How to Understand Financial Aid

Question: My son, a junior in high school, plans to go to college. This fall, the counselors held a meeting with all the juniors to give them general information about what they needed to do this year so they would be ready to apply to college next year. They handed out a worksheet covering what was said.

Unfortunately, the counselors are not going to be able to counsel many individual students. I hope my son will be one of these lucky students. If not, what can our family do to make sure that he knows what he needs to know about individual colleges and financial aid? -- Not Much Information

Answer: Your son is in the same boat as many other students across the nation. According to the American School Counselor Association, one counselor is responsible for a nationwide average of 239 students. And the ratio is much higher in some states; in California it's 1-to-500. There is also the problem that many high-school counselors are not experts at college counseling, as they have not taken coursework in this area. And even if they have, the complexity of all the information coming from colleges is absolutely mind-boggling, especially financial aid.

For families with extra cash, there are private college counselors who will help students with every step in the process of being admitted to college. However, don't despair; there is plenty of information available both online and at college fairs. The first step that your son needs to take is to attend a college fair with you. Typically, both state and private schools will have representatives there, and all will have enticing brochures and counselors with whom he can talk.

There are so many websites that will help students select an appropriate college after asking them a series of questions. A good site is Search engines can guide you to others. Just look under "find a college that fits."

To understand financial aid, you should visit or the government's website And today, all colleges have websites that not only describe the school but also spell out exactly how to apply to the school. It may take some work, but you can find the information that your child needs.