Paying For College Fundamentals

For many high school students, the financial aid process can be a daunting and confusing process. While searching for colleges, students and parents often suffer from “sticker shock”. With the cost of attendance at many selective private colleges hovering in the mid-$50,000 price range, it is easy to see why students cross schools off of their list simply because of the price tag. However, if students approach the financial aid process with a well-thought out strategy, they can find success in this process, even at the priciest colleges and universities.

Many institutions determine their aid packages depending on the size of their endowment, a family’s ability to pay, and how much the college wants the particular student. Financial aid can become so generous that the most expensive private school may end up being cheaper to attend than a less expensive state university.

Listed below are some tips that will help to demystify the financial aid process and ensure that students are receiving the most attractive financial aid award:
  1. Understand the acronyms (FAFSA, CSS, EFC) – By educating themselves, families can navigate the system effectively and obtain the best possible financial aid packages. Most colleges rely on one or two tools to help determine the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Public schools generally require families to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form asks detailed questions about family income, investments, savings, and other financial matters. The FAFSA should be filed as soon as possible after January 1st of the student’s senior year in high school. The College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, created by the College Board, is more detailed. This form is required primarily by private colleges and asks about income and liabilities, including family assets, veterans’ benefits, and child support payments. The CSS Profile may be submitted as early as October 1st of the student’s senior year in high school.
  2. Explain special circumstances – Take the opportunity to personalize your request for financial aid by explaining any extenuating circumstances that may affect your family’s ability to pay for college. High medical bills, unemployment issues, recent divorce, business losses, etc. should all be explained to the financial aid offices.
  3. Check out each college’s Net Price Calculator – Every college and university in the United States is required to have its own online net price calculator, a tool that allows prospective students and parents to discover what higher education might cost them. To get the most accurate net price calculator estimate, you will need to have a strong grasp of your family’s financial situation. For most calculators, you will need to have income and tax statements to complete the forms. Be sure to include the Net Price Calculator in your college search. You may find that colleges with large “price tags” may actually be within your reach.
  4. Get started early – Be sure to adhere to all filing deadlines and beat the rush. Do not wait to the last minute to complete the CSS Profile, FAFSA, or institutional financial aid forms. Be sure that you know the submission deadlines for the colleges that you are applying to.
  5. Be prepared to appeal – If you are not satisfied with your financial aid package, contact the school’s financial aid office to register an official appeal. Colleges often have funds to offer to students with extenuating circumstances.
  6. Rely on the experts – If you are confused with the financial aid process, do not give up. Your school counselor or the financial aid officers at a local college will be willing to assist you and your parents as you attempt to secure the best possible financial aid package.

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