Applying to School and Securing the Cash
In This Chapter ▶ Understanding the process of applying to school ▶ Getting together the forms and documents you need ▶ Considering how much school costs and how you’ll pay for it Once you’ve decided what you want to study and where, the next step is to apply to a school. (Of course, some people apply to more than one school at a time, but Chapter 5 helps narrow the selection.) The first part of this chapter guides you through the application process. We introduce you to the forms you’ll use as well as some strategies to make your application land on the top of the applicant pool!
The rest of the chapter addresses the million-dollar question: How much is your education going to cost and how are you going to pay for it? (Okay, the tuition and other expenses may not actually cost you a million bucks, but when you’re adding everything up, it may feel like it.) We give you an overview of tuition costs, as well as details about the federal financial aid program.
Applying to an Online Program By the time you’ve decided which college or university to apply to, you’ve likely filled out a Web-based information form in order to receive more details about the school’s offerings (see Chapter 4 for more details on this). After you jump through those preliminary hoops and give schools your e-mail address, they share the application process. You receive an e-mail with links to forms and instructions, including fees that may be involved. Often, you have the opportunity to receive paper versions of the same, too.
This process is very similar to that of brick-and-mortar colleges: It includes filling out application forms, writing an essay or two, and submitting documents that show your achievements and education to date. In the following sections, we describe a typical application process, one that isn’t specific to any individual institution. This way you can see the kinds of information most colleges ask for and prepare accordingly.
In the following sections, we’re talking about applying to online schools only. If you want to enroll in an online program through your local two-year college, they will probably ask you to complete the traditional application process, which may include testing for math or English placement.
If you apply to more than one school at a time, you have to fill out specific forms for each institution. However, you may be able to send the same resume or essay to more than one school.
The basic application forms Your journey begins with paperwork! Forms come in a couple of types: digital and paper. Instead of working with paper-and-pencil versions, you may be completing Web-based forms. The institutions that rely on paper applications may direct you to a site where you can download and print your own forms.
Preliminary demographic information Every college needs basic information about you. This includes
✓ Your contact information: Your home address and e-mail addresses (since now you live online as well as on-ground) and telephone numbers ✓ Personal information: Your ethnicity, and citizenship, military, and marital status ✓ Your academic plans: The type of degree you plan to pursue ✓ Your previous education: High school data and any college credits you may have earned
If you apply to a traditional school that happens to offer online degrees, this information is identical to what you would provide if you wanted to attend traditional classes. Therefore, you may also be asked about extracurricular activities, honors, family background, and work experience. If you apply to an institution that specializes in online degrees, you’re less likely to be asked about these extras.
Transcripts of your previous education You need to provide transcripts of your educational experience. Typically these need to be sent directly from the institution to the college to which you’re applying. In other words, self-made copies on your home inkjet won’t suffice. The good news is that, in many cases, the college to which you’re applying will accept an unofficial copy temporarily as a way of keeping the ball rolling. This is called a conditional enrollment, which means that assuming everything else is in order, you are accepted to start the program without delay. However, you’re given a deadline for supplying the institution with an original copy of your transcript. To do this, contact the high school or other colleges directly and ask them to send these credentials electronically. Follow up to be sure they were sent. If the credentials are not received in a timely fashion, you may be prohibited from enrolling for the next term. Also, during this waiting period, you won’t receive financial aid.
A resume For many graduate programs, schools request a resume to accompany your application. They want to see the connection between your work experience and your academic plans. Don’t worry if these don’t exactly match up, especially if you’re transitioning to a new career. If you’re stuck on what to write or how to organize the resume, we recommend checking out Resumes For Dummies, 5th Edition, by Joyce Lain Kennedy (Wiley).
Financial aid paperwork We include this here in the list of documents that you may need, but we say much more about this in the section, “Figuring Out How You’re Going to Pay for Online Classes,” later in this chapter.
Application fees You didn’t think you could apply without an application fee, did you? Yes, there are applications fees even though it seems you’re doing all the work. Fees vary from school to school. Most range from $50 to $100.
Your personal essay Some institutions require a personal essay as part of the application process. Not only does this allow them to find out more about each applicant, but it gives the institution an opportunity to see your writing skills and creativity. This is especially true for applicants to graduate programs. You can’t earn a master’s degree without writing, and by the time you get that far in school, the school expects you to know what you’re doing!
Other institutions no longer require a personal essay. For instance, schools that offer bachelor’s completion programs assume that students who apply learned to write in their first two years of college, which they would have completed prior to enrolling in the online program. Likewise, private schools that don’t offer remedial courses expect students to already know how to write.
If you’re required to put your thoughts to paper, take a look at the next sections for a glimpse of topics you may be asked to write about, some hints about what a good essay includes, and a couple of essay excerpts.
What you may be asked to write If you’re applying for an associate’s or bachelor’s program or anything at the undergraduate level, chances are good that you’ll be asked to give a written statement describing your past work experience or extracurricular activities. This gives the school an opportunity to get to know you a little better.
Beyond that introductory information, you may be asked to develop a longer essay. These essays are typically a page or two in length. Here are several common undergraduate essay questions:
✓ Evaluate a significant experience in your life and how it affected you. ✓ Discuss some issue of personal significance and why it is important. ✓ Identify and describe a person who has had a significant influence on you, and explain the influence. ✓ Choose your own topic.
Choosing your own topic may allow for creativity, but it does not excuse bad writing. You still have to follow standard conventions and show good grammar and organization. Be careful not to get too abstract if you choose your own topic.
Graduate essays are completely different. In a graduate essay, the schools probe your motivation to continue your education as well as your professional experience. They want candidates with prior professional exposure because this enriches the classroom experience. Working gives you stories to share and insights to offer. For example, if you seek an advanced degree in education, you may be asked to provide a philosophy statement that weaves together your personal beliefs about education with your work experience.
If you’re going straight from college with an undergraduate degree into graduate school, write about volunteer or internship experience you can relate to your studies. After all, there must be some compelling reason you want to stay in school! Tell the reader what it is that has led you to love that field and how your experiences fit.
What the readers are looking for Schools can tell a lot about your academic preparation and personal motivation from your written work. If your work is filled with grammatical errors or lacks basic organization, they’re going to know that you need remedial help. On the other hand, if your writing mechanics (grammar, punctuation, and spelling) are fine, readers can move on to how creatively you address the topic, your ability to analyze and think critically, and your overall written communication skills. That’s good!
What other pointers should you remember? Check these out:
✓ Readers are not looking for formulaic essays. Following the fiveparagraph rule with an introduction plus thesis statement, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion is easy. Try to work a little beyond that. The people who read these essays read a lot of essays, so yours needs to be unique. ✓ Make sure your introduction and conclusion are strong. Readers like pieces that start with a punch and end with a bang. ✓ Details count! Be sure to support any opinions or assertions with details. Avoid vague, unsubstantiated comments. For example, if you say a lot of people take online courses, back it up with information from a trusted source (for example, “Sloan-C says 3.9 million students were enrolled in online courses in the fall of 2007”). ✓ Reference research methodology and theory when possible. Impress readers by sharing your knowledge of research in the field you are studying and how you apply it currently in your work. ✓ Tell the truth. Academic honesty starts with the application process. If you trust this school to give you a decent education and a degree, they should be able to trust you to do your own work and tell the truth. For example, don’t write about how facing a catastrophic illness defined your personal views if you’ve enjoyed excellent health your whole life. It’s these kinds of lies that snowball.
For much more detailed information about writing a college application essay, read College Admission Essays For Dummies by Geraldine Woods (Wiley).
Samples of writing Here is an excerpt of a writing sample for a graduate essay. The writer was asked to explain how obtaining a master’s degree from that school would benefit a wide audience.
“For the past seven years, I have supported faculty and subject matter experts in both academic and corporate settings. Currently, as a Dean of
Instruction, I develop schedules for both students and faculty, provide faculty training, and supervise our institution’s faculty peer-coaching program. My highest priority is to assist faculty in meeting quality standards in the areas of instructional design and instruction. To accomplish this goal, our organization emphasizes a systems approach to design and a variety of teaching methodologies to meet the needs of multiple learning styles. By accepting my application, you not only affect the lives of a single learner, but a community of educators.”
An excerpt of an essay for an undergraduate program in which the author explains her goals might look like this:
“In North America, there is an unwritten rule that the senior year of high school is sacred. It is a time of morphing between childhood and young adulthood, of academic accomplishment and recognition, and of social development. So when my parents announced two months before my senior year that we were moving halfway across the world to serve in a relief agency, imagine my reaction! And yet, having to pull up stakes and establish a new identity in South Africa left an indelible impression on me. Not only did I find a new voice in myself, stronger than I had believed possible, but I learned that listening teaches more than talking. All these experiences and lessons have led me to want to earn degrees in crosscultural communication and social justice.”
Letters of recommendation The application process includes letters of recommendation. These should come from people who know your work academically or professionally. If you’re a high school graduate, you can easily ask a teacher, school counselor, or coach to write a letter for you. If you’re a working professional and have a good relationship with your boss, ask her! Not only does it alert her to the fact that you’re returning to school, but she’ll probably be flattered to think you value her opinion. You may also want to ask a trusted colleague. It’s good to get a variety of views. Be prepared to supply up to three different letters.
Be sure your references understand your academic and professional abilities and accomplishments. Friends and relatives may not be the best choice for this task, unless they’ve had direct experiences working with you.
Even though they adore you, the people who write your recommendation letters may not follow through promptly. Be sure to check with them to make sure their letters are sent in a timely fashion. To help speed up the process, provide each person with a self-addressed envelope and a description of the program you are applying to.
If someone asks what you want them to say, tell them typically a letter includes:
✓ Information about your relationship: For how long have they known you and in what capacity? ✓ An overview of your professional abilities and accomplishments: Here’s where you could say you want them to mention certain skills or abilities. You may want to give them a resume to work from. ✓ Your previous academic experience, if any: Again, if your reference doesn’t know this, give it to her in a resume. ✓ A general statement of why the program would benefit by accepting your application: This is a nice way to close the letter.
Test scores ACT, SAT, GRE, MCAT, PDQ, ASAP . . . acronyms like these invoke fear in most college applicants. Excluding the last two, these are the monikers of standardized academic tests sometimes used to predict a student’s success. Some programs require these test scores as part of the application process. However, many online institutions have dropped the test requirement because they know that your high school GPA or the number of credit hours you’re transferring into their program are better indicators of future success.
If you need to take and submit the scores from one of these tests, make arrangements well in advance of when you want to start your academic program. It typically takes six to eight weeks to receive test results. When you take the test, you can indicate which schools you want to receive your scores, and the testing company will send your scores directly to those schools.
If English is not your first language, you may be asked to submit English proficiency scores from either the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). We address this further in Chapter 17.
When it’s all due When all this is due depends on the school. If you apply to a traditional school offering online courses that run on a typical semester schedule, there may be a deadline for admission. However, if you apply to a school that starts programs every few weeks, the deadline (and your start date) are whenever you get your paperwork sent it, and are subsequently accepted and enrolled. There are
some conditions related to financial aid, so be sure to ask the academic advisor or admissions personnel about this when you first contact the school if it isn’t obvious.
Lending a helping hand: The recruiter, advisor, or counselor To gather information about online schools, you sometimes have to complete online forms (we cover this in Chapter 4). After you submit your contact information, you may receive a phone call. The people who call you are recruiters, and their job is to hook you into the process by answering your questions, providing information, and then referring you to other helpful personnel. If you’re applying to one of the well-known private online schools, you should know that these people are highly trained in sales and marketing. Don’t be put off by that, but ask questions. We make suggestions regarding what questions to ask in Chapter 5.
Sometimes a recruiter works with you all the way through the application process, but more often she refers you to an academic advisor or counselor. An academic advisor first helps you get together the necessary paperwork. She gives you a list of documents that you need, such as the application, transcripts, resume, and so on.
When it comes to transcripts, you tell the institution where they should come from. As we discuss in the earlier section “Transcripts of your previous education,” temporary copies can help keep the ball rolling. Your responsibility is to follow through to make sure transcripts are sent and received.
Though academic advisors have a lot of answers, some decisions have to be made by others. For example, whether or not previous credits will transfer is a decision that will most likely be made by a dean or other administrator within the program you’re applying to. However, the academic advisor serves as the facilitator by providing the dean with your transcripts and reporting any decisions to you. The academic advisor also helps facilitate introductions between you and other staff, such as the Financial Aid Officer.
Calculating the Costs of Online Classes There’s no easy way to break the news: School isn’t cheap! According to a New York Times article from 2008, “college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, while median family income rose 147 percent”
(not adjusted for inflation). The reasons behind these increases are beyond the scope of this book, so we focus here only on what it’s going to cost.
It’s impossible for us to tell you that a two-year degree, for example, will cost you $15,000 because we don’t know whether you want to go to school at a private institution, a four-year institution that awards associate’s degrees, or a two-year school. In addition, as soon as we give you a price tag, tuition is going to rise (it never falls), making the number obsolete! Therefore, we look at the cost of one course in 2009.
For this baseline, consider the following costs for an undergraduate, threecredit-hour accounting course:
✓ At a well-known, private online institution: $460 per credit hour ($1,380 total) ✓ At a public university that offers this course online: $282.50 per credit hour in-state or $847.50 out-of-state ✓ At a two-year community college in the Midwest that offers this course online: $85 per credit hour in-district and in-state, $262.56 out-of-district but in-state, or $289.59 out-of-district and out-of-state ($255 to $868.77 total, depending on where you live)
In the foregoing example, you save money by taking the course through the local community college, but not everyone has that kind of option.
Now consider a three-credit-hour, graduate-level course in education:
✓ At a well-known, private online institution: $535 per credit hour ($1,605 total) ✓ At a public university that offers this course online: $294.75 per credit hour for in-state residents; $884.25 for out-of-state residents and international students
Of course, remember that the more classes you take at once, the more you’ll owe at once. And, the tuition costs can vary based on the institution and program of study. For example, we’ve seen nursing programs exceed $600 per credit hour.
Next we break down the costs. We can’t give exact numbers, but Table 6-1 shows some typical costs and where you may see differences.
The end result is that you won’t save money in tuition and fees if you go to school online, but you may save money in room and board and travel costs, depending on how you run your own comparison. What you save on books depends on the seller and whether they offer free shipping.
Figuring Out How You’re Going to Pay for Online Classes Cash, check, or charge? Paying for school is never that easy. It’s an expensive proposition and one that no one can afford to take lightly. Once you determine what you want to study and where you want to go, you have to come up with the cash. This section introduces you to the idea of finding financial aid.
What financial aid can pay for depends on the type of aid received. For the most part, aid can pay for tuition and fees, and possibly textbooks. If you’re an online student, it can’t be used to pay for your housing.
Every school has a financial aid officer who can help you throughout the financial aid process. The financial aid representative may even approach you when you first inquire about the program! That person walks you through the various types of aid available at that specific institution, and what you need to do to possibly receive aid.
We should say from the beginning that every school has its own process. Therefore, we keep this discussion on a level that may be applicable to the majority of schools.
Do you need financial aid? While earning a degree or a certificate at a two-year college is very affordable, graduate degrees and bachelor’s completion programs at larger institutions carry a heftier price tag. If you’re a working adult, imagine adding an additional $20,000 in debt! Few people have that kind of cash readily available, nor can they absorb those kinds of payments into their budget over the short term (the years you’re studying online).
For that reason, you have to pursue the options! Further, many institutions ask you to complete financial aid paperwork when you apply regardless of your expressed need. Why is this? The institution wants you to finish the degree. It tries to remove any barriers it can, including problems paying for school.
In all fairness, you may be able to afford the education without outside assistance. Good for you! In that case, just complete the required forms and relax.
And what if you’re not sure whether you need assistance? The federal paperwork helps determine this need. The government has a snazzy formula that takes all your expenses into account balanced against what you have saved, including money from a 529 savings account (the special one for education). Also, you can find an abundance of financial aid calculators and tools through a simple Web search, including resources on the Free Application for
Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) site. And, that friendly financial aid counselor the school assigns will have additional resources.
You only need to fill the financial aid paperwork out once, regardless of how many schools you’re considering. However, if you receive aid, don’t forget to reapply each year.
What types of financial aid are available? Financial aid comes in a few varieties. In most cases you use this aid for tuition and fees for online courses, assuming you’re attending an accredited institution. The financial aid counselor can tell you whether there are any restrictions. Here, we look at some possibilities and see how they differ.
✓ Scholarships: Gifts of a prescribed amount based on merit or circumstance. Scholarships are available for graduate and undergraduate study. You don’t have to pay back scholarships. If the scholarship comes from the school or an outside agency, such as the Future Farmers of America club, it may be restricted to a certain field of study or for use only at the school giving the scholarship. Federal aid may restrict whether the scholarship is available for graduate study. ✓ Grants: Awards of a prescribed amount based on financial need. Some of these come from the federal government whereas others may come from the state. The two most common grants are federal programs: Pell and supplemental educational opportunity grants. Federal grants typically aren’t available for graduate study. You don’t have to pay back a grant. ✓ Loans: Money you borrow. Loans can be secured privately through your local bank or federally through Subsidized Federal Stafford and/or Direct Loans. These federal student loans do not accrue interest while you’re in school. Obviously, these loans must be paid back. Any unsubsidized loans you secure accrue interest from the time they’re disbursed. Therefore, if you’re able to pay your tuition solely from the subsidized loans, consider declining unsubsidized loans.
Applying for Federal Financial Aid Applying for financial aid requires diligence and an attention to detail. You fill out the form, and the government tells you how much aid you’re eligible for, based on financial need. While the process requires attention to detail and searching documents (like old tax returns) for the numbers you need, it’s not that awful. And the bright spot is that you only need to apply once through the government, and that information is then forwarded to the institutions you specify.
Knowing whether you’re eligible for funds from Uncle Sam In order to receive financial assistance from the federal government, you must meet certain criteria. The amount of assistance is based on a complicated formula based on anticipated need and expenses such as tuition, housing, books, and so forth.
Criteria for eligibility include U.S. citizenship, a high school diploma or GED, and satisfactory grade performance. There are other legal requirements as well, such as having a social security number (SSN), which should also be reviewed before completing the application.
Financial aid recipients are required to adhere to certain academic standards. Depending on the type of aid, students must attend at least half time and be enrolled in a certificate or degree-seeking program. Performance standards set by the academic institution must also be met. Students failing to meet these standards can be denied federal assistance.
Filling out and submitting the FAFSA Every financial aid application begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Not only is the FAFSA required for federal financial aid, but it’s also the benchmark for any other kind of aid consideration. Aside from basic demographic information, this form collects the details about your income or your parents’ income and assets. How long it takes you to get the information together depends on how organized you are in general. Some people can find their tax returns in the snap of a finger while others have to rummage through the entire basement! Leave yourself enough time to complete the task. The form is available online at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov, along with more information. Figure 6-1 familiarizes you with the look of the site.
Take caution if someone is trying to charge an application or service fee. Applying for financial aid should be free. Also, answers to questions you may have about the process and help filling out the application should be available free of charge from the institution or Federal Student Aid.
The FAFSA is available online, and you can complete the application process digitally. It takes approximately four weeks for the government to process written applications. This does not count the time your institution may need to process payments and so forth based on your application results. Completing the application digitally speeds up the process. Therefore, if you’re applying shortly before classes begin, apply digitally!
Once your FAFSA has been received and processed, you’ll receive an e-mail from the government indicating your student aid report has been sent on to the school(s) you specified. The school takes over and administers the aid.
Starting the process of looking for financial aid early is very important. January 1 is a crucial deadline, because this is when students for the next academic year can submit FAFSAs for consideration. Each institution has additional deadlines. Be sure to meet every deadline. If you don’t, you may have to wait a full year before you can apply again.
Traditional institutions and online institutions follow the same processes, so it may be worth your while to pick up a few resources, such as the book “Getting Financial Aid 2009 (College Board Guide to Getting Financial Aid)” by The College Board (available through major booksellers). You may also want to look at the Student Aid Web site at studentaid.ed.gov. Another student-friendly resource is students.gov, the student gateway to the government portal.