In recent years, the costs of a college education have skyrocketed exponentially which has caused great financial concern for many families. Each year, students and parents are faced with big decisions as they try to figure out which schools they can afford, how the financial aid process works, and what they can do in order to afford college.
Rest assured… you’re not alone. As we are now in the month of February, hopefully you have already completed the FAFSA form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (go to www.fafsa.ed.gov). Every school and every state has specific deadlines, so Tip #1…stick to the individual school deadlines that are stated. The FAFSA form can be completed and submitted any time after January 1st of each year – not before! So, as they say, “the early bird gets the worm” because there is more money available early on in the calendar year. That being said, it doesn’t mean if you apply January 1st that you will be guaranteed federal aid or grant money.
What the FAFSA does is to use a federal formula to calculate a family’s EFC – Expected Family Contribution – which means the amount the federal government feels you should be able to contribute towards your child's college education for that year. What often happens is that there is a gap between a family’s EFC and the actual COA – cost of attendance – for each school. (COA – EFC = Need) It's clearly a bummer when that happens because that adds some level of stress (and unhappy faces) to the decision-making in the end, but nonetheless, this is reality for a lot of families.
A common statement I often hear is “I’m not going to complete the FAFSA because I make too much.” What’s “too much” -- $80K, $100K, $150K, $200K? Tip #2…I can guarantee you that if you do not file any forms, you will not get any financial aid! Keep in mind that there are other factors considered when determining financial need, in addition to income and assets, like age of oldest parent, number of dependent children in the household, number of children in college or private schools, and more. So please don’t base your decision on whether to fill out the FAFSA form solely on income alone. Also...don't rule out merit aid - some students are offered merit aid with their acceptance letter if they are at the top of their class, a star in some way, or if they have a hook.
I always encourage students and parents to go through the process of applying for financial aid because 1) you never know what might happen that year – extreme medical bills, job changes, etc. that might cause you unexpected financial hardship, 2) even if students may not qualify for grant money (free money) or gift aid, a student most likely will qualify for unsubsidized loans and work study – that money can come in handy for miscellaneous expenses like books, travel expenses, or tuition, and 3) a small loan might ease the financial burden that year. Some colleges require a family to complete additional financial aid forms as well, like the CSS Profile (find at www.collegeboard.org) or a financial aid form specific to their school. Tip #3… File your forms on time and correctly (check carefully before submitting) – know your deadlines for each school and apply electronically if possible.
Another comment I often get is “I’m not going to consider any private colleges because the price tag is $40-$50K per year as compared to a state university with an average price tag of $18K.” My response….don’t judge a book by its cover. Tip #4…Private schools often have larger endowments and a greater pool of scholarship money to give out which helps to lower the price tag. Either way, if a college really wants you…whether a private college or state university…they will offer you money to entice you to go to their school. Tip #5…Students should choose the schools on their college list very carefully!
Tip #6…I encourage each family to take advantage of EFC calculators that are now provided on every college website or the FAFSA4caster that can be found on the FAFSA website. This enables a family to get a ballpark estimate of what their EFC might come out to be – these calculators are helpful but are not always accurate to the penny.
My final words of advice on how to afford college are: Tip #7… Look into various scholarships offered either by local or national organizations (try www.fastweb.com). Explore college websites for scholarships and financial aid information/deadlines. Tip#8…Students can often find a list of local scholarships offered by walking into their high school guidance office – what a great idea! Lastly, Tip #9…Students - think about getting a part-time job while in college to help defray costs. Many students find a way to go to school, participate in extracurriculars, and work at the same time. Tip #10…When there’s a will, there’s a way! Hang in, until next time…