Two years ago, my firstborn started her college admissions process. She was in charge of taking standardized tests, her list, writing essays, getting recommendation letters and submitting applications. We were responsible for making sure we could pay for college. While we had a modest 529 plan, we quickly realized that this was not 1997 and the $35,000-$70,000 a year in the cost of attendance for the schools she was interested in, were not in our budget, not even close. We are a “donut-hole” family--we make too much to qualify for need-based aid but not enough to pay sticker price. Panic set in quickly. As two working parents on middle-class salaries, we had assumed that we would be able to afford to pay for college.

We hired a consultant to help us provide a financial solution to pay for college. It was a gut-wrenching reality check. We made too much to qualify for financial aid and would need to dip into our savings, retirement accounts, and seek out additional sources of income. With this bleak assessment, we were confounded but we’re determined to find ways to make college more affordable. We went to seminars, read blogs, listened to podcasts and asked Google. How did middle-class families pay for college without going into debt? We learned that the largest pool of “non-loan” money available to middle-class families is “merit aid,” a form of grant money that colleges offer directly to students as part of the admissions/acceptance process. Aha!

Now we just needed to find colleges that offered merit aid and we needed to compare that aid for schools my daughter was interested in attending. No luck. The data seemed to exist, but figuring out if she was a good candidate for merit aid at a particular school was really tough and there was no “Kayak” of merit aid, so we could not compare merit aid stats across colleges.

I found that data and built one for myself. It was quick and dirty and we realized very quickly that several schools on her list gave very little merit aid, so that even if she got accepted we would be on the hook for almost sticker price. 😟 Strike those from the list. We added three schools that she did not previously consider that we felt would offer significant enough merit aid to be good “financial fit” schools. Her list was now balanced both in terms of acceptance probability and also financial fitness.😊

I rebuilt my tool to accommodate all the frustrating spreadsheet mania we experienced-- we had 12 worksheets in our “Admissions” spreadsheet by the time we were done. I created MeritMore in the hopes of saving other families money, time, effort, and strained parent/child relationships.

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