Getting into the college of choice might weigh heavily on your mind at the moment, but the odds are the prospect of affording college costs looms even larger. And, if financial aid is critical to your ability to attend that college—or any college for that matter—now is the time to get organized around the possibilities. The following tips are intended to help bring order to the financial aid application process.
1. Know the five sources of funding for college. The first source is—no surprise—the student’s family. The second and third are the federal and state governments in amounts that can total more than $10,000 (grants, loans and work study) per year. Colleges then can choose to offer assistance that addresses the difference between the total cost of attendance and the combined resources coming from the family and the federal and/or state governments. The fifth source of funding involves service organizations and places of employment that offer scholarships. After funding from your family, each source is integral to the overall financial support you might receive.
2. Become familiar with your “EFC.” As noted above, it is assumed that your family will be the first source of funding for college. The amount that your family is expected to contribute is known as your Expected Family Contribution or “EFC.” Simply put, your EFC is the difference between your family’s income and assets and your family’s cost of living. The actual determination of amounts for each category is drawn from multiple data points that are derived from the financial aid forms listed in #3 below.
3. Complete the required forms in a timely fashion. The determination of your EFC and your eligibility for funding from sources beyond the family starts with the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A government document, the FAFSA, calculates your EFC and determines your eligibility for federal, state and, in many cases, college funds. Plan to complete the FAFSA as soon after January 1, 2013 as possible. In addition, many private institutions require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile as well in the determination of your eligibility for institutional funding. More granular in its assessment of family finances, the Profile should be completed as soon as possible.
Some colleges also require the completion of their own forms. Make sure you know the forms that are required for each college and submit them at the earliest possible date.
4. Understand the concept of “need.” In the conversation about financial aid, “need” is the difference between the total cost of attendance and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC falls short of the cost of attendance, then you have demonstrated need. Theoretically, colleges will provide financial aid to meet the demonstrated needs of the students they admit. Moreover, you need to be prepared for the likelihood that the needs analysis completed using the FAFSA data might show an EFC that is lower than that revealed by the Profile.
5. Don’t make assumptions about EFC or need. And be wary of online forecasters or of any service that suggests it can optimize your financial aid potential. While parameters for determining financial need might seem to be predictable, the processes of admitting students and awarding financial aid are heavily nuanced across institutions.
For example, colleges will engage in subjective practices such as differential needs analysis—use the methodology (FAFSA or Profile) that allows them to justify the award they want to make—and preferential packaging—put together different amounts of grant, loan and work study that reflect the value attached to a given candidate—to leverage the enrollments of students they want the most. As a result, online forecasters, including the net price calculators found on college websites, rarely provide an accurate picture of your likely out-of pocket expenses should you be admitted. Moreover, some colleges will make financial aid awards that come short of meeting the demonstrated need or that include disproportionate amounts of loan—funds that will ultimately come from your pocket on top of the EFC.
6. Don’t wait to apply! Waiting until the admission decisions are known or until you have completed your tax returns to begin the financial aid process is extremely risky. The reason: most institutions “spend down” their financial aid budgets as they proceed through the selection process. If you wait until you have an offer of admission in hand to apply for aid, the money might well be gone. Submitting in a timely fashion, then, might mean having to provide estimates (based on the previous tax year) in response to various questions that can be amended later with a revised submission of the form.
7. If the numbers don’t look right, appeal! Soon after you receive an offer of admission, you should expect to receive a financial aid award letter if you have applied for financial aid. This will be true of candidates for both Early Decision and Regular Decision. Hopefully, the numbers are consistent with your expectations and you feel reassured about your ability to meet the cost of attendance for the colleges in question. If not, contact the financial aid office at the school with your questions and any new and relevant information that might be considered in an appeal of your financial aid award. Do this as soon as possible.
8. Discuss cost/affordability at home. Communication about cost and affordability at home is critical to good decision-making. Make sure everyone is on the same page with regard to how much you are able/willing to spend on a college education. This “ounce of prevention” can help to avert stressful conversations about paying for college at the end of the process.
9. Manage expectations. Know where your credentials will be most competitive and set your (college) expectations accordingly. Hundreds of millions of financial aid dollars will be awarded each year—and they will go to the students who are valued most at the institutions in question.