This article was originally published on May 13, 2019. It was updated on March 24, 2020.
As a college funding coach and a financial advisor, my conversations with families are often focused on how they can provide the best education and opportunity for their children without compromising their families’ financial future or taking on significant debt. With college expenses rising at an alarming rate, families are struggling to pay for college with cash flow and savings. They are turning to financial aid as a potential solution.
Applying and qualifying for financial aid can be a complicated process and it is important that you are knowledgeable and ask the right questions when you meet with your college counselor and visit with college financial aid officers at the college of your choice. I have provided ten questions below that you should ask as you begin this journey.
1. What percentage of financial need is met by the college?
If your family’s financial success depends upon qualifying for financial aid to attend college, the best way to assess the generosity of the college is to inquire about the percentage of financial need that is typically met for its students.
2. Do you offer need-based aid and/or merit-based aid?
Need-based aid is determined by the income and assets of the family, whereas merit-based aid is determined by the student’s resume of academic achievement, talents, interests, and activities. Once you know which type of financial aid the school will offer, you can identify what you can do to qualify for these awards.
3. What is the typical student debt for the graduating student?
This will give you an idea of the complete cost of school and an overall feel for how much assistance the college will provide. It also helps to ask about total “Cost of Attendance”, which should include tuition, books, room, and board. You can then add your anticipated personal and travel expenses.
4. Will my aid package change after the first year?
Knowing if the subsequent years will change is critical as there may be scholarships, grants, etc. that could increase or decrease. In addition, there may be requirements for continued qualification such as keeping a certain GPA or participating in work-study.
5. What other financial aid might be available?
If funds have been awarded to other students, but they chose to attend elsewhere, there may be additional funds available to be awarded.
6. What if my financial circumstances change while my student is attending this school?
Attending the school is a multi-year commitment and circumstances can change drastically from one year to the next. Will the school be flexible if your financial situation changes?
7. Do my taxes need to be submitted before I complete the FAFSA?
No. You will be eligible to fill out the FAFSA starting in October of each year and will need to use the information from the previous year’s taxes. This is important as procrastination can cost your potential financial aid. Financial Aid is typically awarded on a “first-come, first-serve” basis which means a delayed application can negatively affect your award.
8. If we are awarded a scholarship, does it reduce my financial aid package?
This is an important question as you may be counting on your financial aid package plus your scholarships only to find out that they have offset each other. If this is the case, does the scholarship replace the grant or the loan?
9. If my financial aid is insufficient or my circumstances have changed, how do we appeal for more financial aid?
Once your FAFSA is filed it can typically be amended by the school if your circumstances have drastically changed from the time that you originally completed it.
10. Are there local benefactors or contributors that are willing to help families who need assistance?
Although we are conditioned to look to federal or state aid to assist with college expenses, there are often local sources of funds that the college has developed. This may require an introduction and letter of inquiry, but it never hurts to ask.
These questions will help inform you as you navigate the financial aid landscape. Most importantly, every dollar that you save while paying for college is a dollar that will provide greater assets for your family, and ultimately, your retirement and legacy. It is critical that you know what the FAFSA views as an accessible asset, as your best intentions in saving for college can become the dollars that you lose in financial aid.
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