You’re in the midst of another college search. You’ve filled out applications, researched schools, and talked with admission counselors. 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, anxious waiting, and 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: The application process
The basic idea of financial aid doesn't change too much from school to school, but all institutions have different deadlines and institutional policies. Familiarize yourself with the deadlines and required paperwork at your prospective transfer schools. The vast majority of schools require the 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’ll start fresh each year you attend your new college or university. Fill out the FAFSA as soon after October 1 as possible in the year prior to when 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. When it comes to the financial aid process, there are three things you should never forget to do.
1. Submit your FAFSA to all your schools of interest
When submitting the FAFSA, make sure you include the school codes for all the institutions to which you are applying. Because each school may have a different deadline, aim for the earliest date to make sure they all receive your information on time. You don't have to wait for an offer of admission to an institution before you submit your FAFSA data—in fact, you shouldn’t!
2. 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 in 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.
3. Check for additional forms
The CSS Profile is another common financial aid form that schools may use. Other institutions may also have or require 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 EFC.
Does my financial aid transfer?
The short answer? No. If you wish to receive financial aid, you must apply for it 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, and institutional grants; federal student and parent loans; and work-study (or student employment). Here’s what to know about the different types of financial aid and how they are treated differently.
- Institutional grants: 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 simple but has a few more qualifications. If you’re eligible for a Pell Grant, PLUS loan, and/or a Stafford loan, then you’ll be eligible regardless of the institution you attend, although the amounts may differ based on the school. FSEOG loans are school-specific, as the government allocates the money to the school to distribute the award to the selected student.
- State financial aid: Each state sets its own guidelines for financial aid. For most state funds, a student may need to establish residency to be qualified. If you’re looking at an out-of-state institution, ask if they have institutional policies to help out-of-state students cover additional costs, such as travel.
What scholarships are available for transfers?
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. 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 admission counselors if there's 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 students wishing to be considered for scholarships? Also inquire 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.
What about outside scholarships?
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 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. If you don’t have any outside scholarships, it’s time to look. There are numerous scholarship search engines that students can use to find awards—sometimes an overwhelming number of opportunities. 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 financial aid 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 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. You may see a substantial difference in the COA from your former to your potential school(s), so ask questions. 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 these items can affect COA. 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 how to document your financial circumstances that have changed.
As some final advice, 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’s just like riding a bike—you never really forget; you just have to remind yourself how to find your balance. And in the end, you’ll be glad you did.