I'm not sure how to evaluate the quality of a school's financial aid program. Do I need to submit a FAFSA before I get any useful information? Is there a resource online or elsewhere that will help me figure it out?
If you purchase a copy of usnews graduate rankings, the back has a section which has every school's "avg indebtness". I personally think that the numbers that they have are grossly underestimated (unless there are a lot more wealthy students in med school then I had previously thought), but they do provide a good gauge of comparing one school vs another. The best resource is asking students who attend the school though. It may seem a bit tacky if you don't know the student well, but if it comes down to the wire and the school hasn't given you it's FA package yet, I would reccomend just asking what sort of packages have they heard that their classmates have been getting. Of course the best way to compare school's FA's is to turn in your FASFA as early as possible during the app period (list every school that you have interviews at and haven't been rejected from in that section where you choose where your info goes) and compare the numbers for yourself.
Yeah that is a good place to look. However, you have to remember that people with 0 debt are averaged in there too (from wealthy families, military people, people with other service scholarships such as NHSC scholarships, and other things that lead to no debt at graduation). However, this average indebtedness combined with the percentage of students receiving grants/scholarships also in the USNews graduate rankings can give you an idea.
So I will get information from the FAFSA? I was curious about that.
I haven't checked the 2005 USNews rankings, but I have an older copy, and I did look at the average indebtedness. Unfortunately, one of the schools I'm seriously considering didn't give any information, so I can't compare through that. What I thought was interesting is that most of the private schools in my state have a lower average than the public school I got into! The numbers do seem very low in general, but I wonder if that trend is really correct. Then like you say, either there are just wealthier students in the private schools, or they're giving packages that somehow make up for the hike in tuition.
I don't know much about this whole process, and I need to find out so I can make an informed decision about where I want to go. It all seems so complicated.
No, fasfa is transmitted to your schools who will mail you your fa package. I also noticed the discrepency between some private and public school too. I can tell you from experience that at many of these schools, it's what I call a "false" discrepency, because the student's of equal wealth (ie no money, no merit scholarship, not in any military program) will have the opposite amount of indebtness when comparing schools. So even though I wouldn't put too much weight into the exact number (ie don't think that just because this school is 10K cheaper then that school, that it must have a great FA program), I would use the usnews section to rule out or rule in schools with obscene numbers (ie if a school is getting an avg of 150 K and you want to go to a "cheap" school, that particular school may be one that you can not apply to, if you can afford to do so from an admissions standpoint). Again, the best source before you get your FA package (which at some schools don't even come out until after the deadline for deposits comes) is from upper year students. SDN helps in that sometimes, you can communicate anonymously with students at med schools who may be more willing to share with you their FA numbers anonymously.