It’s official. You’re in the midst of another college search. You’ve filled out applications, researched your schools, and talked with the admission folks. You are transferring. The next few years will prove to be challenging, rewarding, and enlightening. First, congratulations are in order! Next, it’s time to investigate your financial aid options.
You can probably think of a few other things more enthralling than applying for financial aid. Sure there’s the number crunching, the anxious waiting, and the thrill of opening that final envelope, but mostly it’s just more paperwork.
This might sound abrupt, but it’s true: just because you have done it before doesn’t mean that you get to hit repeat. There are a few major misconceptions about applying for aid as a transfer student. But by the end you’ll be well prepared, and your wallet will thank you.
Financial aid refresher: what is the application process?
The basic idea of financial aid does not change too much from school to school, but all institutions have different deadlines and institutional policies. Familiarize yourself with deadlines and required paperwork.
Get to know the FAFSA. The vast majority of schools require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to assemble a financial aid award, and you likely encountered this form in the past, either at your two-year or four-year school. Even if you’ve filed the FAFSA before, you will start fresh at your new college or university.
Fill out the FAFSA online at www.fafsa.ed.gov as soon after October 1 as possible in the year prior to the year in which you plan to enroll. After you submit your data, you should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). This report provides your calculated Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is the starting point for a financial aid package. Many schools use a basic formula to indicate financial eligibility: subtract the EFC from the institutional Cost of Attendance (COA) to determine your financial need.
Cover your bases.
When submitting the FAFSA, make sure you include the school codes for all of the institutions to which you are applying. Because each school may have a different deadline, aim for the earliest date to make sure that they all receive your information on time. You do not have to wait for an offer of admission to an institution before you submit your FAFSA data, and, in fact, you shouldn’t!
Fill it out annually.
Since your financial picture may change from year to year, your EFC may change as well. Ask how the school will adjust your financial aid award for those potential changes. Once you submit the FAFSA, the data is valid for the entire academic year. If you submitted the FAFSA for the fall and are looking to transfer in the spring, you may not need to submit new information, but simply add any new school codes.
Check for additional forms.
The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE is another common financial aid form that schools may use. Other institutions may also require or allow an institution-specific form. If you have unusual circumstances that affect your financial standing, ask your potential schools how you can document those needs. Many institutions may be able to exercise professional judgment to change a student’s estimated family contribution (EFC).
Does my financial aid transfer?
Short answer: no. If you wish to receive financial aid, you must apply at each institution. That being said, you may be eligible for the same types of aid at different schools. There are essentially four types of need-based aid that make up a financial aid award: merit scholarships, federal/state/institutional grants, federal student and parent loans, and work-study (or student employment). Different types of financial aid are treated differently.
These grants are just how they sound: institution-specific. If school A gives you a need-based scholarship, you cannot use it at school B. Simple enough. Work-study and merit scholarships are also institution-specific.
Federal grants and loans.
Federal aid is also pretty simple, but has a few more qualifications. If you are eligible for a Pell grant, PLUS loan, and/or a Stafford loan, then you will be eligible regardless of the institution you attend, although the amounts may differ based on the school. Two other types of federal monies, SEOG and the Perkins loan, are school-specific, as the government allocates the money to the school, which then distributes the award to the selected, eligible student.
State financial aid.
No surprise, this aid varies by state. Each state sets its own guidelines for financial aid, so as you can imagine, there are 50 different ways to do it. For most state funds, a student may need to establish residency in order to be qualified. If you are looking at an out-of-state institution, ask if they have institutional policies to help their out-of-state students cover additional costs, such as travel. This really is a case where your best expert for your state aid eligibility is the financial aid counselor at your potential school.
What scholarships are available for transfers?
We’ve finally come to the part of the article that everyone loves: free money. If you skipped over the last two sections to get here, you need to stop, go back, and read from the beginning! Federal grants may be the foundation of your aid, but scholarships are a cornerstone for many students and may be easier to find than you think.
Look for transfer scholarships.
Many institutions have a merit-based scholarship program specifically designed for their transfer students, as they will be able to evaluate previous college work. Ask the admission counselor if there is an additional application or if the application for admission will also be reviewed for scholarships. Are there essays to submit or is an interview required? Are the deadlines for admission different for those students wishing to be considered for scholarships? Inquire also about department-specific scholarships. Do you have the potential to earn additional scholarships after you enroll based on academic performance, or are scholarships only offered at the time of acceptance? Coordinate your scholarship eligibility with your time frame for degree completion.
See if you already have money.
No, not the loose change under your couch. You need to assess your current situation. Do you have any outside scholarships? If so, contact the awarding organization to see what you need to do when you transfer. You may need to provide written notice so that the foundation can send the funds to the appropriate school. Also, see if there are any restrictions with the scholarship that would limit its use at other schools.
Seek out even more scholarships.
If you don’t already have an outside scholarship, it’s time to look. There are numerous scholarship search engines offering opportunities for students—sometimes an overwhelming number of opportunities. Flip through magazines (like the one you’re holding . . . ) and contact your financial aid office. Consider joining Phi Theta Kappa, the national two-year school honor society whose members are recognized by many four-year colleges with scholarships. And contact local organizations (Lions Club, ROTC, etc.) to see if they offer any scholarships—local offerings tend to have less competition.
How is it different this time?
The financial aid process may feel very different the second time around. The basic application process (filling out the FAFSA) should feel pretty similar, but behind the scenes, things may be handled a little differently. Your financial aid may not transfer, but your knowledge of the process does. To review:
You may see a substantial difference in the COA from your former to your potential school(s). The COA is the basis for determining financial eligibility. Will you be living on campus or off? How does your financial aid counselor determine fees and housing expenses? Do they offer a textbook allowance? What about money for a laptop or other educational electronics? Are there fees for labs or courses missing from your financial aid award? All of these items can affect the COA.
Be your own advocate.
If you aren’t clear on your expenses, be sure to set up an appointment with a financial aid counselor. If you have concerns, voice them. Ask the financial aid office about how to document your financial circumstances that have changed.
Do your research.
Pay attention to deadlines, submit the necessary paperwork, and make contacts to confirm that the information has been received.
Remember, college is affordable when you use tools to help access financial aid. It is just like learning to swim again—get your goggles, find that swim noodle, and jump in. You’ll be glad you did.