College Counseling Corner: Making (Dollars and) Sense of Financial Aid

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Your child has narrowed his or her college list, and the applications are well underway. Still, one question threatens the joy of this experience: how will you pay for his or her choice school? The cost of higher education can vary significantly by institution, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly two-thirds of all full-time college students require need-based aid to pay for college. Though there are tools available to help families ease the burden of paying for school, navigating the financial aid process can be tricky. Aid can come in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, or part-time employment, and can come from sources as diverse as federal and state agencies or directly from colleges, universities, high schools, foundations, or corporations. Moreover, college tend to offer both need and merit-based aid, which is awarded to admitted students who have performed well academically.

Here are some tips for applying for and accepting financial assistance.

Discuss the costs of college early in the search process. It can be tremendously difficult for a student who has already fallen in love with a school to be dissuaded from attending based solely on its cost. To prevent the heartache, it is important for you and your child to decide how best to handle the cost of college as early as possible. Some factors to consider include how much your family can afford to invest in your child’s college education and, if student loans are necessary to meet the cost of tuition, how much debt your child should be willing to assume. Though loans can be essential to enabling students to attend college, those who graduate owing the equivalent of a mortgage begin their adult life in a difficult position. By getting on the same page about finances early in your child’s admissions process, your child can evaluate schools with a budget in mind and make the best possible choice for your family.

Work closely with your school’s Office of Financial Aid. Policies and timelines can vary significantly from school to school; it is important to establish an early connection with your school’s Office of Financial Aid to ensure that you thoroughly understand their deadlines, materials, and procedures for aid consideration, Additionally, financial aid officers can be extremely helpful in addressing applicant-specific issues. For example, I worked with a student who wanted to establish financial independence from her parents. Although federal guidelines seemed to offer her no avenue to qualify as an independent, she was able to do so by working directly with her institution. Colleges’ financial aid officers are fonts of knowledge, and I encourage you to make use of their expertise.

Do not underestimate your qualification for aid. Every qualified student, regardless of financial situation, should consider applying for need-based aid. There is no maximum income that prevents a family from receiving aid, and if you have a higher-than-average income but are supporting more than one child in college, you may still qualify for assistance. The first step in applying for aid is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to determine a family’s eligibility to receive financial aid from the federal government—in many cases, need-based aid provided by the college itself. Some colleges and universities may also require the College Scholarship Service’s PROFILE application and/or their own financial aid applications.

Consider alternative sources for scholarships. Researching college scholarships can be overwhelming, but they can be of significant help in funding educational expenses. Harvard University reports that about half of their students receive scholarships. These can be awarded based on need and/or criteria that usually reflect the values of the benefactor. To jump-start your scholarship search, consider asking whether the groups with which you are affiliated offer scholarships:  employers, alumni organizations, local religious organizations, and affinity groups. Beyond that, there are scholarships for everyone. Some of the strangest out there include Prom Guide’s Cutest Couple Contest, Clowns of America, International Scholarship’s Create-a-Greeting-Card Scholarship, and Contest Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship. Apply for as many as you can, because the competition is tough.

Thoroughly review your financial aid award package. Students typically receive their financial aid award letters in the spring, after they’ve received their college acceptance letters. Depending on a student’s financial need, your award package will include a mix of federal and state-offered aid, as well as funding provided by the college itself. Although the letter denotes the funding you are being offered to meet your need, you should feel no obligation to accept it all. Accept all of the money that does not need to be repaid (e.g., grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities) before you consider taking out any loans. If you need to take out a loan, borrow only as much as you truly need, not the maximum amount that you are eligible for. In the event that your award letter does not accurately reflect your family’s financial situation, the offer can be appealed to the college’s financial aid office.

Do not forget to reapply for aid annually. You have to submit the FAFSA for each school year that you want to receive financial aid. Once you’ve submitted it initially, you can fill out a renewal form in subsequent years. Renewal FAFSAs pre-fill some questions with information from past forms. Before submitting one, ensure that the information is up to date. If your financial situation has changed substantially, you can also start over from scratch.