the results sent, there isn’t much for a family to do until after they are admitted to their list of schools.  Once admitted, the aid office will match the admitted student information with the imported FAFSA information and begin the process.  This matching process can sometimes be challenging, because the information on the admissions application (in particular, the Social Security number) needs to be matched against the information on the FAFSA.  If there isn’t a match, it may take some time for the institution to manually match the records together (here’s where Seger’s refrain kicks in, “I feel like a number….”.

Once those records are matched, the process of putting together a financial aid package begins.  At a high level, the process is a relatively simple one.  An institution takes the Expected Family Contribution (what the government has said the family should pay) and subtracts it from the total cost of attending that institution (this will be tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and living expenses).  The result is how much need a student has to attend that particular college or university.  Here’s where the process and results will vary greatly from school to school, and where the confusion for students and families begins. The variations are going to depend on (among other things) the resources of the institution, the need level of the family, and the size, quality, and other characteristics of the admitted student pool.

Since this is a complex, and institution-specific process, I’m going to break this discussion up into two parts.  In the next post, I’ll try and explain how this works at USD and why other schools will likely provide different amounts of aid to the same student.  I’ll also recommend some tips to consider as you compare different aid awards. 
In the meantime, please complete the FAFSA prior to March 2, and at least at this point, resist the urge to “Head down to the sea …shout out at the ocean…I feel like a number”.  Till next time


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Getting to Know You

“Run my name through your computer
Mention me in passing to your college tutor
Check my records, check my facts
Check if I paid my income tax
Pore over everything in my c.v.
But you'll still know nothin' 'bout me”

Sting, “Nothing ‘bout Me”
Back in 1993 (yes, before many of you were born!), the artist Sting released this song on an album called “10 Summoner’s Tales”.  It’s a wonderful song, and great album (I still call them albums – you know what I mean), but it reminds me of the feeling so many high school students have right now as they wait for admissions committees to review their applications for the fall.  Trying to convey to strangers who you are, what you’re all about, what your goals, ambitions and dreams are is a daunting task.  Yet in admission offices across the country that is exactly what we are trying to figure out.

At USD, we recognize the inherent challenge in the application process, and we take great care to try and go beyond just numbers and test scores.  Grades and scores tell part of the story, but our staff spends a lot of time poring over all the information submitted trying to identify a good “fit” – for the student and for us.  It takes a long time, and I thought I would try and help explain how we attempt to do that and help you understand what our staff is doing as you wait for your decision.  We know it is stressful to wait, but it’s also stressful deciding!

First, for the fall 2015 semester, we have received approximately 13,500 applications, and we hope to enroll a class of about 1150 students.  To do that, we will admit a little less than half of all the applicants.  It would be a relatively easy exercise to just sort everyone by the strength of their GPA and test score, accept the top half, wait list another group, and deny admission to the rest.  But that would likely result in a pretty homogenous group of first year students, and that is not at all what our goals are. 

At USD, we are looking to enroll students who are strong academically – students who have demonstrated they are ready to do college level work.  The high school transcript tells us the most about that, and we spend a good deal of time reviewing it.  We look, of course at the overall GPA, but also how a student earned those grades.  We look at how much they challenged themselves, what offerings they had to choose from (not every school offers the same range of courses), and other special opportunities they may have taken advantage of.  

In addition, however, we want to get a sense of how each student learns.  Are they curious about the world around them?  Do they participate in class discussions or are they more passive learners?  Have they had the chance to work in groups on projects and collaborate on assignments?  These are all factors that our faculty look for and are characteristics of students who are going to be successful here.  How do we do that?  In large part by reading the recommendations that the counselor and teachers wrote.  In some cases we do it through the personal statements and essay the student wrote.  And sometimes we get the chance to ask the student directly, through an interview or personal meeting with our staff.  

We are also looking for students who want to make a difference in the world.  As one of 29 Changemaker campuses around the world, we value students who not only have an interest in what is happening around them, but who have demonstrated a willingness to foster change.  This can be at school, through leadership roles or participation in various activities.  This is often in the community, through service and advocacy.  And it can be on a global scale, by travelling or participating in international organizations.  We expect our students to be fully engaged in making a difference in the world, and our application review tries to identify a student’s interest and capacity for fostering change.  The extracurricular activities, resume, essay and personal statement, as well as the answer to our Common Application Supplement questions all help us gain a better understanding of this important quality.

We also value diversity here at USD – in all its forms.  We hope our entering class is made up of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different geographic areas, and students with different academic interests, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious beliefs and political views.  Why?  In part, because as a Catholic university, our mission calls us to welcome and respect the dignity of every one.  In part, because our designation as a Changemaker campus implies that we help students see the world in a much broader and integrated way than they have before – change making only comes about when one truly understands the bigger picture.  Reading each application thoroughly, trying to learn each student's story, understanding challenges, and privileges that each has had all help us select students that will enrich the learning and social environment on campus.  

Selecting a class is hard work, and as Sting said, in the end we may still not know our students entirely.  But hopefully, as a result of the time and diligence we take in trying to learn all we can from the application, we assemble a class of students that will learn from each other, challenge each other, and support each other.  I like to share with our staff that we are not only selecting students for the entering class, we are selecting future alumni who will represent the University for a lifetime.  

Thanks in advance for your patience as we read your application.  I know a great album you can listen to in the meantime….

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Pressure of the Season

This is the last week of classes for the fall semester here at USD.  Finals are about to begin and that means the library is more crowded, the lines for coffee are longer, and students are feeling the pressure of completing assignments and studying for tests.  There’s a lot of pressure being a student this time of year, and while the end is in sight, these will be a challenging two weeks for our campus.

For high school students, there is a different kind of pressure building, and it has been bubbling up to the surface for weeks (at least).  College application deadlines are upon us – in particular, USD’s December 15th deadline is right around the corner – and students everywhere are writing essays, completing those supplemental questions, and making sure their test scores and transcripts are on their way.  There are additional deadlines after the new year, so this pressure doesn’t go away for a while.

If you have submitted your USD application already, thanks, and congratulations!  If you are one of the several thousand who will hit submit over this weekend, we thank you too, for including USD among your college choices.  We understand the pressure surrounding this process, and know all too well the wonderful options you have for continuing your education.  It is a process we take very seriously, and as we begin this journey together, leading us to May 1, I’ll be using this space to help you better understand what happens to your application after you hit that submit button.  I’ll take you inside our process and try and show the care and diligence our staff gives each and every application.  I’ll also provide helpful (hopefully) information about financial aid and scholarships, making sure you prepare appropriately for those deadlines.  I’ll also try and provide information that will help you better understand what the experience of being a student at USD is all about, so as you continue to consider your options, you’ll be able to know if we are a good fit for your goals and aspirations.  There will be stuff for parents, too, so please share this with them (they might ask you fewer questions).

This fall, the admissions staff and I travelled around the world – literally – to meet with students like you who are excited about making a difference in the world.  We visited schools from Massachusetts to New Mexico and from Washington to Florida – 23 states in all, plus the District of Columbia.  In addition, we visited 10 countries including Canada, Mexico, China, and Japan.  We met with thousands of students who are bright, who are involved in their schools and communities, and who are curious about the world around them.  Our students, regardless of where they come from, share the common trait of wanting to be change makers.  Over the next several weeks I’ll also help you better understand what we mean by that term.  Our students and faculty are doing amazing things to change the world and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing their stories.

If you haven’t hit the submit button yet, I hope you will so that you have a chance to be a part of this special community.  If not, I wish you the very best in following your passions and finding the place that will challenge and inspire you.  Either way, good luck, don’t let the pressure get to you, and don’t forget to enjoy this very special holiday season. 


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Money, Value and Pink Floyd

So they say
Is the root of all evil today
But if you ask for a raise
It's no surprise that they're giving none away
Pink Floyd, Money


Now that you’ve started to get acceptances from your schools, the reality of how you’ll afford to go to them has surely set in.  If you read any major newspaper or watch TV news, you’ve no doubt heard that money is truly the “root of all evil” in higher education.  Stories about high tuition, poor graduation rates, crushing student debt, and unemployed college graduates are common, and enough to make anyone nervous about the future.  There are certainly examples of schools and programs that are not successful in graduating students with marketable skills, but the truth of the matter is that the value of a college degree – and a liberal arts education – has never been more important.

What these stories focus on is how much a college education costs, as if it were a consumer good like buying a car.  What they often fail to include is the value of the investment.  If you have been looking at going to college in a narrow, career focused way, as a means to getting your first job, than perhaps you should question the cost of the education.  But going to college has never really been about only your first job.  Going to college is about developing the skills, experiences, perspectives, and opportunities that prepare you for the rest of your life, which will include your first job.  At the University of San Diego, we don’t view the four years you’ll spend with us as a vocational path toward a job.  During your time here we expect to help you grow academically, to view the world and your place in it differently, and to help prepare you to be an educated, compassionate, and more engaged citizen of the world.  The skills and experiences you gain here, as well as the connections you make with faculty and students, will help you find your first job, but more importantly, will help shape the trajectory of the rest of your life. 

Now, as a parent who also pays tuition, I don’t mean to minimalize how much college costs, including USD.  It is a big investment.  But to consider the cost without considering the value of the education over a lifetime misses the point.  As you weigh your options over the next few weeks, we’d like to spend some time talking about the value of this educational experience.  To do that, we have asked some of our faculty to talk about what they believe is the real value of going to college, of exploring the liberal arts, and of using these four years as a time of growth and development.  Their stories will appear on our website over the next several weeks, and we hope you’ll read them and reflect upon what you hope to get out of the next four years.

Money isn’t really the root of all evil in higher education, unless it’s the only thing we pay attention to. Fortunately, at USD, the value of our education extends long after the first job. Enjoy the stories and good luck with your decisions.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Better Things

Today is a sad day at USD and represents the really difficult side of selective college admissions.  It is the day we begin sending out deny letters to our freshman applicants.  For thousands of students, the dreaded “small envelop” will mean disappointment and one less option they can consider. 

USD received over 14,200 applications for our freshman class this year.  Since we can only hope to enroll about 1120, our admissions team has had to make some very difficult decisions.  Choosing a class from so many wonderful young people is hard and, unfortunately, we often turn away students who certainly look “admissible,” meaning they have grades, scores, and experiences that might indicate that they could be successful here.  USD, like all schools, is trying to enroll a class that has many types of students – students from different places, with different academic interests, with different personal characteristics, and who have different skills and talents.  All of these differences help form the foundation of our community and enrich the classroom, the residence hall, and entire campus. 

Selecting a class is an imperfect process, and I know that finding out you weren’t admitted to a school you were interested in can hurt.  I’ve experienced this in my work over the past thirty years, but I’ve also experienced it as a parent, seeing the disappointment in my own kids.  There is little I can do or say that will make that hurt and disappointment go away.  But I can tell you that it will pass, and there will be good news that comes your way.  More often than not, students end up loving the school they end up at, even if it might not have been their first choice. 

As I thought about this day, and the impact our decisions (and those of many other schools) will have on students as they receive the news, I thought of an old tune from a band called the Kinks – a British band that has been around almost as long as I have (mid-60’s).  As you start getting your decisions from colleges – big envelop or small – I hope you’ll keep these lyrics in mind, and know that this sentiment comes from all of us who do this work:

“Here’s hoping all the days ahead
Won’t be as bitter as the ones behind you.
Be an optimist instead,
And somehow happiness will find you.
Forget what happened yesterday,
I know that better things are on the way.
“I know tomorrow you’ll find better things…”
- Ray Davies, The Kinks

Please know that we still have a lot of decisions to make, including more admit decisions.  We hope to be done by the end of next week.  But whatever happens, we wish you well, and thank you for your sincere interest in USD.  Never stop looking for better things.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Given the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the US, and where we are in the college admissions cycle, that title seems appropriate to open a new series of blogs for the Class of 2018.  Each of the past few falls or winters, I have taken to the "blogosphere" to try and share some information with parents, students and counselors about the process of applying to and selecting a college.  If you review some of the past entries, you'll notice a theme - song titles from my youth that "help" frame the conversation.  As my wife repeatedly reminds me, I tend to use "classic rock" - or "old music" - because that's what I know.  I think it's good music, so hopefully students may discover some good tunes, and I think parents and counselors will appreciate the trip down memory lane.  In any event, I hope all will find the information and conversation here worthwhile and helpful.

In conversations with our applicants and their parents, the song title "Help" seems to be just below the surface of so many questions and comments.  Even for parents who went to college themselves, today's process is so different - more competitive, more expensive, and more pressure-packed than ever.  It doesn't help that almost every story about higher education paints a bleak picture of students graduating with huge debt and no job.  Some have even questioned the merits of higher education entirely, suggesting that it is not worth the cost.

The fact of the matter is that going to college, and benefiting from a broad based, liberal arts education has never been more valuable or important.  Another fact is that most students - especially those that graduate from USD - have reasonable amounts of students loans, graduate on time, and have job offers by the time they walk across the stage at graduation.

We are very excited that you've applied to USD and appreciate all you have done in your preparation to get to this point.  We also recognize that not everyone will be accepted, and of those that are accepted, not everyone will either want to or be able to enroll.  Regardless of how the process turns out, we hope that the blogs that follow will help all of you "get your feet back on the ground," as the song says.  Over the next few weeks leading up to May 1 you will be able to read about:

  • Affording college and what you should be doing now to prepare
  • The value of a liberal arts education with faculty and students addressing some of the misperceptions surrounding this education as well as specific outcomes that employers and graduate schools value
  • Why you might want to choose USD over the other excellent options you have
  • Helpful tips about getting ready for May 1 and beyond - from students who experienced exactly what you are feeling now
There will be information for parents too, so be sure to let them know about it (and ask them if they ever heard of some of the music references).  In the meantime, remember to enjoy your senior year.   Think carefully about what you hope to get out of college - beyond your first job.  And remember these lyrics:

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
  My independence seems to vanish in the haze
  But every now and then I feel so insecure
   I know that I just need you like I've never done before

If any of those feelings of insecurity creep in, we're here to Help.