Applying for College — the Financial Aid Paper Chase

Checking my email each morning, I am usually feeling some trepidation. My voicemail gets forwarded to my email if I miss a call. Have I missed a customer’s call?  Have I missed a phone call from the doctors who are treating my Dad? Phone tag consumes so much time and energy.

But this morning, I had an email from a financial aid officer at one of the universities to which my 17 year old has applied.  She didn’t understand my faxed explanation and wanted further clarification. There was a not so subtle implication that I filled out the forms wrong.

Did I really fill out the online profile wrong? I decided to throw myself at her feet (figuratively speaking) and beg for mercy.

Our phone call turned out to be very cordial. I answered her questions about our circumstances (which are a bit out of the ordinary.) She advised me that she would have completed the profile differently but she would make notations and get back to me if she needed it in writing.

After a HUGE sigh of relief, I went back and reviewed the financial aid application printout. I checked various web sites for definitions. My answers still looked like they were in the right spots. How did applying for college financial aid get so complicated?!

If you are a recent graduate, you know what I am talking about. But, if haven’t yet had the fun of applying to colleges for yourself or your children, you have a surprise coming. The good news is that, between university endowments and federal grants and loans, the chances of your child (or you) graduating from a top notch school are better than ever before.

The bad news? The forms are complicated and peppered with sensitive financial questions that can be tricky to answer.  Forget about privacy. If you want any kind of financial aid, you get to put your personal and business financials on view for every college you would like to attend.

Parents, if your child is living at home, you have to provide your tax returns and W-2s, too. Divorce doesn’t exempt the non-custodial parent from sharing in the show and tell either. And, if you own a business like we do, expect to share the business returns. (Our CPA confided that he found the Business/Farm Supplement more complicated than it needed to be.)

Be prepared to get your taxes done very early. One college wanted our tax returns on January 1! (They did accept 2005 returns with 2006 estimated information.) The most lenient due date we have is March 1, 2007.

Why so early?

Most colleges want to send the financial aid offer with the acceptance letter in mid-March or early April. So, we alerted our CPA back in December that we had to have our personal and business taxes done in January to meet these deadlines for the online and document submissions.

The online process in brief:   The entire financial aid process starts with the FAFSA , the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines your family’s required minimum financial contribution. The intent of the FAFSA is to level the playing field for the applicants. No matter what college or university you apply to for financial aid, your family’s basic contribution is the same, based on the student’s and the parents’ income. Most state universities and some private colleges work just with the FAFSA. Like its name says, it is free. Then, you send copies of your signed tax returns to the college financial aid office to confirm the online application.

Other private universities have their own financial aid forms, but most have now gravitated to the CollegeBoard’s CSS Profile. (I find it odd that no one has questioned the CollegeBoard’s monopoly on the college entrance process. They have expanded beyond adminstering tests to collecting financial aid information and brokering loans to parents for college expenses.)

The Profile asks many of the same questions that are on the FAFSA plus additional questions customized for each private university that uses the Profile. For an additional handful of schools, the CollegeBoard collects the relevant tax returns via the IDOC service. And, of course, the CollegeBoard collects a fee for each Profile you forward. (Gotta admire that business model.)

All of the information gets forwarded to the financial aid offices. The staff use it to provide an aid offer for each student accepted for admission by the university. The vast majority of these aid offers are “need based” (determined by the FAFSA augmented with the Profile.) “Merit” aid or scholarships based solely on high school achievement are fewer.

Low income students get the most aid; well-to-do families ($100, 000 annual income)have to pay their own way. The majority of us in the middle (or in high cost areas of the USA) struggle to get the forms filled out right to get as much financial aid as reasonably possible.

While you can hire a consultant to personally guide your famly through this process, we chose to take a less expensive route and use Tuitioncoach.com. This new web site is a great knowledge base of  information to navigate the complex questions in both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile.

The expert behind this new web site is Dr. Paul Wruble. We first encountered Paul at a free seminar at our son’s high school. He is an educator by training, was a principal at one of the highest ranked high schools in California and is determined to help as many students as possible get great college educations.

The Tuitioncoach.com web site is packed with Paul’s insights and understanding of the financial aid process. For the $59 annual membership, you have access to even more detailed information on applying for aid and how to negotiate for a better deal at your first choice school.  (I didn’t even know I could ask for a review!)

It’s a great resource. Our family highly recommends it. 

When they can’t tell you what’s wrong. . .

I had suspected for a few days that something wasn’t right. Today I found out what it was.

My Dad was sent to the ER by the staff at the nursing facility where he has spent the past four weeks recuperating after being hospitalized. They couldn’t wake him. He was lethargic and groggy.

The ER staff diagnosed urosepsis (a urinary tract infection that has migrated to the bloodstream) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar.) The blood sugar issues are something that a diabetic deals with on a daily basis. But, the infection? Sepsis is a very serious condition. Dad was surrounded by nursing staff. Why didn’t it get noticed sooner?

Because his symptoms looked more like dementia.

Elderly patients, like very young children, can’t always describe what’s wrong. In my Dad’s case, he could only say that he wasn’t feeling well. He could not isolate the symptoms.

When he began acting confused and erratic, the nurses just thought it was a bad mental day. Confusion is too easily rationalized as “he’s like that some days.” Dad began his stay at this facility with enormous confusion and verbal outbursts — symptomatic of advanced kidney disease.

After four weeks on dialysis, the toxins in his blood has diminished. He seemed to be gaining strength and was working hard in physical therapy. Then, he started feeling poorly. 

It was more and more difficult to talk with him by phone. He couldn’t understand much of what I was saying. Shouting through each phone call was exhausting!

After most of these calls, I would check in with his nurse to see if she had noticed any problem, any reason for this change in behavior.

None that they could see. All of his vital signs were normal.

So, the only way to know that something was wrong was that he was behaving oddly. A friend who works in an assisted living residence told me that whenever one of their residents starts behaving funny, they have that person tested for a urinary tract infection. It’s that common.

I’ll know to ask next time.

Anemia, Unexplained Fatigue — Don’t let your parent ignore it

A study* done by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that anemia takes a serious toll on the elderly, threatening their ability to  remain independent.  The researchers recommended that doctors pay more attention to anemia in their older patients.

As I read the article, I was struck by how accurately it described my father’s situation. Now, my Dad has a number of very serious conditions–heart disease, diabetes and prostate cancer. But the most elusive issue has been his anemia. And, because my father didn’t understand that he could feel better than he did, he didn’t really pursue the cause of his fatigue. He regarded the bruising on his hands and arms as a sign of old age.

In addition to the skin bruising (purpura), the doctors found out the he had bleeding in his lower GI tract when he was hospitalized a year ago for shortness of breath. A year later, this was followed by serious nosebleeds.  At this point, the doctors removed the Plavix** from his regimen. The nosebleeds stopped but now he could barely walk.

As I look back on it, it is possible that the cardiologist who prescribed the Plavix did not know about my Dad’s prior ulcers. It is unclear why his primary care physician ignored the obvious purpura on his hands and arms. She was trying to address his anemia by prescribing Procrit.

The treatment made Dad feel better for a while.  Then, the fatigue would return. Over a two year period, Dad went from being independent in his own home (walking with a cane) to needing assisted living (walking very short distances with a rolling walker.)

While my father is struggling to regain some of the mobility he has lost, it looks like he won’t go back to living independently. Some might say this is inevitable for someone who is 84 year old.

I don’t agree.  I can’t change what happened, but now I talk to the doctors directly. 

*Source: Anemia and Decline in Physical Performance Among Older Persons” American Journal of Medicine” Vol. 115, No. 2, 8/1/03, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

** Plavix prevents the blood from forming clots to help prevent heart attack and stroke but can cause bleeding under certain conditions.

Watch Out for Lost Underwear

Unwritten rule 36: All clothing brought to a skilled nursing facility for a patient in rehab must have the name of the patient on it.

Our immediate family has been very healthy. Giving birth to two babies, one broken arm, and outpatient surgery all resulted in the patient(s) being released from the hospital to home without any stop in between.

Dad, on the other hand, has needed more time to recover. So out of the hospital to a rehab facility he went. The first time I had no clue there were rules about laundry.

They asked me (by long distance phone call from New Jersey), “Who is going to bring him more clothes and wash his dirty ones?” Whoa, what was that? Medicare doesn’t pay for laundry so the facility has the family do it.

The second time Dad went to rehab I thought I was better prepared. I packed a week’s worth of underwear and clothes and left them at the hospital for his eventual release. This rehab facility would wash his clothes.

Two weeks into his stay there, he complained that he didn’t have any clothes, especially underwear.  But, I had packed 7 pairs of underpants for him. Where did they go?

Well, it seems that if there isn’t a name on it when it comes out of the laundry, the staff don’t know who to return it to.  Ok, that makes sense.  I wish I had known before I left the clothing and got on that plane back to California.

I used to write my children’s names in all of their clothing from the time they started pre-school. It just made everyone’s life easier.  I just didn’t know that Grandpa would need that, too.

So there is a box on the way to my Dad with new underwear–all neatly washed and labeled with his name. I just hope it is the right size!