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Our Top 10 Tips to Get Financial Aid

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Parent filling out financial aid forms.

Asking for money is not fun. Some of us would rather liquidate our retirement accounts, or consider selling a kidney before asking for help in paying our bills.

But when the bill we’re talking about is the tuition bill and the ask in question is applying for need-based financial aid, it’s a really smart move to make. There is $200 billion dollars in financial aid available to college students, and all you have to do to tap into that deep well of funding is ask for it (and qualify, of course). With that in mind, please consider these top 10 tips for applying for financial aid.

1. Complete the FAFSA.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the government form required by every college to apply for financial aid. It asks for information about your family’s size, your income, and your assets, and assesses your family’s ability to pay for college. If a college costs more than the FAFSA formula determines you can pay, you qualify for financial aid.

2. Maybe complete the CSS Profile.

While the FAFSA is the only financial aid application required by most colleges, there are close to 300 (almost entirely) private colleges that require an extra form called the CSS Profile to apply for financial aid. And there are actually still a few colleges that require their own separate aid application. Make sure you check the website of every college on your list to ensure you’re completing all financial aid application requirements.

3. Apply on time.

While you’re on those college websites, be sure to look for their financial aid application deadlines, which generally spring up anywhere between November and March of a student’s senior year of high school. While some colleges may have soft deadlines, others are very strict and applying one day late could cost you thousands of dollars of assistance.

4. Provide verification documents.

The government automatically selects approximately a third of FAFSA applications for verification, and some colleges verify 100 percent of their financial aid applications. Verification is a process by which you need to provide documentation, such as tax return transcripts, to a college aid office to confirm that the numbers reported on the FAFSA are accurate. If a college requests verification documentation, provide it promptly to ensure that the financial aid process moves forward. Bonus tip: Make sure you’re checking your email, and - if provided with a login - the college’s student information system, so you’ll know when additional documents are requested.

5. Explain special circumstances.

The FAFSA, despite its intimidating reputation, actually asks very few questions about a family’s circumstances. If the information reported on the FAFSA does not tell the whole story for your family, send an email to the financial aid offices explaining your special financial circumstances. Common situations to request consideration of include the loss of a job, high medical expenses, a parent in college or still repaying their own student loans, tuition expenses for a younger child in private high school, support for an elderly relative, and ending child support. Be sure to attach documentation of any of these circumstances to your email.

6. Know whose information to provide.

The FAFSA asks for the financial information of the student and the student’s parents. If the student’s biological or adoptive parents are married or live together, the process is fairly straightforward: Those two parents provide their information.

If the student’s parents are divorced, separated, or were never married, however, things get a little tricky. The FAFSA asks the student to provide the information of their custodial parent, and that is defined as the parent the student lived with the most over the past year.

If the student lived with both parents an equal amount of time, the custodial parent is the parent who provided greater financial support over the past year. If the custodial parent is remarried, they also need to provide the financial information of the stepparent on the FAFSA. They look at the entire custodial household while the noncustodial parent’s finances are invisible. Note, however, that colleges that use the CSS Profile often request noncustodial parent information as well.

7. Don’t provide more information than you have to.

Pay attention to the questions that are asked of you on the financial aid applications –and their instructions – and don’t report more than what is asked for. The clearest example of this in when parental investments are asked for on the FAFSA – the instructions direct families to exclude the value of their primary residence, as well as their retirement accounts. Many families miss these instructions, however, and unintentionally report too much, decreasing their financial aid eligibility.

8. Ask for more.

Remember when I mentioned letting the financial aid office know about any special financial circumstances you have? Well, if, by the looks of your financial aid offer, they didn’t end up considering those circumstances, at least not to the extent you would have liked, or if your situation has changed since your initial application, don’t hesitate to go back to a financial aid office on the back end and ask them to reconsider your aid package in light of your unique circumstances. You are not required to accept a college’s first offer of assistance. If their aid package is not enough for you, submit a financial aid appeal, documenting why it’s not enough and asking for more.

9. Plan ahead.

The above items are all steps to follow during senior year of high school, when you are actually submitting financial aid applications, but if you are thinking about the financial aid process earlier than that (as you should!), the best thing to do is to plan ahead for the upcoming aid application and tuition payment processes. Many families hesitate to save for college because they think their savings will disqualify them from financial aid, and this is nearly always a huge mistake. Assets have very little impact on the financial aid calculations, and any amount you can save will help you pay for college much more than the very small amount of aid your savings might cost you. Income drives the financial aid formula, and it is actually your income from two years prior to the year you’re applying for aid for that is looked at on each aid application. You should therefore think carefully about the timing of liquidating income-producing assets. If you were going to cash in stock options or withdraw from a Roth IRA to help pay for college, you might want to make those moves by January of sophomore year of high school or after January of the sophomore year of college to avoid any financial aid impact.

10. Use Net Price Calculators.

And speaking of planning ahead, a college’s financial aid offer (or lack thereof) should not come as a shock to you come spring of senior year. Every college is required to provide a Net Price Calculator on their website, where you can plug in your basic financial data, and it will provide you with an estimate of your aid package long before applying to the school. The vast majority of students attending college are not paying full price because they qualify for some level of assistance. Therefore, before excluding a school from your college selection process based on its sticker price, complete the Net Price Calculator on the school’s website, and learn what your actual bottom line cost will be once financial aid is accounted for. You may be pleasantly surprised. Some of the most expensive colleges on paper are actually the most generous with financial aid. Understand your aid eligibility before deciding whether or not a school is in your price range.

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Shannon Vasconcelos is Director of College Finance at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of education advising, where she delivers workshops and provides individual counseling on the college finance process. Before joining College Coach, Ms. Vasconcelos worked in financial aid at Boston University and Tufts University. She has a BA in Economics from the University of Massachusetts and an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University.

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