When learning about financial aid and its associated lingo—the FAFSA, CSS/PROFILE, and 529 plans—it can feel like you’re drowning in alphabet soup. But I have some insights to share from my years as a college counselor at Collegewise and as a graduate assistant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. Here are seven tips that will keep you on the financial aid fast track and ensure your bank account isn’t empty when you cross the stage at graduation!
1. Know where financial aid comes from
Pop quiz: What’s the biggest source of financial aid for all students? If you guessed the federal government, you’re absolutely correct! When you fill out the FAFSA, you’re applying for need-based aid from Uncle Sam—although all students who file a FAFSA are eligible for federal unsubsidized student loans, so it’s a good idea to file regardless of whether or not you think you’ll qualify for need-based aid.
Pop quiz #2: Who provides the second-most financial aid year after year? If you guessed the colleges themselves, you deserve a financial aid ribbon. The absolute best strategy you can employ to get more financial aid dollars in your pocket is to apply to a balanced list of colleges, including schools that are safe bets for you academically (and more likely to give you merit aid) and ones that have generous need-based aid programs.
If you’re still scratching your head when you come across terms like “FAFSA” and “federal unsubsidized student loans,” learn the basics now so that you’re not struggling as you head into senior year.
2. Assess where you stand in relation to the rest of the applicant pool
Colleges offering merit aid discount tuition to encourage high-achieving students to choose them over other universities. If you want merit aid, apply to at least four “likely” colleges—schools where, based on your grades and standardized test scores, you have a very high chance of being admitted—because those colleges are most likely to entice you to attend with an attractive scholarship offer.
How do you find these “likely” schools? Starting junior year, develop a sense of where you fall academically within the applicant pool at your colleges of choice; look up and record the average score ranges and GPAs of the incoming class at all the colleges you’re interested in.
3. Use net price calculators
The sticker price quoted on college websites is often different from the net price that families pay. So how can you get a sense of how much college will actually cost for your family? Net price calculators are a useful tool for forecasting what your aid package might look like at a specific college.
Federal law requires every college to have a net price calculator on their website. You enter information about your income, taxes, and sometimes the value of your other assets—like your home and investments—and the calculator gives you a general idea of what level of aid you might qualify for and what you’ll end up paying out of pocket.
4. Look locally for outside scholarships
There’s a lot of buzz about all the unclaimed scholarship money out there, and I don’t buy it. There are national and international websites where you can dizzy yourself writing 500-word essays in hopes of earning a small scholarship.
I recommend focusing on small local scholarships. Because they tend to have fewer applicants, your chances of winning are greater. Most high school counseling offices have a good sense of what local scholarships are available, so ask your school counselor about scholarships and funds designed to support the education of students in your community.
5. Consider universities that offer automatic scholarships
Some universities, typically larger public intuitions like Michigan State University and The University of Alabama, publish their merit-based aid criteria right on their websites so applicants know what they qualify for in advance. These are often places that are actively trying to recruit more out-of-state students and will discount tuition to reach that goal.
I don’t advise applying to a college just because it offers automatic scholarships, but I do like the transparency, and if one of the universities offering these awards happens to be a good fit for you, go for it!
6. Know what’s required and stay on top of deadlines
A lot of seniors are so keenly aware of and stressed out by application deadlines that they aren’t thinking about financial aid deadlines. One of the easiest ways to make yourself ineligible for need-based aid—and sometimes merit-based aid—is to miss financial aid deadlines. As you’re building your college list, keep track of which forms are required and their filing deadlines.
Here’s a little-known fact: some colleges require the FAFSA and CSS/PROFILE in order to consider students for their merit-based scholarships. This is somewhat rare, but it’s certainly something you should keep on your radar.
I also recommend completing the financial aid forms soon after they become available—that means submitting the FAFSA during October of your senior year. Submitting your financial aid documents as soon as possible allows colleges to process them earlier, so there’s a better chance of hearing about your award sooner if you tackle these forms early.
Related: Top Financial Aid Mistakes
7. If all else fails, appeal politely
At Collegewise, we get a lot of questions about whether colleges are willing to negotiate financial aid offers. The hard truth? There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question.
If all colleges engaged in a race to the bottom and price-matched all financial aid awards, they would eventually go out of business. Even so, it’s possible to engage in a discussion with colleges about your financial aid award. If you want to go down that road, here are some pointers:
- Compare apples to apples. Instead of asking the college to match the amount another college awarded you, work backward from the total cost of attendance and subtract the award amount. Then, you can politely ask the college to match the out-of-pocket cost, even if it means you’ll receive a smaller award.
- Colleges are more likely to match the offer of a school that they consider comparably selective (i.e., one that competes for the same applicants). No matter how convincing your argument, Princeton won’t match the award you received from a college with a 90% acceptance rate.
- Colleges are more likely to increase your award if you agree to attend. In other words, your appeal will be more effective if you’re able to say some version of the following (and actually mean it): “I’m very interested in your institution and would love to attend if we are able to make it work for our family financially.”
- Keep in mind that it’s much more difficult to make the case that a college is not affordable for your family if you have failed to file financial aid forms.
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