Regardless of your family’s income, college is no small feat. The cost of tuition, room and board, books, travel, and related expenses continues to rise in an intimidating, discouraging way. Applying for financial aid is the first step in scaling that monetary hurdle. In all cases, no matter what your income bracket, applying for financial aid is definitely the first sign of a smart, bright, college-bound student.
Don’t just stare at that pile of tax returns and financial information. As with all things, the best place to begin is at the beginning. Sharpen your number two pencils, but before you start, make sure you remember these guidelines:
You’ll need to know the language before you travel through the process of financial aid. There is a dizzying amount of terms and acronyms (the financial aid world loves acronyms). Consider this your official dictionary of Financial Aid Jargon (FAJ).
Acknowledgment Report: Notification to the student after the need form has been received by a processing agency.
College Scholarship Service (CSS): Service that analyzes family need and contribution.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Amount determined by the federal government that your family should have accessible to help pay for school; used in determining your eligibility for grants and loans.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): Free federal application that must be filed to determine eligibility for federal student loans.
Financial Aid Forms (FAF): Forms processed by the College Scholarship Service of the College Board to determine your family’s financial need and contribution; results are sent by the CSS to colleges and universities.
Information Request Form: Form that the federal government may send to ask for further or corrected information before granting a federal Pell Grant.
Payment Voucher: Part Three of the Student Aid Report; submitted to the school financial aid officer to determine the Pell Grant amount.
Student Aid Report (SAR): Official notification of federal Pell Grant eligibility, usually received by the student and the school four to six weeks after submission of the application.
Verification: Process of checking financial aid applications for accuracy.
Gather all of the necessary financial aid forms from your schools and from processing agencies. Collect the documents and information that you will need to complete these required forms (such as tax returns, bank statements, and so on). Send your completed forms to the processors soon after January 1.
Three to six weeks after submitting your application, its receipt will be confirmed via mail. A report will follow that will outline your family’s expected contribution and eligibility for aid. Look for the SAR, which you will submit to the school you ultimately choose to attend. Discuss the results with your family and direct any questions you have to your financial aid officer.
Colleges and universities make financial aid decisions at this time, so be sure that your application is complete. The financial aid award letter from your school indicates the amount of aid you will receive for the year, including all federal grants and loans, outside awards, and state aid. Sign and return a copy of the letter if you accept the school’s package. If you need more assistance or have questions about the offer, contact the school’s aid officer now. Don’t wait!
Parents: Figure out ahead of time what role your family will play in helping to finance your education.
The Feds: Despite cuts and obstacles, the government still provides most of the aid that is awarded to college students.
The State: Many states offer need- and merit-based aid. Inquire into your home base resources for the college-bound.
Colleges and Universities: Check the philosophy of the schools to which you are applying. Need-blind? (The school does not consider financial need in admissions.) Need-sensitive? (The school considers financial need only when deliberating over candidates after subsidiary funds have been allocated.) How is aid distributed? Will your freshman year aid package be guaranteed for four years? Don’t be afraid to pose the tough questions to the financial aid director or advisor. Paying for college is one of the most important investments you will make. You have the right to be an educated consumer.
Private Organizations and Foundations: If you have particular talents or aspirations, examine organizations that award merit-based aid. Many organizations offer assistance to students heading towards a certain major or grant help to high school seniors from a specific area. Investigate all your options at your local library.
Students have the responsibility of thinking about saving a bit in high school, finding summer jobs, taking out loans, and working during college. Many financial aid packages include on-campus jobs. Both on- and off-campus work is not only lucrative for spending money and tuition money, it can provide valuable experiences that contribute to more than just your payment plan.
Don’t fear the numbers, it more than adds up. What you get for your money is often priceless. The degree equals the architecture of a life and a future. The major yields connections and expertise in a field that excites you. The experience gained in obtaining that slip of paper written in Latin can be so rich and full and once-in-a-lifetime, it almost doesn’t hurt to make the loan payments afterwards. Almost. Because, in a perfect world, the fine-tuning of our minds wouldn’t cost a penny. Until we reach that glorious place, it pays to plan a way to make the refinement of our mental sensibilities as affordable as possible.
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