College Planning Blog

Welcome to Best College Fit (BCF) College Planning Blog, an ongoing discussion of the factors that impact the college planning process. This space will keep you abreast of critical planning strategies, introduce you to key resources and comment on timely issues that relate to your college planning effort. We look forward to staying in touch and seeing your comments as we progress through the college planning process together.

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BCF Readers’ Forum 5.16.18


Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com

Dear Peter,
I am recently divorced and will be facing the funding of my children’s college educations alone. They currently attend a private day school. I recently attended a free seminar about funding of said educations. It turned out to be a teaser for a company that offered everything from preparation for the SAT exam to assistance in preparation of the College Scholarship Service Profile and FAFSA applications to appealing any awards by the schools if deemed to be inadequate. The initial fee is $1995 per family with an additional $39 per month per child for 48 months. There is no contract and the service can be terminated at any time. Do you feel that a service like this is valuable and worth the cost?
Eileen

Dear Eileen,
You are wise to be cynical about this company’s pitch. In reality, your prep school tuition dollars are already producing many of the same benefits that the company seems to offer. Basically, you would be paying to have them complete your financial aid forms when you can do them yourself at no cost or have your accountant do them for a lesser fee. With regard to appeals of financial aid awards, colleges don’t want to hear from a consultant—they want to hear from you directly. The only possible value to engaging the company is to your peace of mind regarding elements of the process. They will not get your kids into colleges or leverage better financial aid awards for them. They will, however, charge you for services that, in my opinion, aren’t necessary.
Peter

Dear Peter,
As my son registers for future standardized tests, should he fill out all the profile questions on their websites (other than the basics, such as his graduation year)?

Both testing organizations ask for a lot of information they clearly state is supplied to colleges. We are wondering if there is any harm in declining to supply information—questions related to anticipated majors, extra-curricular information and plans for how many years of college, etc? Conversely, is there any potential drawback to providing this information? The information that is requested seems very over the top!
AnnMarie

Dear AnnMarie,
Welcome to the world of lead generation! Colleges, summer camps and scholarship programs will buy tens of thousands of names of students who meet their minimal requirements and then direct their messaging at getting the students to respond!

I am not aware of any downside to withholding the optional information requested by the testing agencies. If your son would rather not be subjected to the deluge of random mail/email that would otherwise result from that sharing, there is no harm in declining to provide the information. The possible upside to sharing is that his name might be picked up by colleges and/or scholarship programs that could be of interest to him.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do college admission officers take a high school’s ranking into consideration when looking at a candidate? My son goes to a full-time gifted school which has always ranked as one of the best high schools in the USA. Being in a school of all gifted students, the competition is stiffer. Even with his 4.7 GPA he is not ranked in the top ten percentile of his class. Will this work against him when he applies in highly selective schools?
Arlene

Dear Arlene,
The answer to your question will vary according to institutional type. Whereas many state universities evaluate high school transcripts at face value, most private colleges and universities review academic records contextually. In other words, before they can make any sense out of the student’s academic performance, they first delve into the learning environment from which the student comes to better understand who attends the school, what courses are offered, how students are evaluated and how they perform when taking AP/IB/SAT Subject Tests. With this information in hand, they come to a better understanding of the individual’s performance. I don’t know where your son goes to school, but I suspect the college counseling folks are pretty diligent about providing the contextual information needed by admission officers in order to make good and fair assessments regarding its students as they apply to college.
Peter

Dear Peter,
How does one ace the college interview??
Jonathan

Dear Jonathan,
I would offer four bits of advice to the student preparing for interviews. First, be in command of your academic (and life) credentials. Students often feel compelled to present resumes and/or transcripts to their interviewers. Frankly, that’s not necessary. Interviewers are more interested in hearing the student’s interpretation of that information in the student’s words. So, it is important that you can recite courses, grades and test information. You also need to able to talk about important activities and life events, including any circumstances that might have contributed to irregularities in the academic record.

Second, you need to relax. This cannot be underestimated. You should be able to engage comfortably in conversation with someone who is eager to get to know more about you. Good interviewers are adept at leading the conversation and drawing critical information from the interviewees.

Third, positive body language is important. A pleasant smile, good eye contact and firm handshake help to set the tone. Just as important is the elimination of distractions—chewing gum, nervous ticks (shaking legs, etc.), inappropriate attire (go with “business casual” for teenagers) and conversational hiccups (“like, well, you know…” “Ummmm…” etc.).

Finally, be knowledgeable about the institution—know why you are there! Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered on the college’s website. Make sure you convey an air of confidence that you know why the place would be a good match for you.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter is a junior with a straight “A” average in 5 AP courses with a 1570 SAT. She plays volleyball for her high school and an elite club year-round. She wants desperately to attend an Ivy whether playing volleyball or not. Having been consumed with volleyball year round, she has had little time to participate in other extracurricular activities. She now feels behind in some respects and wants to travel overseas for a week this summer to assist indigents and will set up a website for donations throughout her senior year. My question: how will admissions people view this at Ivys? Is it worthwhile for admissions purposes or would she be better served with summer employment or internships?
Lee

Dear Lee,
Given your daughter’s academic credentials, she will be on the academic “competitive playing fields” academically at any school in the country. Without any further considerations—and assuming her classroom performance continues at the same level through her senior year, the odds of gaining admission are between one out of ten and one out of twenty at the colleges of interest. In order to improve those odds, she needs to present non-academic credentials that cause her to stand out among similarly qualified applicants at the institutions in question. Quite frankly, it is possible that her volleyball involvement could provide the “hook” she needs. She will know soon if that is to be the case as the college coaches will start identifying their top prospects this summer. Her club coach should be able to give her a sense as to the likelihood she will be recruited by the Ivies.

Beyond volleyball, your daughter needs to be careful not to be seen as manufacturing a credential in order to enhance her competitiveness. Rather, she needs to make choices as though college is not in the picture. She needs to make herself happy—to find personal enrichment in all she does. In doing so, her actions/decisions will reveal the authenticity of character that might set her apart from the competition. She should not embark on the overseas project simply to create a credential worthy of admission to an Ivy League school. She should do it because she can’t help herself—because she feels absolutely compelled to engage in the project. Even more compelling will be the connectivity of her decision-making with other choices she has made in life.

Highly selective schools see thousands of seemingly gratuitous examples of summer service in underdeveloped countries. The fact of the involvement won’t turn heads. If it is part of a larger sense of mission and opportunity that she can clearly articulate in her application, then it can make a difference.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter just received her ACT score. She did not score well at all on her SAT, however, she managed to pull out an above average score on her ACT. We intended to continue her tutoring and have her take both a second time. My husband, now armed with the higher ACT score, thinks we should drop the SAT altogether and focus on her area of strength with the ACT. He feels we should continue working to improve on the ACT score and that most schools will take either test. Could you provide any guidance on this?
Sophia

Dear Sophia,
Your husband on the right track! It is true that every college in the country will accept either the SAT or ACT. I strongly urge students to sample one of each in order to determine the test with which they are most comfortable and then to focus on that test taking it no more than three times. In this case, if your daughter seems more comfortable with the ACT, then she might as well focus on preparing for that test (and not worry about the SAT going forward).
Peter

BCF Readers’ Forum 4.18.18


Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

Dear Peter,
My son is waitlisted to the undergraduate engineering program at a very selective university for the fall 2017. The school reports that approximately 2,200 students asked to remain active on its Wait List and only 4 from 2,200 were ultimately accepted to the freshman class. So, it would appear the chances of a waitlisted applicant getting admitted to the University are less than 0.2%? If this info is accurate, would these waitlist probabilities be similar at other colleges?
Paul

Dear Paul,  
I must confess that I am generally very cynical about data self-reported by colleges. In particular, data derived from WL activity can be very “soft.” For example, colleges will only count as “admitted” from the WL those students who receive letters confirming the admission. The typical protocol for admitting students from the WL is for admission officers to contact them directly with a “verbal” offer. Letters of acceptance are only sent to the students who say “yes.” For example, it is not uncommon for admission officers to call 50-60 students—or more—before receiving 20 affirmative responses. The calls to students that failed to yield positive responses are not counted among the acceptances.
 
Moreover, admission data is often reported well before WL activity has been completed. While it is possible that the university in question only “accepted” four students from the WL by the time it reported its WL numbers, it is also possible that many more students were contacted and accepted after the report was submitted.
 
Having said that, the data/probabilities are likely to be similarly “soft” at other schools. I will say this, though, the WL is a dead-end for students who do not choose to remain active on it at a given school. On the other hand, those who remain active—visit the campus (again!), update their files with new information and make sure they are accessible (cell phones, emails, etc.)—have more reasonable chances of admission than they might have imagined.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted into five colleges, each of which has offered $20,000-$25,000 in scholarship money out of about $65,000 a year tuition and board. The problem is we have no money for his college and I’m not sure he can or should get a student loan for $40,000 a year. The FASFA was based on 2016 income when our combined income was $140,000. However, my husband lost his job in 2017. Between unemployment and short-term sales jobs, he earned less than half of his 2016 income. This year looks even worse financially as my income will significantly decrease while I am out of work due to recently diagnosed health issues. How do I go about contacting the colleges and sharing my new financial situation?
Ann

Dear Ann,
I would urge you to present a detailed explanation of your evolving situation to the financial aid officers at the colleges in question and ask for an appeal of your son’s financial aid status. Any documentation you can provide regarding employment, income and medical expenses will be very important. While you might be able to accomplish the appeal by phone, I would suggest you try to accomplish the meetings in person (call in advance to make an appointment). Contact information for the financial aid offices should be found on the award letters you received from the respective institutions.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I hear from many parents that our child needs to have volunteer hours included in with her college applications. Are these necessary and, if so, to what extent? Our daughter plays high school field hockey and occasionally volunteers at the field hockey clinics offered in our area. She hasn’t expressed any interest in volunteering in other areas and, with free time being so limited due to her field hockey club practices and clinics, I wonder if she NEEDS to be more diverse in her volunteer hours for her application. I was hoping you might be able to elaborate on this.
Hal

Dear Hal,
The best thing you can do is support your daughter’s development in those areas that are of interest to her. While volunteering/community service can certainly be a valued part of an applicant’s credentials, so can talent development and leadership. I would advise your daughter to continue investing in the things that give her joy in life. If volunteering becomes one of them, great. Regardless, it is most important that she continues to grow with her involvements.

I would like to add that you might stop listening to your friends on this topic! Unless they are or have been admission officers, they have no relevant expertise and know little more than you do at this point. The “noise” that envelops the college going-process can be maddening if you don’t find a way to block it out or at least process it with perspective. Enjoy your daughter’s teenage years with her—they’ll be gone before you know it! Help her to stay true to herself as she reaches into the uncertainty of the future. And help her find colleges that will value her for that person she is becoming.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Is it a bad thing to drop a foreign language in the Senior Year if you have taken the 3 required years?
Arlene

Dear Arlene,
Much depends on the selectivity of the college in question. The more selective the college, the more important it is for a student to demonstrate breadth of curricular involvement through the senior year—and that includes language studies. If the student elects to drop a high-level course in the senior year, then the replacement course should be of the same level of academic rigor. Dropping a fourth year of Spanish for electives of less rigor is not a good idea. On the other hand, dropping it in order to take a second high-level science (for example) could be justified.

By the way, you reference “the 3 required years.” Please do not confuse requirements for HS graduation or minimum “requirements” posted by some colleges as an expression of what will be appropriate or most competitive in the college admission process.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter was accepted to two schools, each of which is requiring her enrollment overseas—one for a semester and the other for a year—before she begins as a full-time student on their respective campuses. She has been admitted to two other schools, one with a scholarship and the other without special recognition. Her goal is to go to law school and maybe get a joint degree in business (JD/MBA). She has good options but is a bit confused about the overseas study requirement. Will she have the same opportunities at those colleges as she will at the others?
Alice

Dear Alice,
The enrollment opportunities your daughter has received at the first two colleges are not traditional offers of acceptance. While she should be able to achieve her educational/career goals at those colleges, there are some practical considerations. For example, students starting in September get the full advantage of orientation programming, first-year seminars and dedicated advisement while acclimating to both the academic and social routines with their peers and professors. Students starting at mid-year or a year later are effectively entering as transfer students. Unfortunately, the “process” doesn’t stop or slow down to accommodate them.
 
I often talk about the importance of finding a college that values the student for what she has to offer. In all candor, the offer of delayed entry enrollment puts your daughter at the “back of the line” in terms of who is being valued in the entering class. She—and others who are required to begin their studies elsewhere—are effectively being “stashed” at those places. While she will be allowed to enter discreetly through the “back-door” at each institution, she won’t count as an admitted student and her credentials will not be included in the profiles of admitted students. Her eventual enrollment will, however, enable the institutions to admit fewer students (and appear to be more selective) in the following year.

That said, she can still achieve her goals at the delayed entry colleges. The study abroad opportunities notwithstanding (window dressing in my opinion), though, delayed enrollment relative to her cohort does mean she’ll be starting at a competitive disadvantage.
 
Your daughter is fortunate to have options. I would urge her to proceed with eyes wide open relative to the implications of delayed enrollment.
Peter

Dear Peter,
I know it should be up to my son to decide which school he wants to attend, but I can’t help wondering if there is more than one “best college fit” school for him?  Is it wrong of me to convince him to attend “College A” because the odds are better for him at finding a job after school?  Fundamentally, I know he has the rest of his life to work and only one chance to have a great college experience, but I can’t seem to get past the phenomenal job statistics presented by “College A”.  It would be a shame if he were to graduate and have a tough time finding a job.

However, I have a feeling that my son might have a better and happier college experience at “College B” with its large and beautiful campus, athletic teams, and more traditional approach to academics and internships.  He would probably have more fun there, too.

Do you have any advice for this mom who has been losing sleep over her dilemma?
Rose

Dear Rose,  
Even though you (and your son) are on the homestretch of this process, some of the toughest decisions are yet to be made. This is a time, however, when you have to allow him to trust his own judgment.

One thing that I learned as a parent in the process is that, hard as it might be at times, as our kids move toward adulthood, we (parents) have to give them the opportunity to find their own way. While that might go against our very nature (after all, you have spent 17 years trying to protect your son from anything bad that might come his way while giving him every opportunity to succeed), at some point you need to ask yourself, “For how long in his life do I want to the responsible for everything good—and everything bad—that might happen in his life?” Hard as it might be, I suggest giving your son the opportunity to own the decision-making and the direction his life will take as a result.
 
There is no guarantee that the choice of a college he makes will turn out to be perfect. On the other hand, I truly believe he can’t go wrong. Marketing of programs aside, there is likely very little difference between the two programs. Your son’s eventual success will be determined by his comfort level with the school he has chosen. The more comfortable he is, the more likely it is that he will avail himself of all the opportunities that will be present for him.
 
The bottom line: there is a good chance your son is ready to find his own voice in the matter. If so, he will prosper in whichever environment he chooses.
Peter

By Peter Van Buskirk

It’s crunch time for families in the college selection process. The admission decisions are in and, with less than a month remaining before the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date, students are now turning their attention to the final choice of a college. It’s an exciting—and nerve-wracking—time to be sure, especially for families trying to reconcile cost and affordability against limited means and/or cash-flow concerns.

If you are in that number, there is a strong likelihood you applied for financial aid and are now trying to interpret the financial aid award letters you received from various colleges. Months ago, as you engaged in the grueling task of completing the financial aid applications, it was the promise of the “just reward” that kept you going. Now that the award letters are in hand, you are left wondering, “What does it all mean?”

A young woman shared with me the financial aid award letters she had received from ten different colleges. Never mind that she had allowed her list of colleges to grow too long (16!)—she had been admitted to ten and had received various forms of financial aid from each of them. With an EFC or “Expected Family Contribution” (per the FAFSA) of $5,000, the award letters were predictably generous. They were also troublingly inconsistent.

For example, two of the schools, at total costs of $39,825 and $61,740, respectively, appeared to cover the entire cost of attendance with financial aid. The first included modest “self help” (loan and work study) totaling $2,565, in addition to more than $37,000 in grants and scholarships, in its financial aid offer.

The second college issued a financial aid award letter that featured $36,900 in grants/scholarships. The balance, ($24,840), however, was covered by loans and work study! On the surface, it seemed both schools were being quite generous in covering all of his costs. Upon closer examination, however, the difference in “out-of-pocket” expense for this family at the two schools would be greater than $20,000—all with the same EFC!

The wide variance in financial aid awards in response to the same financial circumstance is the result of “differential need analysis” (using the need analysis that is most favorable to the institution’s objectives) and “preferential packaging,” a widespread practice that enables institutions to create financial aid awards strategically in an attempt to leverage the enrollment of the students they value most. In the case of the latter, students who are more highly regarded typically receive financial aid that includes greater portions of grants—and, possibly scholarships.

Conversely, the attitude toward other students, whose credentials were strong enough to warrant their admission, but not strong enough to gain them superstar status at a given school, is that “if they (the students) want us badly enough, they will find the means to make it happen.” It is when families, often deliriously wide-eyed with their students’ acceptances into high profile schools, buy into this logic that they open themselves to unreasonable debt burdens.

As you compare financial aid award letters, then, you need to get to the bottom line “out-of-pocket” expenses for each. Where does the bottom line create the least amount of debt exposure to your family? Unfortunately, the award letters don’t always spell that out for you. The following tips are offered to make sure you are comparing “apples and apples.”

  1. Identify the total cost of attendance for each institution. This will include tuition, room and board as well as books, supplies, activity fees, lab fees and possible transportation expenses. You may need to consult the school’s website for a complete list as very few award letters provide a complete documentation. A phone call to the financial aid office can produce the same information.
  2. Add all of the grants and scholarships listed on the award letter together. These funds comprise the “gift” aid you are receiving—money you don’t have to re-pay. The sources of these funds may include the state and federal governments as well as the institution itself. It is not actually cash you will see. Rather, it represents a discount on the cost of attendance.
  3. Subtract the total amount of “gift” aid from the total cost of attendance to determine the total out-of-pocket expense for your family.
  4. In most cases, institutions will offer a standard “self-help” component to the financial aid award that includes a Guaranteed Student Loan (Stafford) of $3,500 and a campus work-study opportunity worth up to $1,500. These are funding sources that will help you address out-of-pocket expenses. Note that the two figures are likely to increase in subsequent years: the total cost of attendance and the amount of the loan eligibility attributed to the students. Moreover, additional loans authorized for the student or the parents (PLUS Loan) may be offered in place of “gift” aid in years 2-4.
  5. A word of caution is in order here. If you have somehow managed to pool your family resources into coverage of costs for the first year on the assumption that, because you will appear more “needy” in the second year, you will be treated to more financial aid—guess again! Colleges and universities typically budget financial aid for students in years two, three and four based on the EFC of the first year. They will have contingency funds available for emergent situations (catastrophic health issues, changing employment status, loss of life, etc.), but not for families who claim sudden poverty because all of their funds were committed to the first-year expenses. In the case of the latter, get ready for a heavy dose of loans for both the student and the parents.
  6. It is not uncommon for the total amount of financial aid offered, both “gift aid” and “self help,” to fall short of making up the difference between the Expected Family Contribution and the total cost of attendance. This practice, known as “gapping,” is symptomatic of preferential packaging and is employed by institutions that choose not to meet the full need of the student with financial aid. In such cases, the student is left to his/her own devices to find the remaining funds. Unmet need of this nature becomes another factor to consider with your out-of-pocket expenses.
  7. Know the difference between grants and scholarships. A grant is awarded because you demonstrate financial “need.” It should carry forward in subsequent years as long as you continue to demonstrate need and remain in academic good standing. A scholarship is offered in recognition of merit and will likely carry with it academic and/or performance renewal terms.
  8. If you receive a financial aid award that includes both grant and scholarship components, be sure to read the renewal criteria carefully. It is possible that the institution could “pull” the scholarship if performance criterion are not met in subsequent years leaving you to find the resources elsewhere (more loans!).
  9. In the event you do not qualify for need-based financial aid and are trying to reconcile out-of pocket expenses (full cost of attendance) against scholarships that have been awarded, you need to know that you are at the mercy of the institution. The cash flow issue is yours and not theirs. While some might respond to an appeal, don’t expect big changes in scholarships amounts.
  10. Appeal financial aid awards, including scholarships, with information, not emotion. If your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you completed financial aid applications, submit written appeals to the colleges in question along with documentation of the new circumstances. Some colleges will invite you to submit “better” financial aid awards from their competitors as part of an appeal. In any case, keep your cool. You are only entitled to the financial assistance that the institution decides to give you.

In the final analysis, you will have to complete your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether there is sufficient value to you (educationally) in accepting a financial aid award that might be less than you need or would like. Now is the time to weigh your options carefully. Make sure you are entirely comfortable with your ability to manage the cost of attending a college before you submit an enrollment deposit.

Visit the BCF Recommended Resources, “Financial Aid/Scholarships” section, for a “Comparing College Costs Worksheet” that will help you organize and compare the data you are seeing on various financial aid award letters.

To learn more about financial aid and meeting college costs check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook. (Available in the BCF Bookstore; $20)

BCF Readers’ Forum 3.21.18


Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com.

Dear Peter,
My daughter received merit scholarships from five private colleges, ranging from $18,000 to $26,000. After applying the scholarships, each school’s cost of attendance for us would be similar. But the academic requirements for retaining the scholarship from year to year vary: several require a 3.0 GPA, one a 2.8 GPA, and one a 2.0 GPA.

Unfortunately, the one that only requires a 2.0 is at the bottom of her list. I assume these requirements are set in stone, but would it be out of line to ask the one she decides to attend if the GPA requirement is negotiable? Or, would it be appropriate to ask each of the colleges what percent of students actually do fulfill the requirement and therefore, receive the scholarship funds each year?
Ari

Dear Ari,
Scholarships and financial aid awards tend to reflect an institution’s confidence that a student can perform at a reasonably high level in its programs. Colleges with higher expected renewal GPAs are typically more competitive and can expect a higher level of performance from their scholars. I wouldn’t worry about this—your daughter was offered a scholarship because the institution has a high level of confidence in her ability to meet the “mark.” She should be fine as long as she continues to perform as she has in the past. While you might ask the colleges about the percent of students who fulfill the requirements of their scholarships (yes, they are usually set in stone), I would not try to negotiate the GPA requirement.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is a high school Sophomore and we have begun gathering information online from a number of colleges that might broadly fit his needs. Most schools indicate the average GPA of admitted applicants. I have two questions about this. Are these figures generally weighted for AP and Honors classes, thus inflating this average? Second, our high school uses a 100-point scale for grades, not the GPA on the 4.0 scale that most colleges show. What is the generally accepted way to convert the 100-point scale to the 4.0 scale?
Joe

Dear Joe,
High school grading systems are like finger-prints—while similar, no two are alike. As a result, the GPA and weighting questions are heavily nuanced. Making things even more complicated is the fact that many college admission offices recalculate the GPAs using metrics that correspond to their own values/purposes. The GPA information reported by colleges is intended to provide a rough measure against which students can assess their likely competitiveness.

The same is true when trying to anticipate concordance between a 100-point scale and the 4.0 scale—each high school interprets its curricula differently. That’s why admission officers are careful to assess applicant credentials contextually. When I was dean of admission in charge of selecting a class from more than 4,000 applicants, we had to research/understand academic programs and grading systems at more than 1,500 originating high schools around the world.

Frankly, while I don’t want to encourage a reliance on standardized testing for any reason, comparing the student’s SAT or ACT “super-score” with the distribution of test results for enrolled students at a given college provides a better indicator of likely competitiveness. If the student’s super-score is at the middle/mean of the distribution, then his/her chances are just like everyone else at that college. For example, if the school admits 25% and a student’s super-score is right on the average, then the probability of admission is probably no better than 25% unless a very strong non-academic “hook” can be demonstrated.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter has been placed on the Wait List at her first-choice college until May 15. While she did not apply Early Decision, she had clearly indicated this to the school on her application. She will need financial assistance and our concern is that she might need to commit to a financial aid award elsewhere by May 1. What do you advise?
Maia

Dear Maia,
The situation you describe is actually not that uncommon, especially where financial aid is involved. The college in question clearly likes your daughter; it simply identified others whom it found to be more worthy of admission and financial aid during the Regular Admission process. The delay in notification until May 15 is likely indicative of the school’s need to make sure sufficient financial aid is available (after Regular Decision students with financial aid have been enrolled) to help students with financial need who might be admitted from the WL.

If this school remains your daughter’s top choice and she would like to be considered for admission from the WL, she needs to stay on their radar screen in order to have any chance of being admitted. She will also need to make sure she has a “Plan B” in place by either submitting an enrollment deposit at one of the schools that has admitted her or asking one of them for an extension on the deadline for her enrollment deposit. (Sometimes a college will extend the deadline as a courtesy.) If an extension is granted, your student needs to make sure any financial aid that has been offered will be honored at the new deadline.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My Senior received a letter from a school offering him admission under a program to enter in the Spring of 2019. He is treating this as a rejection and maintains adamantly that he will not attend the school under these circumstances and that taking courses at a local university or abroad, as suggested by the college to facilitate his transition in January, would doom his chances of getting in to med school. How do we look at this? It’s a letter of “acceptance” from a great school. Why would a school offer such a program, though? Do they need to have students that will come in when others leave after the first year? Is it a gimmick or a ruse?
Fred

Dear Fred,
The situation you describe is an enrollment sleight of hand that is becoming more common among selective institutions. With many more admissible students at their disposal than can actually be admitted, they are effectively “stashing” some of them for later enrollment. This enables them to carry high-yielding students forward into the next enrollment cycle thereby reducing the number of students to be admitted at that time.

This tactic also allows colleges to creatively manage their admission statistics. In this case, your son would only show up as a non-admitted applicant for the cohort entering in the Fall of 2018. (The only students whose credentials appear in the cohort summary for the fall of 2018 are those who enter as full-time students for the first time in the first semester of the academic year.)

By encouraging students to study abroad or take courses at a local college for an interim semester or two, the school in question is effectively changing your son’s future application status to that of “Transfer” in acknowledgement of the work done at other places. Having been guaranteed enrollment at some future point, they have completed the “stash” by affording themselves the academic pathway to enroll him later.

That said this option can work for him, but at some cost. He is correct that starting mid-year is a bad idea—especially if he wants to pursue a premed curriculum. If he has another viable option to start in the fall of 2018, I would urge him to give it serious consideration. Alternatively, he could wait until the fall of 2019—take a “gap” year—before starting his freshman year with the first school if that is indeed an option.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is quite disappointed that he was not admitted to his first-choice school. He has been admitted to the Honors College at our flagship state university. He is thinking that he will accept that opportunity with the intent to transfer to his first-choice after one year. Is that feasible?
Raj

Dear Raj,
I’m sorry to hear that your son was not admitted to his first choice, however, it would appear he does have at least one quality option. He should feel good about that opportunity and embrace it. If he pursues it earnestly (and doesn’t transfer), there is no reason to believe that he won’t experience the same professional opportunities that might have come to him otherwise.

Regarding a transfer, in the abstract it is certainly feasible. I would urge against that mindset as he gets started, though, as his thoughts will be elsewhere when he needs to be focused on fully acclimating himself into the Honors program (it that’s what he chooses). He can’t afford to let the transfer possibility become a distraction when success in the Honors program will be predicated on fully immersing himself there. I suggest he begin the Honors program with the intent to complete that degree and, then, turn to his initial first choice university for an advanced degree—not a bad combination if he can pull it off! It won’t happen, though, if he can’t refocus on the opportunity at hand.
Peter

“Fool’s Gold” 3.14.18


Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

Earlier this year, a friend asked my opinion about a dilemma that had come upon one of her advisees. A young woman whom she was advising had been accepted Early Decision to her first-choice school, a highly selective institution in the Northeast. Upon receiving the acceptance letter, she withdrew the applications she had submitted to half a dozen other elite institutions in order to honor her Early Decision commitment. The first in her family to attend college, she was understandably elated. Not only was she going to college, she had been admitted to the college of her dreams!

Weeks later, however, the elation turned to shock and concern when the financial aid award arrived and she found that her family was expected to contribute much more money out-of pocket than she had anticipated.

Instead of the $5,000 she thought her family would need to pay out of pocket, she was told their contributions would be closer to $12,000. She was now in a bind and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t afford her ED school and was now without options as she had withdrawn her applications to the other schools on her short list.

It is important to note that, prior to submitting the ED application, this young woman and her parents had completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and subsequently received a Student Aid Report (SAR). Based on the information her family provided, the SAR indicated an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $5,000 for the first year. While that was a lot of money for this family, her parents were confident enough in their ability to come up with that amount that she had gone ahead with the ED application. Now, the school to which she was committed was somehow expecting more, much more.

Unfortunately, scenarios like this are likely to play out in many households in the coming weeks as colleges and universities stretch their financial aid budgets to accommodate the financial needs of students whom they have accepted. For families, the revelations can be gut wrenching, if not downright painful.

Despite the early (October of the Senior Year) accessibility of the FAFSA application and the availability of “Net Price Calculators” (mandated on college websites to provide better information to families about cost and affordability) there is little precision in a process that is fraught with institutional nuances and agendas. As the young woman in this situation found out, institutions have variable means at their disposal to assess the EFC—means that can produce a range of results generated from data provided by the same family!

Moreover, colleges will apply these means in a manner reflective of the desirability of each candidate—an institutional prerogative that is lost in the online calculators.

For example, many private institutions utilize the College Scholarship Service Profile as well as the FAFSA to arrive at an EFC for a student. Rarely, however, do the two methodologies agree. In fact, PROFILE-generated EFCs can be $5,000-$10,000 higher than EFCs projected by the FAFSA. In a practice known as “differential need analysis,” institutions that utilize both methodologies can then choose, on a case-by-case basis, the one that allows it to respond to the student in a manner consistent with the value it attaches to that student. By doing so, the institution can claim to meet the demonstrated needs of its admitted students without ever having to reconcile the differential in the respective need analyses to the families involved.

I saw this first-hand when a young man shared with me the financial aid awards he had received from ten different colleges. They were so strikingly different that, if one were to “white out” his name on each award letter, you would think that each letter was being addressed to a different student! Some had very generous grants and scholarships while others were front-loaded with sizeable loans. In each case, the institutions had chosen to assess and meet his financial need according to the manner in which they regarded him as a candidate.

In yet other cases, colleges will ignore the need analyses and simply elect not to meet the full need of the admitted student. Instead, they will provide a basic financial aid award that covers a fraction of the demonstrated need and fill the ”gap” of unmet need with additional loans for the student and/or the parents. However it is manifest, don’t be surprised to find this type of gapping, as well as differential need analysis, in the days to come.

As you weigh your educational options, then, in the coming weeks, it is important that you understand the terms of the enrollment agreements you are considering, including your obligation to meet the cost of attendance. Sometimes in the euphoria associated with “getting in” it is easy to overlook the details and, in the case of managing college costs, the “devil might indeed be in the detail.”

The good news is that colleges will treat well those students whom they find most attractive. As a result, there are good deals to be found. To find them, though, you need to manage expectations and focus on finding colleges that are the best “fit” for you. Among other things, “best fit” colleges are those that value you for what you have to offer. They will admit you—and give you the support needed to meet your goals as a student on their campuses.

BCF Readers’ Forum 2.14.18


Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Periodically, I use this space to respond to questions I have received via email or during programs. My intent in sharing both questions and answers is to provide insight into the college-going process and stimulate conversation that leads to informed decision-making with regard to educational futures. As always, your comments are very much valued. To submit a question, contact me directly at Peter@BestCollegeFit.com

Dear Peter,
My son, a Junior, is currently taking Calculus BC. He will finish his high school math at the end of this year. The only math course he can take in his Senior year, AP Statistics, is an elective which he does not want to take. If he doesn’t take a math course in his Senior year, would it effect his possible acceptance by top tier schools?
Mara

Dear Mara,
I would strongly encourage your son to stick with math in his senior year. AP Statistics is a very substantive elective that will do the trick. “Top tier” schools want to see evidence that students continue to find appropriate challenges in each academic discipline through the senior year. Besides, Statistics will likely prove to be the most utilitarian coursework he can take into his college experience.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter, a junior, is taking AP Seminar this year and, until recently, was full steam ahead to take AP Research next year. As this class only earns elective credit, sacrifices have had to be made in order to fulfill graduation requirements (such as taking online classes over the summer). Now she’s considering not taking AP Research next year in order to take AP Music Theory. Her interests are math and music and she is in one of the auditioned choirs at her school. Part of me wants to see her complete the AP Capstone program and receive the diploma. How will it look, however, if she is taking Seminar this year but does not take Research next year? Is the AP Capstone diploma something that will help her stand out on college applications compared with all the other students at her school with 4.4 weighted GPAs and plenty of honors/AP classes?
Gina

Dear Gina,
Given your daughter’s interests, AP Music Theory would seem to be a no-brainer! While “nice,” the AP Capstone Program, in my opinion, is not likely to be very consequential in the admission process, especially when the alternative is AP Music Theory, an intensive, challenging course. If any question remains, suggest that she pose the question to some of the admission officers at colleges that interest her.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son has been accepted to a college with a nice merit scholarship. He is also applying for an outside scholarship that might also be a significant amount. If he is awarded the outside scholarship will the school add that to the merit scholarship they awarded him or will they reduce their offer? I understand that need-based aid can be reduced when scholarships are received, but can scholarships be bundled? I can’t find help with this anywhere.
Darlene

Dear Darlene,
Colleges vary with regard to how they apply outside scholarships. Some will apply the funds to reduce their own exposure via institutional grants or scholarships, some will apply it against your out-of-pocket expense, and some will split the amount with funds distributed to help both the institution and the family. I suggest you ask the financial aid office at the college in question about its practice in such situations. It’s a fair question and as a consumer, you have the right to know all the details before making any commitments.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My daughter recently received an invitation to represent her high school at the 2018 National Student Leadership Conference. It sounds interesting to her since they not only teach leadership skills, but also allow her to learn more about the career she is interested in (neuroscience). They tout the program as exclusive and say students will receive a Certificate of Achievement, an official program transcript and a letter of recommendation that they can submit to colleges. Is this program as exclusive as they say? Does it look good to have this on your college application? Or is this just a way for them to make a large profit (the program is rather expensive at approximately $3,000 for 9 days).
Joseph

Dear Joseph,
The invitation from NSLC and other “leadership” programs is sent to tens of thousands of students each year. (It’s not that exclusive!) My guess is the leadership components of the program are much stronger than are the neuroscience elements, which are likely to be of a more superficial, “show and tell” nature. The certificate, program transcript and letter of recommendation rarely carry much weight in the selection process. If your daughter is drawn to the NSLC experience purely for self-enrichment, then you might consider it for her. Otherwise, she might be better off exploring opportunities to shadow neurosurgeons and/or participate in research projects being conducted by professionals in your area.
Peter

Dear Peter,
Do the most selective schools use demonstrated interest in admissions decisions?
Maia

Dear Maia,
While most of the highly selective colleges indicate that they do not engage in predictive analytics (and it might be true), you can bet that all will review candidates carefully to discern the degree to which they have been thoughtful/intentional in both their decisions to apply and the manner in which they present their credentials. The key is to demonstrate the synergy that exists between the student’s interests, goals and learning style-and the institution’s capacity to serve them well.
Peter

Dear Peter,
My son is in 11th grade. His sister went to a nearby, highly selective school a few years ago and, more recently, my husband started to work at the same school for which my son will get his tuition waived if admitted. When considering his chances of admission, I was wondering if this is an advantage or a problem for him. Although he will not ask for financial aid, will the fact that they have to waive the tuition affect his candidacy in a negative way?
Joan

Dear Joan,
Your son potentially benefits twice here-first with the legacy connection (his sister) and then with tuition remission because off your husband’s employment. The latter is likely to be more consequential as most institutions regard the tuition remission for dependents as an important benefit for eligible employees. While there can be no guarantees, there are no negatives here!
Peter

Dear Peter,
The youngest of my three children will start in September at the college to which he has been accepted Early Decision. I do have another child who will be at a different college in September. The ED school has offered a $16,000 scholarship against a $55,000 per year bill and nothing else. I am between jobs and only have a small amount in a 529 for my youngest. My question: how might I best approach the Financial Aid department in the hopes of securing additional aid for him? It will be virtually impossible to afford both kids’ tuition even after I start my new job. We have nothing left in savings and I’m reluctant to draw from my IRA retirement account. I know there are subsidized and unsubsidized loans out there but am trying to not leave my kids with crushing student loan debt upon graduation.
James

Dear James,
Since your youngest has been admitted ED, you should make every attempt to resolve the cost/affordability issue before submitting an enrollment deposit. Once you send in the deposit, you lose your leverage in the discussion about financial aid.
 
In terms of addressing your out-of-pocket concerns, schedule an appointment with the financial aid office as soon as possible at which time you can present documentation of your current financial situation, including evidence of financial aid treatment for your older child. As you present this information, ask the question, “How can you help make it possible for my son to attend?” The financial aid officer should be able to respond when faced with new and compelling information.

By the way, you need to be prepared to accept student loans as part of the proposed solution. In appropriate increments, borrowing doesn’t have to be unusually burdensome. Be prepared for $3,000-$5,000 in the first year and increases up to $8,500 in the last two years. Much more than that, in his name, is not reasonable. You also need to be prepared for the suggestion that you borrow through the Parent PLUS loan.

If the proposed solution is not reasonable, then your son needs to be prepared to decline the ED opportunity, withdraw his application completely and look elsewhere where his value to the institution will be more satisfactorily reflected in its financial support of him.
Peter

“Keep Your Eyes on the Road” 1.13.18


Saturday, January 13th, 2018

By Peter Van Buskirk

The “rush” associated with college application deadlines has almost passed. Except for students applying to colleges with February 1 deadlines or those with “rolling admission” processes, the “heavy lifting” is over. And with that realization comes a huge sigh of relief. All that is left now is the wait for final admission decisions. Sound familiar?

If so, you (and your parents) might be tempted to downshift from the frenetic pace that got you this far. Be careful, though, not take your “eyes off the road” to college. Otherwise, you might miss important opportunities to put yourself in the best position to gain admission and secure the financial assistance you need at the schools of your choice. You have traveled too far in this process to leave things to chance. For example:

1.  File the FAFSA—now! If you find college price tags to be even the least bit daunting, you need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Wherever you are looking, need-based financial aid starts with it. The FAFSA determines your eligibility for grants and loans from the federal government and from most states. Moreover, state universities and many private colleges also use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for institutional funds. If you think you need assistance, you can’t afford not to file the FAFSA

2.  Don’t wait for the “admit” letter to apply for financial aid. This may seem redundant, but it bears repeating: if you think you need assistance, complete the financial aid application process now! That means completing the FAFSA and all other required forms. In particular, watch out for the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE, a highly complex form required by many private institutions.

It is not uncommon for families to put off financial aid applications because they are either uncomfortable with the process itself or they are don’t want to jeopardize the student’s status through the admission process. The assumption: “Let’s see where you get in and then we can apply for financial aid” or “This form is worse than the 1040 tax return. Let’s wait until our accountant can work on it.”

Frankly, “waiting” is a bad strategy. The reason—financial aid is awarded (or allocated) to students as soon as they are admitted. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand before beginning to address financial aid applications and you demonstrate that you need assistance, it is likely you will receive a message from the admitting institution that the financial aid “well” has gone dry. Despite the “need,” the money is gone. In such cases, any financial aid that might come your way “after the fact” will likely involve heavy doses of loans and campus work-study.

3.  Stick with your list.
It will be tempting to second-guess yourself with regard to the number and “quality” of schools to which you have applied—especially if you think “it can’t hurt to pick up a ‘true’ safety school” or “I’ll never know if I could get in if I don’t try.” While you are “in the moment,” these thoughts might seem very reasonable. The fact is you are likely to put yourself into competitive situations where your lack of history with the institution will raise questions about the sincerity of your interest. Such seemingly whimsical interest can lead to the conclusion that you are a “ghost applicant.” When that happens, even prospective “safety” schools will be inclined to put you on the Wait List.

The bottom line: Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by last minute flings. It is much better to remain focused on maintaining productive relationships with schools on your short list.

4.  Stay engaged with the colleges to which you have applied. This mantra is probably getting old, but don’t under-estimate the importance many institutions attach to having some degree of confidence in the sincerity of your interest. When the hair-splitting is finished in the credential review process, the following question is often raised about compelling candidates, “If we admit this student, what is the likelihood that he will enroll?”

So, what can you do? If you haven’t visited, make plans to do so now. Once on campus, make sure you check in at the admission office. Interview if you can. Some schools will offer alumni interviews. If so, make an appointment. It will be the fact, not the substance, of the interview that can make a difference.

Pay attention to your inbox—don’t ignore seemingly casual emails from representatives of the schools to which you have applied. There is a good chance they are “pinging” to see if you are paying attention—to see if you are interested. Don’t give them a reason to question the strength of your interest. In sincere and appropriate ways, stay on their radar screens. An institution’s lack of confidence in the sincerity of a student’s interest is the unseen reason behind countless decisions to move highly qualified students from the admit list to the Wait List.

5.  Stay focused. The work you do in the classroom in the coming weeks could well make the difference in your admission outcome. This might be the most straightforward—and common sense—bit of advice I can offer, but it is also the most easily overlooked. The rule of thumb when it comes to the senior year is this: “The more selective the college of interest, the more important the senior year performance will be as the number one factor.”

Think about it. It is precisely at that moment when you think the pressure is off—that no one is looking—that admission officers at selective institutions make their most difficult decisions. Even students who have been admitted Early Decision or Early Action will be expected to show that the performance that gained them admission is continued through graduation. Don’t give admission officers a reason to say “no” or to reconsider their offers of admission.

By Peter Van Buskirk

Getting into the college of choice might weigh heavily on your mind at the moment, but the odds are the prospect of affording college costs looms even larger. And, if financial aid is critical to your ability to attend that college—or any college for that matter—now is the time to get organized around the possibilities. The following tips are intended to help bring order to the financial aid application process.

1. Know the five sources of funding for college. The first source is—no surprise—the student’s family. The second and third are the federal and state governments which provide cash—grants, loans and work study funds (in your name)—to your chosen college in amounts that can total more than $10,000 per year.

Colleges, the fourth source, then can choose to offer “assistance” that addresses the difference between the total cost of attendance and the combined resources coming from the family and the federal and/or state governments. If they do so in the form of a grant or scholarship, they are effectively agreeing to forgive you payment in that amount. They might also offer a range of borrowing opportunities for you and your parents which will result in more cash to the college—money that you will pay back to lending institutions.

The fifth source of funding involves service organizations, philanthropic foundations and places of employment that offer scholarships. After the funding from your family, each of the other sources is integral to the overall financial support you might receive.

2. Become familiar with your “EFC.” As noted above, your family is presumed to be the first source of funding for college. The amount that your family is expected to contribute is known as your Expected Family Contribution or “EFC.” Simply put, your EFC is the difference between your family’s income and assets and your family’s cost of living. The actual determination of amounts for each category is drawn from multiple data points that are derived from the financial aid forms listed in #3 below.

3. Complete the required forms in a timely fashion. The determination of your EFC and your eligibility for funding from sources beyond the family starts with the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A government document, the FAFSA, calculates your EFC and determines your eligibility for federal, state and, in many cases, college funds. Your family should plan to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible using financial data from your 2016 IRS tax return. Upon completing the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report (S.A.R.) showing your EFC will be sent to you and each of the colleges you have listed on the FAFSA.

In addition, many private institutions require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well to the determine your eligibility for institutional funding. More granular in its assessment of family finances, the Profile should also be completed as soon as possible if you are applying to any of the schools that require it. A report will be sent to the colleges you have designated. You will not receive any information regarding this need analysis.

Some colleges also require the completion of their own forms. Make sure you know the forms that are required for each college and submit them at the earliest possible date.

4. Understand the concept of “need.” In the conversation about financial aid, “need” is the difference between the total cost of attendance and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC falls short of the cost of attendance, then you have demonstrated need. Theoretically, colleges will provide financial aid to meet the demonstrated needs of the students they admit. As you will see in #5 and #6 below, though, the determination of “need” can vary from place to place as will the disposition of each college with regard to meeting your need. Moreover, you should be prepared for the likelihood that the need analysis completed using the FAFSA data might show an EFC that is lower than that revealed by the Profile.

5. Don’t make assumptions about EFC or need. And be wary of online forecasters or of any service that suggests it can optimize your financial aid potential. While parameters for determining financial need might seem to be predictable, the processes of admitting students and awarding financial aid are heavily nuanced across institutions.

For example, colleges typically engage in subjective practices such as differential needs analysis (they will choose the methodology—FAFSA or Profile—that allows them to justify the amount of “need” they will recognize) and preferential packaging (different amounts of grant, loan and work study are assembled that reflect the value attached to a given candidate) to leverage the enrollments of students they want the most. As a result, online forecasters, including the net price calculators found on college websites, rarely provide an accurate picture of your likely out-of-pocket expenses should you be admitted. Moreover, some colleges will eventually make financial aid awards that come short of meeting the demonstrated need of admitted students or that include disproportionate amounts of loan—funds that will ultimately come from your pocket on top of the EFC.

6. Be prepared for the fact that not all colleges will meet your full “need.” As colleges preferentially package financial aid (see above), they will be sure to treat well those students whom they value most highly. Students who appear to be very good—but not superior—in the evaluation of credentials, might be admitted with “gapped” financial aid awards. In other words, the financial aid will come short of meeting the need (the differential between total cost of attendance and your family’s expected family contribution). Unfortunately, such financial aid awards are not very transparent—the true EFC is rarely revealed on the award letter and it is only after calculating the numbers yourself that you find the total out-of-pocket expense your family will need to assume.

By the way, don’t assume that a financial aid award comprised of large sums of loans, to be taken by the student and/or the parents, is meeting your need. The college is simply creating a range of sourcing opportunities for your family to generate cash that will help to cover our college costs. The amount of student loan to be assumed in the first year does not need to be greater $7,500 and can be less. While it might be prudent to use the parent loan (PLUS) to address your cash flow needs within the EFC be careful about taking out PLUS loan monies as part of the financial aid award.

7. Don’t wait to apply! Waiting until the admission decisions are known or until you have completed your tax returns to begin the financial aid process is extremely risky. The reason: most institutions “spend down” their financial aid budgets as they proceed through the selection process. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand to apply for aid, the money might well be gone.

8. If the numbers don’t look right, appeal! Soon after you receive an offer of admission, you should expect to receive a financial aid award letter if you have applied for financial aid. This will be true of candidates for both Early Decision and Regular Decision. Hopefully, the numbers are consistent with your expectations and you feel reassured about your ability to meet the cost of attendance for the colleges in question. If not, contact the financial aid office at the school with your questions and any new and relevant information that might be considered in an appeal of your financial aid award. Do this as soon as possible.

9. Discuss cost/affordability at home. Communication about cost and affordability at home is critical to good decision-making. Make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to how much you are able/willing to spend on a college education. This “ounce of prevention” can help to avert stressful conversations about paying for college at the end of the process.

10. Manage expectations. Know where your credentials will be most competitive and set your (college) expectations accordingly. Hundreds of millions of financial aid dollars will be awarded each year—and they will go to the students who are valued most at the institutions in question.

For more tips on navigating the financial aid process, check out Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook for Students in the BCF Bookstore.