5 Questions to Ask the College Financial Aid Office

    Posted March 17, 2016, 1:00 pm by Suzanne Shaffer
    5 Questions to Ask the College Financial Aid Office

    If you have been accepted at college, these questions will be helpful when planning your financial aid strategy and comparing offers from all the colleges that offered you admission.

    For juniors, these questions will be helpful when determining which colleges to apply to in the fall.

    If you can, take the time to schedule an appointment or call with the school's office of financial aid. They will be most willing to answer your questions.

    1. What are your financial aid deadlines?

    In addition to deadlines for the standard financial aid applications – the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA) and PROFILE – colleges may have their own deadlines and forms. Be sure to ask if the school's financial aid forms are different for need-based and merit-based aid and when the deadlines are for each. Many schools have declared March 1 as their priority filing date for financial aid. Be sure to confirm each school's dates.

    2. What is your Cost of Attendance (COA) for the current year?

    There are precisely six components to a college student's complete budget:

    • Tuition

    • Fees

    • Room and Board

    • College textbooks and supplies

    • Personal expenses and entertainment

    • Transportation

    Many proposed budgets only include direct costs (which are the first three items listed) – typically what you will pay directly to the bursar's office. However, the Department of Education requires that colleges fully inform you as to all of the above costs, so find out specifically what those amounts are to establish a complete budget for college expenses.

    Download a copy of the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet and fill in the blanks for each college. This will help you determine the true cost of attendance.

    3. How much of an increase in the COA do you project for next year?

    When you ask this question, be sure to request the specifics related to each cost component. Tuition and room-and-board increases are independent of each other. For example, one school may expect an increase of 5 percent in tuition and fees, but a 10 percent increase in room and board. This information will help with budgeting but also gives the financial aid officer the impression that you are an informed student.

    4. Are you able to meet 100 percent of financial need?

    If they say "No," find out why, and get details. Is the policy based on "first come, first served?" What's the average percentage of need the school can meet? What percentage is in the form of grants and how much is in the form of loans? Is there a dollar amount left as a gap (unmet need) for everyone? Do they include Parent Loans (PLUS) and student loans in the aid package?

    (Note: Loans should never be included as a part of the financial aid package. All students and most parents qualify for government loans. Colleges should only use grants, merit aid and scholarships to meet your EFC.)

    5. Do you offer merit scholarships, and how do you treat private scholarships?

    If a merit scholarship is being awarded, it normally goes into the financial aid package first, reducing the amount of need-based aid. Find out if a merit award reduces the self-help in the package or if it replaces other need-based grants. A true merit scholarship can go beyond the "need" level, which means that it can lower your EFC. While you are at it, ask if these scholarships are renewable each year or only offered to incoming freshmen. Don’t forget to ask about outside scholarships as well. Many colleges require that your student report these scholarships and they will use them to reduce the amount of aid they award.

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    Suzanne Shaffer

    Suzanne Shaffer

    Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.