Bigest bang for your buck: honors colleges at public universities

Bigest bang for your buck: honors colleges at public universities

This article is for those of you who are looking into building a “smart” college list this fall. Let’s see…you want small classes, great professors, special residential living communities, school spirit and sports, a relatively large college with lots of options…all of this at a relatively low (or low-er) tuition. Hmmm…can you have it all? You can, in an honors college at a public university.

Admission to an Honors College is usually based on the review of a candidate’s college application or meeting a minimum high school GPA and standardized test score. An Honors College is typically designed to keep the “high achievers” together in a more rigorous academic environment and to provide a personalized education experience for its students.

Let’s hear how the University of Maryland describes their own honors program: “Small College Atmosphere. Large Research Institution Advantages. The Honors College combines the best of two educational options: the sophisticated academic offerings and friendly residential environment of a small liberal arts college nestled within the rich, diverse, boundless opportunities of a big research institution with the extra perks of the dynamite Terp spirit.”

How does this play out? Honors colleges are often an “oasis” in a large campus, with special courses taught by selective faculty members. Most honors programs require research, capstone projects, and a minimum GPA throughout the four years in the school. The benefits? Exposure to research with professors, internships, special programs, and advanced classes…a beautiful HONORS in your resume, at a lesser tag price. Talking about the best of both worlds..

How much less? Even for out-of-state students, these Honors Colleges typically charge $10,000-25,000 less than highly selective private universities, with merit and financial aid also available.

Here are five excellent Honors Colleges at Public Universities around the country:


University of Maryland

Honors College

Honors Invitation: comprehensive

OOS Sticker Price: $48,776

Merit Scholarships: Banneker / Key Scholars

Deadline: November 1



University of Alabama

Honors College

Honors Invitation: minimum GPA 3.5 + test score of 28 ACT / 1250/1310 old/new SAT

OOS Sticker Price: Tuition/Fees $27,750 + Room/Board $13,050 = $40,800

Merit Scholarships: Presidential Scholar, UA Scholar

Deadline: February 1 but 12/15 for Merit per above


Indiana University

Hutton Honors College

Honors Invitation: matrix of grades or rank and test score

OOS Sticker Price: $52,566

Merit Scholarships: separate application

Deadline: November 1


Arizona State

Barrett, The Honors College

Honors Invitation: comprehensive

OOS Sticker Price: (approx) $45,300

Merit Scholarships: New American University Scholar

Deadline: Early Action I & II, Regular Decision


University of Oregon

Robert D Clark Honors College

Honors Invitation: comprehensive

OOS Sticker Price:  $54,976

Merit Scholarships: Automatic based on grades/test scores

Deadline: Early Action & Regular Decision

Changes in Federal Student Aid

Changes in Federal Student Aid

There will be some fundamental changes to the way federal financial aid, and institutional financial aid at most colleges is determined. Here is a quick rundown of some of the most significant features.
  • Changes will be effective starting July 1, 2023 for the 2023-2024 school year. The first redesigned FAFSA form will be available for high school seniors on October 1, 2022 for those students currently in 10th grade.
  • The number of questions will be reduced from 108 to 36.
  • The term Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will be scrapped. It will be replaced by Student Aid Index (SAI). This is a positive change since many parents are currently misled into thinking their EFC is what they will have to pay when often it is significantly less.
  • If a dependent student’s parents are divorced or separated and not remarried, the parent who provides more financial support to the student will be responsible for completing the FAFSA. “The parent you lived with more during the past 12 months” will be scrapped as the determining factor for which parent should complete the FAFSA. This closes an enormous loophole divorced or separated parents were able to exploit.
  • Colleges will be required to disclose all elements of the cost of attendance on their website whenever it lists tuition and fees. This is a very positive change as some colleges continue to bury their total cost.
  • Income Protection Allowance will be increased, allowing a greater amount of income to be sheltered from the financial aid formula.
  • Asset Protection Allowance, which has steadily declined over the past decade, will remain unchanged and will probably disappear completely in a few years.
  • The FAFSA will no longer divide the family assessment by the number of family members in college. This change will significantly reduce the amount of financial aid available for multiple family members enrolled at the same time, a harsh and regressive change from the current formula.
  • The FAFSA will include a question about the applicant’s race or ethnicity.
  • Charging a fee to complete the FAFSA will be prohibited.
  • Male applicants will no longer be required to have registered with Selective Service.
  • Applicants convicted of the sale or possession of a controlled substance will no longer be ineligible for federal student aid.
  • Several changes to Professional Judgment and special circumstances, including prohibiting financial aid administrators from denying all financial aid appeals.

Questions? Let’s chat!

Bettina Weil

Founder, Weil College Advising, LLC.

How 529s Affect Financial Aid

How 529s Affect Financial Aid

By Chana R. Schoenberger

How are 529 funds treated when students apply for financial aid?

“One of the great things about a 529 plan is that when a parent or a dependent student is the account owner, it’s counted as a parental asset on the FAFSA,” the Federal Application for Student Aid form, says Kathryn Flynn, content director at While the FAFSA generally counts 20% of any student-held assets as being available to pay for college, the system counts parents’ assets (including 529s owned by parents or dependent students) only at up to 5.64%.

For example, Ms. Flynn says, “If a student has $10,000 saved in a 529 plan, only up to $564 would be considered available funds in the year the FAFSA is filed, but if the student had $10,000 saved in another type of account, such as a UTMA, their Expected Family Contribution [EFC] would go up by $2,000.”

“Generally, parental income and assets are treated more favorably than child-owned assets and income,” says Rachel Ramos, a product manager for the American Funds 529 plan, CollegeAmerica.

You can take distributions from a parent- or dependent-student-owned 529s for qualified higher-education expenses without the requirement to report this as income on the FAFSA, and it doesn’t affect your aid eligibility, Ms. Flynn says. This sets 529s apart from Roth IRAs, which also can be used to pay for college.

Parents Put Aside More College Savings 

“While it’s true that you can withdraw your Roth contributions before retirement age without triggering taxable income, these distributions will have to be reported as untaxed income on the Fafsa, and will be counted in the EFC formula,” she says.

A 529 owned by a grandparent, or any other adult aside from the student’s parents, is treated differently. Grandparents often want to keep control of 529 accounts they set up, because they may be able to receive state tax benefits, and they retain the ability to determine where the money goes. While the money is in a grandparent-owned 529, it has no impact at all on the student’s financial aid.

Here’s the problem: As soon as the student withdraws money for qualified expenses, the money is considered untaxed income to the student. Up to 50% of a student’s income will be calculated as part of the student’s EFC, Ms. Flynn says.

“A $5,000 gift from a grandparent could potentially reduce the student’s financial aid package by $2,500,” she says.

The good news is that the FAFSA recently changed its look-back period, so the system now considers the “base year” as two years before the start of the school year for which you are seeking aid. Students applying for next fall, the 2018-19 year, should report income for 2016.

For this reason, grandparents who own 529s should wait until at least the second semester of the student’s sophomore year of college (if they plan to graduate in four years) to take money out of a 529, she says. “The grandparent should also consider whether or not the grandchild will be applying for grad-school aid soon after graduation, which would affect the withdrawal timing.”


Partially due to merit scholarships, we may end up having more 529 funds than we need for my children. I may leave some funds in the account for future grandchildren, but how can I withdraw funds penalty-free to use for nontuition purposes?

If your student receives a scholarship, you have three options for excess money in a 529, says Beth Walker, a partner at Wealth Consulting Group, a Las Vegas financial-planning firm. You can use the funds for graduate school; switch the beneficiary of the account to another family member who qualifies, or take out the extra funds and pay only the income taxes on your gains. The 10% penalty is waived if you are offsetting a scholarship, she says.


If you don’t use a 529 account for education purposes and the owner closes the account, how is it taxed? Is the 10% penalty on the gain only? If you transfer a portion of the unused account to another grandchild and close the remainder, how is the portion taken by the owner taxed? For example, if half the account is transferred and half-closed out, can you take the position that the half transferred is made up entirely of the gain on the account, or is it proportional?

If a 529 plan isn’t used for the beneficiary’s education, the owner may change the beneficiary to an eligible family member, says Gretchen Cliburn, director of financial planning at BKD Wealth Advisors in Springfield, Mo. However, if the owner withdraws funds for anything other than qualified educational expenses, the earnings—but not the contributions, which were made after-tax—will incur federal and state income taxes in addition to a 10% penalty.

“In addition, if you were able to deduct your original contributions on your state income tax return, you will generally have to report additional state ‘recapture’ income,” says Ms. Walker of Wealth Consulting Group. Distributions are allocated between principal and earnings on a pro-rata basis, she says.


My son, a rising high-school junior, was admitted to Stanford University for an eight-week summer college program. He will be taking three college undergraduate classes. Can I use his 529 to pay for the expenses (room and board)? What about the plane-ticket costs?

Stanford is a qualified institution, but whether your son’s summer program meets the criteria for 529 funds is a question Stanford would have to answer, Ms. Walker says. For room-and-board expenses to be eligible, your son would have to be enrolled at least half-time. Check with the university on what counts as half-time, Ms. Cliburn says. Unfortunately, the plane ticket isn’t a qualified expense under the 529 rules, both advisers say.


The fund company that administers my 529 accounts for my young grandsons bungled a funds transfer and set them up as UGMA accounts instead of 529s with my grandsons as beneficiaries. I am concerned that my grandsons won’t be mature enough to take charge of this money when it legally becomes theirs under UGMA rules, and I want the money used for their educations. What are my options?

You’re right: You have a problem. You, as the adult, are in charge of this account until the beneficiary reaches the so-called age of majority (official adulthood) under state law, which is 18 in most states—and then the beneficiary gets full control of the account, says

Danae Domian, a principal at brokerage firm Edward Jones. This is determined by the state in which the account is registered. Some states might extend the age of termination up to age 25 in certain circumstances when the account is established, she says. But once the account is legally terminated, there’s nothing you can do to control how your grandsons spend the money.

“I would first contact the fund company to see if there is any way to correct the error internally,” Ms. Domian says.

If nothing can be done to change the structure of the account, perhaps you will be able to pay for some expenses before you lose control of the money.

“One strategy would be for you to direct or use the funds in the account to pay for their college expenses or any other expenses that benefit them,” she says. Hopefully, the age of termination is 21 in your state.

Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer

Understanding Your Financial Aid Offer

Financial aid terminology is foreign – to say the least – to most parents and students. After all, how would a “regular person” understand the complex scenario of grants, scholarships and different types of loans that are specific to college tuition and expense? Even us, full-time educational consultants, have to stay on our toes with the changes and nuances of the financial aid system.

Here are some tips that might help clarify a few of the most common mistakes.

  1. What you receive from the Financial Aid office at your college is not an “award”. Grants and scholarships are awards. Loans are not awards. Work-study is not an award; it is the potential for employment that offers earnings to students.
  2. In the financial aid offer, look for the cost of attendance. For any student and/or family to be able to make an informed decision, the amount of aid received must be compared to the total cost of attendance in order to determine the student/family’s financial contribution. Net cost is the difference between the total cost of attendance (COA) and all grant/scholarship aid received.
  3. Break down the cost of attendance into clear components. For students and families to be able to plan how to cover costs, the provided cost of attendance needs to be transparent about what is and is not included. While basic needs like food and shelter are critical, other keys costs such as books, supplies, medical insurance and transportation also need to be anticipated as you determine if a school is a financial fit.
  4. Student loans have different sources: federal, state, institutional, or private. Federal student loans come with important protections for students and families, often have lower long-term interest rates, and repayment starts six months after graduation. Read the title of the loan to know the source and to identify which loans come with these protections.
  5. Parent PLUS loans are not student loans. Parent PLUS loans are different than student loans and involve higher risk. Repayment starts immediately for parents who borrow PLUS loans, not after the student graduates from college, and PLUS loans include higher origination fees and interest rates. In addition, a parent must have no adverse credit history to qualify and further application is required to confirm eligibility.
  6. The financial aid process can be intimidating, often with deadlines and fees that are not intuitive. Make sure you take note of the specific next several steps that a student/family should follow to accept or decline financial aid.

When students and families understand financial aid offers, they make informed decisions that help to increase persistence, completion, and successful repayment of student loans. It is in everybody’s best interest that you and your family understand the financial aid package you are offered. If you have questions about a specific financial aid package, don’t hesitate to reach out to the financial aid office at the college.

Questions? Let’s chat!

Bettina Weil
Weil College Advising, LLC

Financial Matters: The Most Generous Colleges

Financial Matters: The Most Generous Colleges

Now that the heavy lifting is done on college applications and the students have had a bit of a break, it’s time to gear up and start searching for ways to pay for their dreams.

One of the biggest college misconceptions that parents enjoy discovering is that families shouldn’t assume that they earn too much and that no money is available. On the contrary, depending on the college or university, it might end up being less expensive for your child to attend a private school with a price tag of over $60,000 than it is to attend your in-state public institution. Students who are thoughtful and wisely apply to colleges that really fit their profile, and where they fit the college’s interest also, may be pleasantly surprised by financial aid also, may be pleasantly surprised by financial support offers heading their way through “Merit-based” aid.

There are many reasons a particular college may want to motivate you to accept their offer, including your strong academic profile or your particular skills/abilities in athletics, music, leadership, volunteer work. Let’s start with the basics: there are two entirely different pots of gold on college campuses:

  1. Need-based money
  2. Merit-based money

For need-based money, families MUST complete the FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and for many colleges and universities another form called the CSS Profile. You can access the Profile through the College Board website

Aid for Middle-Class Families

Many colleges offer excellent financial aid, but some of the nation’s top universities actually have specific policies that guarantee that middle-class family’s free tuition or event full-ride scholarships based on their income. The following universities are considered among the most generous: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, Yale.

A student who has what it takes to be accepted to any of these (and some other) well-endowed universities will not be denied the opportunity to attend because of the inability to pay. Harvard’s website is also quick to point out that families earning more than $150,000 may still qualify for financial aid. Happily, the majority of less-selective colleges also offer significant merit aid.

Questions? Let’s chat!

Bettina Weil

Weil College Advising, LLC

Latest questions from parents

Latest questions from parents

What is the CSS Profile, and why do colleges need it in addition to FAFSA?

The CSS Profile is an online application that collects information used by nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs to award non-federal aid. (For federal aid, you must complete the FAFSA, available Oct. 1 at Some colleges may require the CSS Profile from both biological/adoptive parents in cases of divorce or separation. 

Why do some colleges require two forms? FAFSA will provide information based on the latest tax returns filed by the family. The CSS offers valuable information to the financial aid office to accurately evaluate the family’s financial information. Expenses like trips, home renovations, cars, second homes, and the projected expenses for the upcoming year will all be recorded in the CSS profile. Look up the college’s deadline to present financial aid information (on the website’s financial aid page). The CSS profile “lives” in the College Board website.

How many colleges would you recommend on a college list?

My students usually apply to 9 or 10 colleges. I say “usually” because some students apply to uber-competitive programs (Conservatories, for example), and their list will be longer. It is very important that the college list is:

  1. Balanced! We want reaches (20-25% chance), targets (50%), and likelies (70-75%) for that student. Note that this is not based on the admission rate but rather on the student we are working with.
  2. A good fit for the student. Every college on that list should be a place where the student will be happy and thrive academically and socially. It should be a financial fit too…
  3. Based on the criteria of the student and the family. Some of the variables to consider are location, size, type of curriculum, access to professors, special programs, research opportunities, alumni network, and about 50 other variables!

How do I decide on a college if I have never been able to visit?

Colleges had an online presence pre-COVID. However, since March of 2020, colleges have had to find ways to explain (and differentiate!) themselves to prospective students. Hence, we now have various videos, interactive sessions, and recordings from students to “visit” almost any college campus online. When I work with students on their college list, I teach them to “read between the lines” on these websites to understand the colleges’ values and mission. For example: how are the academic programs structured, are majors interdisciplinary? Do students seem to study across different schools? Are volunteering and social action a big part of student life? What are the demographics like on campus? Besides, we look at blogs and testimonials from current students or recent graduates and often make connections with those who have first-hand experience with the college. They are the best source of information!

More questions? Let’s chat!

Bettina Weil