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The Insider's Guide to Student Financial Aid

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by
Vice Provost for Enrollment, Dean of Admissions, Vanderbilt University

Figuring out how to pay for college can be as confusing as deciding where to attend. The goal is to help you find the best fit in every way. Search CollegeXpress college profiles to learn more about the financial aid policies for featured schools.

For many, financial aid opens the door to their dream education, but it shouldn't be overwhelming or confusing. Financial aid and admission counselors are there to ease you through the process. Like every major life decision, it’s best to be educated beforehand. Here are answers to some of the questions colleges repeatedly receive to help you better understand the financial aid process.

1. What are some questions I should ask about a school’s financial aid program?

First of all, most colleges and universities have websites that map out the general details of their individual financial aid programs. It’s always good to start there for basic information. But financial aid packages are unique to each applicant, which is why it’s so important to talk to financial aid counselors at each school. Here are a few questions you should ask any school you’re interested in.

  • Does the school meet 100% of demonstrated financial need with gift assistance or do they supplement with need-based loans and/or work-study?
  • If a school meets full demonstrated financial need, how do they do it?
  • How does the school determine if a student has demonstrated financial need?
  • What exactly is a school looking for when determining demonstrated financial need?

2. What are the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is a form you must fill out if you’re interested in applying for federal, state, and/or institutional aid from any school across the country. While it’s true that the FAFSA has a reputation for being lengthy and confusing, recent strides have been made to streamline the document, shrinking it down by 28%. Don’t fear the FAFSA—questions are also conveniently paired with tips for easy filing. Families should complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of a student’s senior year in high school, after receiving tax documents (though estimated numbers can be used if necessary). Information about the FAFSA and the application process can be found on most universities’ websites as well as www.fafsa.ed.gov.

The CSS/PROFILE stands for College Scholarship Service PROFILE. The CSS/PROFILE is used by schools that want additional information on a family’s financial situation to assist in awarding institutional aid dollars to eligible students. The CSS PROFILE asks more in-depth questions about a family’s assets, income, family situation, and financial history. Information about the CSS PROFILE and its submission process can be found at www.collegeboard.com.

3. Should I fill out both the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE?

One hundred percent yes—everyone should fill out the FAFSA. You may think your family makes so much money that you don’t need to apply, but you never know what you might be eligible for.

Once you have determined the colleges you’re applying to, check if they require the PROFILE. Because you have to pay to file, you only want to send it to the colleges that request it.

4. What is an EFC and how is it used at different schools?

The EFC, or Estimated Family Contribution, is the amount a family is expected to pay for their child’s education. Eligibility for need-based financial assistance is determined by subtracting a family's calculated EFC from each school’s estimated cost of attendance (COA). The difference is called “demonstrated financial need.” While the cost of attendance is different from school to school, the family’s EFC will remain relatively consistent. It’s the type of financial aid each school offers (grants, loans, work-study, etc.) that makes the difference. To get an idea of what your EFC may be before you submit your financial aid paperwork, visit www.fafsa4caster.ed.gov for an estimate.

Cost of attendance – Estimated Family Contribution = Need

5. When a school gives their “cost of attendance,” what does that usually entail?

The cost of attendance includes allowances for tuition, fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal/miscellaneous expenses. All of these elements are taken into account when determining financial aid eligibility, not just the cost of tuition.

6. Should I look at the cost of tuition when deciding where to apply?

A lot of parents tend to put up predefined barriers to where their child can and cannot look, based on criteria such as whether the school is in state or out of state, public or private, or if a parent deems a school’s initial tuition price too high. But this is where each school’s financial aid policy comes in. It might end up being more affordable for a student to go to a seemingly expensive school, depending on the financial aid package that student receives.

7. What does it mean for a school to be “need-blind” or “need-aware”?

Need-blind means the institution does not look at a family’s financial situation or ability to pay when deciding if the student will be admitted. Once a student is accepted, the school will create a financial aid package. When a school says it’s need-blind and meets 100% of demonstrated need, that means the institution not only ignores a family’s ability to pay during the admission process, but if the student is accepted, the university will provide a financial aid package that equals the dollar amount of the student’s demonstrated need. But the family is still responsible for paying their EFC.

Need-aware is when a school considers a family’s ability to pay when determining if a student will be accepted or not.

8. What are some unique new financial aid programs various universities have launched?

Over the last three to five years, a lot of institutions have reevaluated their financial aid programs and offerings to make sure highly qualified students of all income levels have the opportunity to go to college. Some schools have a student pay a certain percentage of tuition based on his or her family’s level of income. Other schools may give a student grants, instead of need-based loans, depending on family income. Some schools focus on a student’s EFC, trying to minimize the family’s EFC on the front end to lower the total cost of attendance.

Please remember that financial aid offices are there to help you—they’re at your disposal so feel free to reach out for help. Colleges and universities offer financial aid because they believe in and strongly support diversity of all kinds. They are looking for the best and brightest students and sometimes those students need financial help. You should apply for aid regardless of whether or not you think you’ll need it, and there is no such thing as a stupid question. Nothing should stop you from applying to the school of your dreams.

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