7 Things I Wish Applicants Knew About Funding Their Education

By Cruz Grimaldo, Director, Financial Aid & Scholarships Office, UC Berkeley

Cruz Grimaldo, Director of Financial Aid & Scholarships Office at UC Berkeley

As the Director of Financial Aid & Scholarships at UC Berkeley, I help students from all socioeconomic levels and cultural backgrounds, fund their education. I’m connected to a large community of financial aid administrators, across the state and the nation. I’ve heard hundreds of stories and understand how unique each student is. I also know that each campus handles its funding process differently.

This combination of personal needs and varied financial aid processes may seem to make funding education a challenge. Please do not despair! Allow yourself enough time to research your individual situation, as how you fund your education is often one of the top considerations for choosing a college.

Based on my experience, here is my general advice and what I wish applicants knew about funding their education.

1. Apply, apply, apply — for financial aid.

No matter what your situation is and no matter which colleges you select, you should apply for financial aid. I have come across situations where students fail to apply because they don’t think they will qualify for grants or scholarships. Then at some point in the year, their situation changes — a parent loses a job or there is a medical emergency — and the student needs funding. Applying for financial aid early each year can expedite the process of awarding aid, especially when unexpected circumstances arise.

At UC Berkeley, your admission application combined with your FAFSA or California Dream Act Application serve as the vehicle for scholarship consideration. We urge eligible students to complete the FAFSA or California Dream Act Application by March 2. You do not need to know which college you’re attending prior to completing the FAFSA or the California Dream Act Application. You can find out more about your eligibility and maintaining your financial aid once you are a student on our website.

Even if you don’t think you will be eligible for grants or scholarships, apply and let the colleges and institutions determine your eligibility and record your information in their database for future opportunities.

2. Apply, apply, apply — for outside scholarships.

At UC Berkeley, our philosophy is to help students achieve and afford a world-class education. This means that when you bring in an outside scholarship we first reduce your need-based loan(s) (loans based on your financial need) and work-study (federally or campus -funded part-time work while you are a student) before we reduce your scholarships and grants (gift aid). While there are some exceptions to this, this is ultimately our goal.

Therefore, at UC Berkeley, it is to your advantage to apply for and secure outside scholarships.

Understanding how other schools incorporate outside scholarships into your financial aid offer is something you should research. To put this in perspective, UC Berkeley students are awarded over $10 million in outside scholarships annually.

The other advantage of applying for scholarships is that it makes you more competitive for other prestigious scholarships, such as a Fulbright, in the future. Scholarships are awarded based on a wide variety of criteria, not simply a stellar GPA, so research early and often.

If you are an international student

Funding an education as an international student at a university in the United States presents a different set of challenges.

International students are ineligible for federal, state, or institutional funding at UC Berkeley. We strongly encourage international students to research scholarship opportunities from private organizations both within the US and in their home country. We also encourage international students to research specific academic departments for awards or scholarships available to international students.

3. Consider all financing options to help you finance your education.

While you may have grants and scholarships in your financial aid offer, we encourage you to keep an open mind when it comes to borrowing some or all of your student loans, if you find borrowing necessary.

I hear many stories of students who didn’t want to borrow loans because of family issues or other pressures. Some students hear about a less than positive experience with loan debt and assume all borrowing is bad. Some students end up working multiple jobs or skipping meals to avoid borrowing loans. Others run out of money before the semester ends and struggle to get by rather than borrowing. Skipping meals and working a significant number of hours can negatively impact your overall wellness as a student, including your academic performance. These are the cases when I wish students would make an appointment with one of our Bears for Financial Success peer mentors. The Bears for Financial Success peer mentors can give you the tools for building a spending plan and teach you the basics on borrowing — when to borrow, borrowing only what you absolutely need, etc.

It might be helpful to know how much your fellow UC Berkeley students borrow on average. Only 40 percent of UC Berkeley’s most recent graduating class borrowed loans. Of those students who did borrow student loans, the average loan indebtedness upon graduation was $18,000. This is well below the national average of $25,000.

I encourage you to consider your education at UC Berkeley as one of the best investments you could ever make. As an alum, I believe a degree from Berkeley will have lifelong returns for you and your family.

4. Talk to your family about how you’ll fund your education.

Many students and families find this conversation difficult, but this talk can help answer many questions or raise questions you need answered earlier.

I urge you to approach your family as soon as you can about how you plan to fund your education. Use our Cal-culator to estimate your financial aid eligibility or review your current financial aid offers together. Ask what your family feels they can contribute and for how many years. Will you live on or off-campus? Will you need to borrow? What happens if you need to extend your time on campus? What are their expectations of you? This conversation can help you come up with a plan together.

5. Be creative!

Many of our Berkeley students have unique family or life circumstances that can affect how they fund their education at Berkeley. This includes nontraditional students, like re-entry or foster youth, but also students whose families are unable or unwilling to provide financial support while at Berkeley.

If you are among these students, know that you are not alone on the UC Berkeley campus. I’ve worked with many students who had to strategize and be creative when funding their education.

Aside from applying for outside scholarships each and every year, many students found other sources of funding to sustain them throughout the year. Some students took summers off and went home to minimize expenses and work full time. This gave them the opportunity to save money for the next academic year. Others developed academic plans that allowed them to take slightly less rigorous courses so they could work more during the year. And still others became Resident Assistants in the residence halls to minimize housing expenses. I have known students who have fundraised for themselves and made it work.

I’m not suggesting this is easy, but if you are fortunate enough to be admitted into UC Berkeley, you have a life-changing opportunity in front of you. Invest in yourself and your future!

6. Review the information provided, follow the steps, and be sure to meet all deadlines.

Applying for financial aid can be challenging for some students and families. We understand this, and we certainly don’t expect you to have all the answers when it comes to the aid application process. Here are a few tips that I think you will find helpful when you’re starting the aid application process.

  • Set aside time for you and your family to review the aid portion of your UC Berkeley application ahead of time. Ask yourself what information you will need to gather to complete the application (social security numbers, tax return information, etc.).
  • Apply for your FSA ID or your Dream Application PIN to electronically sign your application ahead of time and keep this information in a safe place.
  • As you complete the application, read all of the instructions and use the “help” options if you get stuck along the way.
  • Monitor any tasks Berkeley has assigned and complete each one as soon as possible. This is especially important to do after you are admitted. You may need to complete several steps to complete a process. Some students stop at Step 1 without realizing they have not finished the entire process. For example, for your student loan to disburse, you need to complete your Terms and Conditions, accept your loan and complete the Loan Entrance Counseling and a Master Promissory Note (MPN). It is not uncommon for students to complete the first two parts of the process but not realize they have not completed the counseling or MPN tasks.
  • Meet all financial aid deadlines. Few things are worse than losing out on potential funding because of a missed deadline. Bear in mind that many funding sources are limited and missing a deadline may prevent an organization or university from considering you for an award. Limited resources may also prevent an organization from making an exception to the deadline. Trust me, you don’t want to put yourself in that position! My advice? Add all dates and deadlines to your calendar and set reminders well in advance to ensure you are considered for all forms of financial aid.

7. Familiarize yourself with each college’s financial aid process.

Each campus you apply to has an independent approach to awarding and completing the financial aid process. Completing the aid process at UC Berkeley does not mean you’ve met the financial aid requirements for another institution…not even at a sister UC campus.

Research how each college you apply to handles financial aid so you don’t miss any important deadlines or requirements. Many campuses communicate updates or missing requirements to students via email or text or in the online student portal. Monitor the financial aid notifications for each campus regularly for any updates or additional requirements.

If you are considering UC Berkeley, you will find useful information about the aid process and the types of aid we offer on our Financial Aid & Scholarships Office website. We also partner closely with Cal Student Central to serve the over 8,000 newly admitted undergraduate students who arrive at our campus each year. If you are part of our newly admitted Golden Bear family, Cal Student Central is your first stop for answers to financial aid, billing, and registration questions.

If I have only one thing I want you to take away it’s this: Learn how to manage your money. Plan your college funding before you apply. Develop some strategies for different scenarios, including a “worst-case scenario.” Once you are admitted to a college, take advantage of financial literacy help, such as UC Berkeley’s Bears for Financial Success. By being financially literate, you’ll free up energy and time for your academic and social life at college.

I wish you the best success in your college applications and future careers.

Go Bears!

To learn more about funding your education, visit the UC Berkeley Financial Aid & Scholarships Office.