Many colleges and universities are releasing their financial aid awards and loan packages to students this time of year, and depending on your circumstances, their decision just might not cut it. Here’s how to navigate the financial aid process, and help you make ends meet.
1. Pay attention to financial aid deadlines.
Before you can ask for more help, it’s imperative that you complete the initial application process as quickly and efficiently as possible. First of all, use the free, official website for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, fafsa.ed.gov, not another site that may charge you to fill out your information.
Keep in mind that each state has a different deadline when it comes to filing your FAFSA, and every university operates on their own individual schedule as well. Be sure to research the timelines and be sure to stay in contact with your school’s financial aid office. Many institutions have a policy that awards are made until funds are depleted, so the earlier you submit your information, the better.
2. Be courteous.
While you might think you’re negotiating, it’s counterproductive to use that term during the actual process. Instead, go for gentler phrases, like asking for a review, re-evaluation or reconsideration to your award status. Financial aid counselors ultimately want to help students meet their need — they’re on your team, so treat them as such.
In the same vein, one rather controversial practice in the financial aid process is to bring other schools’ financial aid offers to the table and ask for a matching package. This may be of particular relevance to incoming freshmen, whose offers from other institutions are still fresh from decision day, but there are many sources of advice that fall on either side of the debate. Some say it may help put your desirability as a student in focus, but keep in mind that this type of bargaining may strike some counselors as aggressive. If you do use this tactic, make sure that you broach the subject in a respectful manner to a counselor with whom you’ve established a working relationship — never just slap another university’s financial aid letter on the table and demand a price match.
3. Explain your situation, and appeal.
Though the financial aid application is comprehensive, it doesn’t tell your whole story. Awards from the FAFSA are calculated based on the previous fiscal year, which means that recent changes to your situation aren’t always factored into the final decision.
While most adjustment happens around the time the packages are released, it’s not uncommon for circumstances to change and mid-year re-assessments to occur. The financial aid office at your institution is open year-round, and can re-evaluate your standing at nearly any point. Extenuating circumstances such as medical bills, divorce, unemployment, or loss of income inevitably change a family’s ability to afford tuition, and the financial aid office should know about any of these situations.
Tuition hikes can also change your financial capabilities from year to year. If the price tag for your education has hiked over the years, ask your counselor if your award package can be adjusted to reflect that change.
4. Have an eye for details.
Little things that you might accidentally overlook are actually crucial when it comes to paying for school. You have to pay attention throughout the entire complicated process. Everything from overstating the student’s income, to emphasizing non-essential outside costs, even down to forgetting to sign the forms, can play a huge role in the end result of your financial aid. It pays to double and triple-check before you hit submit.
The type of aid you receive matters as well. Federal PELL grants don’t have to be paid back, while loans certainly do! Merit-based and need-based awards differ slightly, and oftentimes schools give special consideration to students who have excellent academic records, participate in competitive sports, or even have relatives that attended the same institution. You can also ask about work-study or employment programs for extra cash.
5. They can’t say yes until you ask!
Remember that financial aid offices are there to help you make your educational goals attainable. They need to know your situation in order to help, so don’t be shy or embarrassed in sharing pertinent information with your counselor. Every little bit helps.