Helping Students and Families Tackle Financial Aid

Overcoming FAFSA fear: helping students and families tackle financial aid

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We know applying for financial aid can intimidate students and their families. There are so many requirements and deadlines, and they’re often dealing with multiple schools.

But as a guidance counselor, you know applying for financial aid is crucial. The hour students spend filling out FAFSA forms can mean thousands of dollars off tuition bills or access to much-needed loans.

So how can you help your students – and their families – effectively apply for need-based financial aid? Here are a few tips to share:

Mind the requirements. Make sure students understand and meet the requirements, which vary between schools. And remember, early decision applicants must meet deadlines far earlier.

Don’t miss deadlines. Advise your students to make calendars, create reminders – do whatever it takes to stay organized. Many families worry they don’t have final tax information available to complete financial aid forms, which are based on their previous year’s income. They should simply use their best estimates to complete applications on time; they can (and must) update applications later with official tax data. Just counsel them to make estimates as accurate as possible, so schools can make awards that don’t require dramatic changes upon verification.

Encourage everyone to apply. Some students believe their parents make too much money, so they don’t apply for aid. But there is no downside to applying – it’s free. I say, if spending a few hours on the FAFSA or CSS profile wins a student, say, $20,000 extra per year in aid, well… that’s time well spent! Even if a student receives only loans, those are valuable. Every incoming freshman has access to $5,500 in unsubsidized Stafford loans, and that amount increases every school year. Whether families need students to shoulder some college costs or simply want children to make a personal investment in their educations, access to loans can be helpful. Remember, students don’t have to accept loans. But the money is there if needed.

Don’t say NO. Alert your students to a common mistake some make on the Common Application. There’s a question: Are you planning to apply for need-based financial aid? Some students check “No” and parents may not catch it. This mistake – or misconception— can be devastating. Checking “No” directs students’ applications away from schools’ financial aid offices, taking them out of the running for awards. Later, the student may gain admittance but receive no aid award. Parents wonder:  now what? And the answer at Union, by that point, is often:  “Aid letters went out three weeks ago. The money is gone.”  So, remind families to check “Yes” on this question, ensuring the student’s application reaches a school’s admissions and financial aid offices.   

Guide separated or divorced parents. Again, pay attention to what’s requested. At Union, we require both the FAFSA and CSS (College Scholarship Service) profile. We also ask non-custodial parents to fill out a CSS profile. We’re looking for both parents to contribute, if possible. If a non-custodial parent is unresponsive or not involved, the student, custodial parent or even guidance counselor should submit a letter to the school’s financial aid office explaining the situation.

Detail special circumstances. If your students or their families have special challenges that aren’t reflected on their applications – say a parental job loss or major medical expenses – write a letter to the financial aid office. Such factors can be considered when awarding aid.

Do everything online. Tell students not to mail anything; get a FAFSA pin and do everything online. Our office has access to FAFSA information within 10 days of a student’s submission. It’s the most efficient way to conduct all financial aid business.

Introduce the net price calculator tool. All colleges and universities are now required to offer a net price calculator online. Urge students and families to use this excellent tool, which helps them estimate the real price of colleges. These estimates can contextualize the perceived “sticker shock” of higher-priced schools, which might actually offer more aid. And families can use the calculators years before students apply, which may influence their choices.

Proofread. Make sure students and families carefully proofread all forms. Some parents who fill out applications for students accidentally enter their own names, causing major confusion.

Don’t let students pay for financial aid help. Warn your students and families away from “services” that charge to fill out FAFSA forms (some up to $500). There is so much free help available, and families can also call schools’ financial aid offices, the College Board and federal processors with questions.

Above all, help your students stay calm and follow directions. Remind them that the FAFSA usually only takes about an hour to complete. Updates can be made at any time. The CSS profile usually only takes a few hours. There are so many free resources available. From where I’m sitting, applying for aid is an excellent investment of their time and energy!

Helpful resource sites for students:

The College Board (CSS profiles and Non-Custodial Parent CSS profiles)

Finaid.org

US Department of Education Financial Aid Resources

FAFSA (Application site)