Answering Financial Aid Questions

Angel B. Perez, of Pitzer College, offers some guidance.

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Will I be penalized for applying for financial aid? Who gets financial aid? And how much can I expect?

These are the sort of financial questions that teenagers and their parents ask all the time. Last week, Angel B. Perez, Pitzer College's admission director, who is known for his candor, tried to answer some of these questions at a meeting of West Coast college planners.

[Read about the financial aid formula.]

"We have hundreds of people visit everyday and financial aid is the biggest question that we get," Perez observed. "I have never seen such a high level of anxiety around it."

In hopes of reducing families' stress level, Perez tackled some financial aid questions. Here are his thoughts:

Q: How will I know what kind of financial aid package I might get?

A: If you're wondering what kind of financial aid or merit awards you may receive, you don't necessarily have to wait until after you're accepted to a school to find out.

Pitzer and other colleges, Perez says, will provide a preread on an applicant's possible financial aid award before he or she even applies. If you want a predictive financial aid package estimate, Perez advises that you only contact a school in late spring and early fall because the staff is less busy during those periods.

"Don't call between January and March for predictive financial aid packages," Perez warned. That's when the staff is busy packaging financial aid awards for the next freshman class. "Summer is also not a good time to ask because the staff is doing all the [financial aid] reevaluations for returning students."

Q: Do students get rejected simply because they need a lot of financial aid?

A: No, Perez says. The admission staff reads the applications without knowledge of each child's finances. They select the students they believe deserve to attend Pitzer. When the financial aid numbers are tallied, Perez says, "there is a small percentage of students who have to come out because we can't afford everyone."

But in the "tough and ugly" process, the school doesn't simply eliminate the teens who need the most help. Regardless of need, the school spares all the students whom they consider to be "rock stars," as well as those applicants who are expected to make a significant impact at the liberal arts college.

Q: Will a student be penalized simply for applying for financial aid?

A: Millions of parents have fretted over this one. They worry that a college will immediately throw a teenager's application in the reject pile just because he or she is asking for financial help, but Perez says this just isn't true.

As a practical matter, families who need a lot of assistance are going to apply for financial aid because they wouldn't be able to attend without it. It's the families, who wouldn't need nearly as much, who probably agonize over this one. Perez, however, says that the students, who apply for financial aid and who don't qualify for any, are treated exactly the same as families who never applied in the first place.

"If you apply for aid and don't get it, you are the same as someone who never applied," Perez says.

Read more about college admissions:

Colleges Face a Financial-Aid Crunch

U.S. News Guide to College Admissions