Perhaps my biggest battle every year is to keep students – and their families – from self-selecting themselves OUT of applying to a college because they believe “I can’t afford to go.” So many people make college decisions based on the wrong information – or no information at all! Now, I’m the first to admit that financial aid is a touchy and frankly weird little beast. For instance, you have to apply for financial aid before you’re even admitted. And you have to re-apply every year, even if nothing has changed (believe me, that FAFSA is like a whole month of finals weeks for your parents and guardians). But unlike some finals exams, or some of the outfits from my class photos “back in the day,” there actually are easy explanations to help you understand financial aid for your four-year education and beyond.
First, what exactly IS financial aid? It’s money you don’t pay back (scholarships, fellowships or grants), money you do pay back (loans, with or without interest, and with or without deferments before you start to repay) or money you earn and contribute (like work study jobs on- and off-campus). You are matched to all types of financial aid on your CLIC student home page, and you can surf and subscribe to even more! Be sure to keep on top of deadlines with your CLIC Calendar. And always click through to the freshmen admissions pages of any colleges you’re linked to so you can read more about their financial aid policies. Also read through their financial aid FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and take notes of anything you don’t understand.
Before we launch into our MAQs (Must Ask Questions), let me quickly clear up three of the most common stresses about financial aid:
Middle class income status. Yes, you qualify for financial aid even if your family is considered middle class. Financial aid is not determined strictly by family income. Overall assets matter, and certain types of debt plays a big part, too (like if your parents already are putting another kid through college). There is plenty of money to go around for middle class students, white students, male students – don’t believe the hype! You’re going to have to work for it, of course, like everything and everyone else. And your CLIC page will make finding it a snap.
Undocumented resident status. Yes, you can receive financial aid if you are not a U.S. resident or are undocumented. Government funds are not available to you, but private scholarships may be. Check their requirements.
Independent status. No, you cannot simply declare yourself independent to save your family money or even if they refuse to support your education. To be officially “independent” you must be one of the following: 24 years old by December 31 of the year the aid is granted (if your birthday is shortly after and you live independently, you might get some consideration from some colleges); a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or on active duty (not in training, but serving); married, an orphan or a ward of the court; or have children or dependents who receive more than half of their financial support from you.
All right, are the college Web site FAQs all read? Check. Basic misconceptions all cleared up? Check. Now here are seven critical questions to ask the financial aid office at every campus that has caught your eye.
- Aid for my income level. What percentage of currently enrolled freshmen who are at my family’s income level are receiving financial aid? Income level alone doesn’t dictate financial aid, as I’ve explained, but this will tell you if you are in the running or not as likely to get a package from this particular school.
- Early admissions impact. Is your aid formula fixed for all students, or is there a chance I will get less aid if I submit for early action/decision admissions? There is no standard for all colleges. Some might set aside monies for their early deciders; others might withhold funds so they can “sweeten the pot” for regular cycle students to get them to accept. Find out – if they will tell you.
- When aid funds get tight. How soon after your FAFSA deadlines do you generally run out of funds, if at all? I’m going to say this as often as I can – your family’s FAFSA has got to be turned in by January 31 of your senior year. It doesn’t matter if the deadline is in March! Monies typically are distributed on a first-come/first-served basis. Find out how fast you need to get in line.
- Aid commitment after freshmen year. Will that great financial aid package still be in place 2-3 years into my undergrad experience, or is it first-year only? And if my family’s financial situation or residency status changes during a school year, at what point can I re-submit for assistance? This is information you want to know BEFORE any unexpected occurrences crop up freshman year or beyond. You’ll get a sense of the flexibility of the financial aid office and how well they work with students.
- Requesting re-calculation. If the offer I receive is higher than we can afford or doesn’t reflect our FAFSA information, can we request a review of the package, and if so, what is the process? Needs no explanation!
- Home schooling docs. I am home-schooled – are there any additional documents or preparations I will need to make to qualify for all of your financial aid offerings? There’s a whole home-schooled post coming up, but this is a critical question for a financial aid rep. Both loans and private scholarships might have specific grading, transcript or recommendation requests, among others, to qualify for money. Make sure you’re on top of any supplemental information you’ll need to add to your aid application packet.
- Non-contributing parents. My non-custodial parent refuses to contribute to my educational expenses. What documents do you require or accept, if any, to reconsider my family’s expected contribution? The rules can vary on how college aid offices deal with dead-beat parents, pre-nups excluding college donations, stepparent contributions and more (the government, via FAFSA, is fairly consistent here). If you know there’s going to be drama getting a divorced or absentee parent to contribute, make sure you know if the government and the college are going to expect them to anyway. Then see if there is any document, legal or other, that will help support your case for special consideration when they don’t contribute.
The last questions you should ask your financial aid representative are any that remain from your notes when you visited their site. Don’t be afraid to ask anything! It’s important to uncover the real deal about how you are going to pay for your education – and learning how to speak up about and truly understand money concerns will serve you for the rest of your life.
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DMA is the CEO of The CLIC, the revolutionary new site where students can powerfully plan for college and institutions can effortlessly recruit students from a single home page in our FREE interactive network. CLIC students can connect to college matches, scholarship searches, college access programs and the nation’s first master calendar of all college-related deadlines and events, with streaming video tips and much more, at www.theclic.net.