How to compare college finanical aid packages and pick the right school

It’s that time of year, when teens and their families agonize over which college they will pay thousands of dollars to – or borrow thousands of dollars for — over the next four years.

By now, acceptance letters and financial aid packages are in hand, so it’s just a matter of doing some side-by-side comparisons.

Having written about higher education and financial aid for the majority of my career, I’m here to tell you that the college decision should go beyond which one is “the best,” or which one will cost you the least.

Before you send in your commitment letter, here are some key things to think about as you compare your financial aid awards and choose a school.

There are worse things in life than giving up your first choice college

Had I gone to the top college that accepted me, it would have meant taking out $80,000 in student loans.
I chose door number two — the college that gave me a full ride.

If you’re facing a similar type of decision, you need to answer this question first above all others: Are you willing to give up an admissions offer from your top-choice school if it makes financial sense?

It might hurt initially, but the idea that you’ll regret turning down a more prestigious school is an outdated concept.

In my college days, there was this myth that if you attended Super Amazing U. Fortune 500 companies would automatically throw six figure offers at you.
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 Personal Finance 

4 ways to fight and claw your way to the increasingly elusive American Dream

The American Dream is getting harder to achieve for many.The American Dream is a great story.

Since the days of Horatio Alger, Americans have been (literally) buying the story of how, through hard work and persistence, we’ll all get to live a comfortable life in a respectable neighborhood, and raise our kids to do even better.

This story gets part of its truthiness from the fact that we all know someone, or can point to an American we admire, who really did pull themselves up by their bootstraps through ingenuity and elbow grease and pep. The belief also serves a useful purpose: Thinking you can better your situation through sticktoitiveness and moxie is a great motivator. It’s part of why Americans work lots of hours compared to those in other industrialized nations, and why we have the most productive workers in the world.

Unfortunately, for lots of people, it’s just not true.
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4 real ways to make money when your career stalls

Could professional snuggling be for you?The time between school and “adulthood” can be full of ambivalence and regrets for career gadabouts, but it need not be entirely unfunded.

For lots of people, the time after college is all about “personal exploration” (should they have the luxury). This is the time to finally make the exodus to Burning Man or to spend your days repeatedly hurling your paint-drenched body at the canvases blanketing your apartment walls.

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Going back to school? Nontraditional students face special hurdles

Nontraditional students don't have to be as crazy as Pierce Hawthorne to have trouble adjust to collegeWhen most of us think of college students, we picture young adults between the ages of 18 and 23.

But according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 21 percent of U.S. college students in the 2011 school year were over the age of 30. You’d think with that with so many older students, colleges would be focused on meeting their needs, but older students still face special challenges as they complete their degrees.

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How To Find A School That’s Right For You

Right about now, thousands of kids around our nation are taking SAT exams and applying to college. Thousands more are doing neither, their eyes set on vocational schools or local community colleges. In both cases, I think students need to take a good look at themselves, what they want to do, and decide which path will best take them towards their goals.

When I look back at the last ten years, I’m amazed at the path my career has taken. I went to college because “that’s what you did after high school.” I graduated into a horrible tech job market, went into graduate school and I was able to secure a job in the defense industry working software projects a year later. Two companies and five years later, I find myself doing what I do now – personal finance blogging. Crazy huh? Very little that I did academically or professionally, in the last eight years, prepared me for what might eventually be the career that takes me into retirement.

If you want to do one thing to ensure your future success and happiness, it’s finding a career that’s right for you. Once you’ve decided on the career, knowing full well it could change a half dozen times before you get it right, the next step is to find the right school. After seeing this CNN Money piece on the most expensive colleges (Sarah Lawrence College is over $55,000 a year!), it should be clear that not everyone should be going to college… and that’s OK.

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2011 Highest Paid College Graduates

These lists are fun to read but I never take them too seriously because how much someone is paid depends on so many factors, their alma mater included. That said, it’s still interesting to see who gets the top spots and this year the highest paid, as measured by both mid-career median salary and starting median salary, isn’t an Ivy League university and has an undergraduate enrollment of under 800.

  1. Harvey Mudd College: Mid-career median salary of $126,000 and a starting median salary of $68,900. 757 undergraduate enrollment with a 2010-2011 tuition of over forty thousand dollars.
  2. Princeton University: Mid-career median salary of $123,000, starting median salary of $58,900. Tuition of $36,640.
  3. Dartmouth University: Mid-career median salary of $123,000, starting median salary of $54,100. Tuition of $40,437.
  4. Harvard University: Mid-career median salary of $121,000, starting median salary of $57,300. Tuition of $38,416.
  5. California Institute of Technology: Mid-career median salary of $120,000, starting median salary of $69,900. Tuition of $36,282.

Sixth through eighth were MIT, Stanford, and Colgate, in that order.

Colleges That Bring the Highest Paycheck 2011 [CNBC]


No Recession for College Graduates

USAF Academy Graduation Hat Hurray Toss, Thunderbird Fly OverI’ve been fortunate that most of my local friends have not been affected by the economic downturn. I’m especially fortunate because I have not been affected by the economic downturn. While the companies we work at have downsized, for the most part, we’ve all escaped unscathed in what’s clearly the worse economic decline in our lifetime. It’s difficult to explain why we were so fortunate, many of my friends work in defense which is practically hallowed ground in times of war, but I saw a chart last week that might explain it:
BLS Unemployment Rate by Education, July 2010

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Coverdell Education Savings Account Tax Break Expiring

Coverdell ExpiringThe Coverdell Education Savings Account, or Coverdell ESA, is the education version of a Roth IRA. You get to make annual non-deductible contributions, like a Roth IRA, and withdrawals are tax-free if you meet certain requirements. It’s a great benefit for many families because anytime you can have an investment grow tax free, you should try to find a way to take advantage of it.

The Coverdell ESA, once known as the Education IRA, is the only tax advantaged option for primary and secondary education. All other tax benefits apply strictly towards college and beyond. Unfortunately, there are some changes on the horizon for old Coverdell.
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