Paying for College 101: Everyone Should Apply for Financial Aid
This is the first post in a series entitled “Paying for College 101: What You Need to Know about Financial Aid” by Myra Baas Smith, Executive Director of Financial Aid Services at the College Board.
There was a time not so long ago when a student’s primary goal was getting accepted into his or her college of choice. Once that hurdle was cleared, the family then began to think about how they would cover the cost. As college costs have risen, concern about financing a college education has become a significant factor in the college choice process for many families.
The good news is that for many families, financial aid is available to assist them with college costs. The bad news is that for many families, the financial aid process is confusing and opaque. So how can your family take advantage of financial aid without becoming overwhelmed? Take a deep breath –help is on the way. Over the next few weeks, I will walk you through what I believe are the 10 things you must know to navigate and make the best use of the financial aid process. Let’s get started!
#1. Everyone Should Apply for Financial Aid
If the cost of college makes you gasp, you should apply for financial aid. You may or may not be eligible, but if you don’t apply you certainly won’t get anything. Colleges have different policies on both the criteria used to award aid and on the types of aid offered. While you might not be eligible for financial aid based on your family’s income and assets, you might be eligible for a merit or talent award. Also, the cost of a particular school directly affects your eligibility for assistance (more on that in #6). Even if you can pay for the first year, think about the full four-year cost and if you believe you might need assistance sometime during those four years, it is often better to apply in the first year.
As with all financial investments – and college is a financial investment – you need to be thorough as you research the application process at different institutions. Institutions have different policies – including those pertaining to the financial aid application and its interaction with the admission decision. Make sure you know how applying for financial aid intersects with your admission application. Here are two questions to consider before you apply for financial aid:
- Can your financial aid application affect your admission?
The term “need-blind” refers to an admission process in which a student applicant is admitted based upon scores, grades and other academic criteria, and the family’s financial situation has no bearing on the decision. The term “need-aware” refers to the admission process that does look at a student’s financial situation, because the school is not in a financial position to meet the financial need of all applicants. In this situation, financial need can have a bearing on whether the student is admitted.
However, don’t automatically take a need-aware school off your list and do still apply for financial aid if you need help with the cost. At most need-aware schools, only a small number of students are affected by the admission policy and the rest are offered competitive financial aid packages. Whatever you do, don’t assume you can apply for aid after you are admitted.
- Is financial aid different for an early decision or early action application?
You need to ask if the aid awarding policy is different for early applicants and also make sure you will have an aid decision before you are asked to commit to the school. Early decision can be a useful option if you know where you want to go, but you have to be certain that the school you choose is one you can afford!
Now that you are going to apply for financial aid, make sure to come back next week to learn what you need to keep in mind when going through the process!