Financial Aid for College
The financial aid process is a complex one, best handled in a steady, methodical fashion. Many organizations help families navigate the process and provide these services for free. Parents, guardians and students should ask many questions of many people because it is as important to be accurate as it is to be timely in meeting deadlines.
Financial aid is granted by different groups in different forms. It is distributed by the government, by private institutions and organizations, or by the colleges themselves. The government gives out need-based grants and loans per formulaic calculations based on information provided in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In the process, you will be given a figure called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This figure will be used by colleges as a means of calculating a financial aid award based on financial need. Your “need” will vary based on the cost of the education at particular schools.
Many colleges offer some academic scholarships to their highest quality applicants or institutional grant money to help meet a family’s need. This money is given as a grant that does not need to be repaid. Many institutions offer athletic scholarships, which are granted on the basis of coaches’ interest in players and do not require repayment. Many private organizations offer scholarships to students who meet requirements that will further their organizational interests.
We catalogue all scholarship offers we receive, and we are happy to help students in their scholarship searches. There are also several online scholarship search engines, like Smart Guide and Fastweb, as well as a listing on the U.S. Department of Education web site.
Financial aid calculators, which are available online, are another good tool for families. For instance, by using the calculator on the College Board’s website, a family can manipulate numbers and determine what their Expected Family Contribution might be.
In the student’s senior year, both parents or guardians and the student will need tax returns and W-2 forms. Non-custodial parents will also be asked for financial documentation. All of the schools to which a student applies for aid will require the FAFSA. Some will also require the CSS Profile, which has more detailed questions than the FAFSA. The Profile and the FAFSA can be completed using last year’s tax information and updated as soon as new information is available. Some schools may also require applicants to complete a form specific to their institution. The registration form to receive the CSS Profile is available online and in our office in the fall, and the FAFSA usually becomes available in both places toward the end of November.
Submitting the forms online has proven to be the most efficient way to receive a prompt response. Financial aid can evaporate quickly at some colleges and the paperwork logjam can be significant later in the process. Therefore, it is important that you submit all of these forms as early as possible.
Once your forms are processed by the appropriate agency, you can verify the accuracy of the data, explain special circumstances to colleges, and report changes in income or savings, etc. We discuss these phases of the process in more detail in the College Counseling Handbook. Please feel free to seek our counsel at any stage of the process.
NOTE: International students must navigate a different financial aid process than American students. We guide our international students through this process very carefully beginning at the end of their junior year.