If you’re the parent of a high school senior, I’m betting that you’re a bundle of nerves right about now. Not only are you anxiously awaiting college acceptance letters, but also trying to figure out how you’re going to pay for everything. Although the economy is starting to show improvement, many of you are still recovering from several years of meager wages or loss of savings, which means you are probably counting on colleges to be very generous with their financial aid offers. In fact, how much or how little a college is willing to give you may ultimately decide where your child will be attending college this fall. Unfortunately, you may not realize that there are some steps you can take that will help increase your chances of getting the most financial aid possible. If you are concerned about how you are going to pay for your child’s education, consider following these four steps.
1. Move the Money Around
Before you start the financial aid process, consider moving money from your child’s assets into your personal accounts. Why? On the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as FAFSA, your child’s personal assets are assessed at a higher rate than yours. The federal government assumes your child can use up to 20 percent of his/her savings to help pay for college, but your money will only be assessed at 5.64 percent. Parents' assets are also protected to a certain extent, but your dependent child would have no protection. Funds you may want to consider transferring include savings bonds, certificates of deposit, savings and checking accounts. Consult with a financial specialist or tax adviser to determine which changes would be best for your family.
2. Complete the FAFSA
The sooner you complete the FAFSA, the better. Every state and college has its own deadline for submitting the form (the federal deadline is June 30), but don’t wait until the last minute to complete it. Some colleges and states award financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so once the money is gone – that’s it. Even if you believe you make too much money to qualify for any federal grants, submit the form, as this is the key to getting institutional financial aid, as well. Even some private scholarship programs require students to submit the FAFSA in order to be considered for their awards. The FAFSA will also give your student access to low-rate federal student loans, should he or she need them. Be sure to review the form for accuracy and check out my helpful guide to avoiding common mistakes, as a simple error could significantly delay your child’s financial aid.
3. Submit All College Financial Aid Applications
It’s a common misconception that the FAFSA will give you access to all available college scholarships and grants. Although colleges use the information from the FAFSA to determine how much aid they will offer, you’ll need to complete the appropriate college financial aid forms, as well. Some schools may require you to complete the CSS / Financial Aid PROFILE® (non-federal financial aid form), in order to receive institutional scholarships and grants. Your child may also be eligible for other institutional aid that is given through the college’s foundation, alumni group, or specific departments. These programs may also require separate scholarship applications and materials. Be aware of deadlines for these programs, as many are in the early spring between January and March. You can typically search for available scholarships on the college’s financial aid website, but don’t hesitate to ask the Financial Aid Office about other opportunities to ensure you aren’t leaving any money on the table.
4. Appeal the Award Offer
Although the FAFSA allows colleges to get an understanding of what your family might be able to afford for college, it doesn’t always reflect the whole picture. For example, a recent loss of employment or change in hours could change your financial outlook for the upcoming year, but the college's financial aid office won’t know about this unless you provide them with that information. If you’ve recently been hospitalized or had other events that may have drained your savings since filing the FAFSA, you’ll want to let the college know about those changes, too. The financial aid office can reconsider your award package, if you go through the appropriate steps and file an appeal before the deadline. You’ll need to contact the office directly and download any forms that need to be completed. Be prepared to submit documentation to support any claims you make, and spell out exactly what additional funding you will need and why.
Some parents may want to ask the financial aid department at one college to match another college’s financial aid package, but that can be a slippery slope. If you do decide to present other offers in an effort to increase your child’s aid package, avoid using the words ‘bargain’ or ‘negotiation’ as they tend to have a negative connotation. Instead, ask the financial aid officer to consider additional funding based on your child’s desire to enroll or his/her continued academic success over the last few months; most will do everything within their power to ensure your child receives as much aid as possible. The only guaranteed way NOT to receive any additional money is NOT to ask for it. In the meantime, while you are waiting for colleges to present their offers, encourage your child to continue applying for scholarships. Every little bit helps!
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