With the cost of college soaring — state tuition and fees at national public universities have jumped 211% over the past 20 years — many students and families rely on outside sources to help pay for their post-secondary education and seek financial aid tips.
Financial assistance is divided into two categories: merit-based and need-based.
Universities and colleges distribute merit aid based on academic achievements and talent rather than family income. Counselors at the University of South Dakota, for example, look at ACT scores and high school credentials during the admissions process to determine eligibility, says Lindsay Miller, the school’s interim director of financial aid.
The federal and state government and colleges grant assistance on a need-based basis through grants, scholarships, work-study and loans. A student’s level of financial need is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. For a smaller number of schools, mostly private colleges, filling out a CSS profile may also be necessary.
Typically, special scholarships are the only source of help that requires an additional or separate application, says Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college funding at Bright Horizons College Coach.
The process of figuring out how to pay for university can be daunting and time consuming, so here are 10 financial aid tips from the experts.
1. Do not make assumptions about eligibility for financial assistance.
Vasconcelos says the decision not to apply for financial aid could have been a mistake.
“There is a possibility that you may, in fact, qualify,” she adds. “Don’t assume that because your neighbor, who you think had the same amount of money as you, didn’t qualify, you wouldn’t. You have no idea what’s going on in other people’s household finances.”
2. Do not shop based on the sticker price.
It can be tempting to ignore the college based on its high price tag. But in almost all cases, the sticker price isn’t what the student actually pays, says Melissa Yakabusky, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.
Families should pay attention to the net cost, which is the sticker price minus grants and scholarships. This can be determined by the net price calculator on most college websites.
The student answers questions about family finances, GPA, test scores and extracurricular activities. These responses are used to estimate the amount of scholarships and scholarships the college may award to the student. Financial aid numbers are then subtracted from the full cost of attendance to predict what the family might pay.
3. Avoid paying third parties to conduct scholarship searches.
Many overseas scholarships are available, including through churches, employers, local businesses, and charitable organizations. Miller recommends that a student begin seeking scholarships a year before the funds are needed.
But she cautions against paying someone to look for scholarships and against giving out personal information like your Social Security number. There are free resources to use, including the College Board, FastWeb.com, and the US News Scholarship Finder.
4. Use the IRS data recovery tool.
It can be easy to make a mistake in the FAFSA, but using the Internal Revenue Service’s data recovery tool can reduce filing time and error rates, experts say.
Instead of manual entry, the default tool automatically transfers federal tax return information from the IRS to the student’s online FAFSA form.
“Esting income information or making entry errors in the FAFSA application can complicate the process when it is time to provide financial assistance,” Courtney Henderson, director of the Student Financial Center at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in an email.
Those who file a US tax return with the IRS are usually eligible to use the tool, but there are exceptions.
5. Be aware of deadlines.
The FAFSA opens every October 1, but the federal deadline to apply isn’t until June 30 of the following year. State and university deadlines could be closer.
Missing the deadline can leave money on the table.
“Generally, forms are submitted once online to all colleges that request it,” says Jeff Levy, co-founder of Big J Educational Consulting in California. “What this means is that if you’re submitting a FAFSA, let’s say, once for all colleges, you have to apply before college with the closest deadline.”
6. Advance early.
Students must not only meet deadlines but must apply early, as some financial aid is awarded on a first-come-first-served basis. Pay attention to priority deadlines, experts advise.
States such as Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Vermont, and Washington have deadlines “as soon as possible after October 1” because “awards are awarded until funding is exhausted,” according to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Information Center, or FSAIC.
says Timothy Solnier, UMW’s Director of Financial Assistance.
7. Check email regularly.
After completing the FAFSA, a Student Aid Report, which includes an expected family contribution to determine financial aid eligibility, is usually sent to the applicant’s email address. Colleges may request additional information via email.
“Make sure you take care of your email so that you comply with any requests,” Vasconcelos says.
8. Look at out-of-pocket costs.
At first glance, a financial aid package from one college may seem larger than an offer from another. But be aware of the out-of-pocket costs.
“You could look at a private school that costs $50,000 and they give you $30,000 in aid, for example,” Solnier says. “The out-of-pocket cost is $20,000. Then let’s say UMW only gives you $11,000 but the cost (of attendance) is $30,000. Net is $19,000, for example. Even if a school gives you a lot of help, it might not necessarily be a package.” Better financial aid.
9. THE FIRST SCHOOL OFFER IS NOT ALWAYS THE FINAL OFFER.
The FAFSA requires tax information from the “previous” year, which may not reflect the student’s or parent’s current income or employment status. If the family’s finances change for the worse, the student must alert his or her college’s financial aid office to explain the changes of circumstances and request that the financial aid package be reconsidered, which is called an appeal.
But changes to financial aid packages are not limited to special circumstances. Vasconcelos says a merit scholarship student, for example, could try to negotiate a higher offer.
“There is no real downside to doing that,” she adds. The worst they could do is say “no”. Families are often surprised at how often they say “yes” and throw a few thousand dollars your way.”
10. Contact the college’s financial aid offices to ask any questions.
Additional details about specific financial aid requirements or deadlines are available on many college websites. But if the information is still not clear, call or email the financial aid office.
FSAIC also acts as a supplier. Questions about federal aid can be answered by email, phone, or web chat.
“It’s never too early to consider paying college fees,” Miller says. “You definitely want to educate yourself and be proactive. College admissions counselors will be a great resource for asking about scholarship opportunities, and financial aid offices will be helpful throughout the entire student financial aid process.”
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