Learning About Financial Aid Isn’t Just For Parents of High School Seniors

This fall (2016), the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on October 1 in a huge shift to make financial aid and college affordability an earlier family conversation about deciding on where to attend and allowing families more time to determine what will work. But waiting for financial aid letters from colleges during senior year still doesn’t give families much time. The key to determining affordability is to start much earlier, ideally before a student fills out applications.

Here are some tips for getting ready for the financial aid process.

Know your “expected family contribution.”

Your EFC is the magic number the federal government generates when you fill out the FAFSA, and it’s important to know the amount you will be expected to contribute to your child’s education. The amount will probably seem unrealistically high to you, so it’s important to know early what you’ll be on the hook for so you can prepare. If your income and assets don’t change from year to year, it’s easy to predict early with the College Board’s EFC calculator, which will also calculate your “institutional EFC” for private colleges. Use the federally generated EFC as a guideline, not the final word, because many colleges will charge you more than your EFC.

Your initial EFC will be based on tax return information from 2 years prior to the year your child begins college. Essentially, the tax year ending with December of your student’s high school junior year, is the tax year information that will be used to determine your EFC and financial aid eligibility for when your child applies to college. Knowing these timelines, you’d be prudent to start understanding financial aid, AT LEAST when you student is in 10th grade and starting 9th grade would be even better.

Understand how the FAFSA is used.

It’s not just the feds who use the form for financial aid. Many states, institutions, and scholarship programs use the FAFSA to determine financial aid eligibility for state and institutional awards, too. Even if your student doesn’t qualify for a federal Pell grant or work-study at a public university, he may qualify for institutional aid and work-study at a private college as determined by the FAFSA.

Understand need versus merit aid.

It’s important to understand the difference. Need aid is awarded based on a family’s income only. Your family may qualify for need aid at a private college but not at a public university, or you may qualify for aid at both. Each college is different. Merit aid is typically awarded for top academic performance, but also for less obvious attributes, such as leadership, community service, music, geographic diversity, and sports. Colleges want to improve their reputation and national ranking, and one way to do that is to attract exceptional students. Some colleges award automatic scholarships for a top GPA range. If you’re an affluent family with a top scholar, your child can look for merit scholarships. If you’re a lower income family, your child can look at colleges that give good need-based aid.

Learn more:

Using Data To Find Merit Scholarships;

Download A List of Colleges Generous With Institutional Aid

Help your child prepare for the ACT/SAT.

Becoming familiar with the ACT or SAT is key to your child increasing her test scores and chances of acceptance to the college of her choice. It also opens doors for scholarships and grant money. Strategy plays a huge part in how well students do on the tests. Some kids are able to prep well on their own with sample tests and books, while others will do better taking a prep class. Of course, we want our students to score well for the chance of increased college money, but keep in mind that too much pressure on a kid to perform well can backfire with increased anxiety. Keep your own anxiety about money in check.

Map out financial aid deadlines.

Begin looking at application deadlines in late summer or early fall to map them out on a calendar or spreadsheet, and check each college’s financial aid forms it requires. Most colleges will only require the FAFSA, but if your child applies to a selective CSS Profile college either “early decision” or “early action” (offered by a few schools), additional financial aid forms will be due — all at different times.

According to the College Board, the CSS Profile will also be available earlier, along with the October FAFSA, and you will use your 2015 tax return. Help your child make a calendar of deadlines, both applications and all financial aid forms. The fall of senior year is busy and it’s easy to miss things.

Learn about loans.

When colleges return their financial aid letters to your student, it will likely include two types of federal loans, federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized. Sometimes the loans are called Stafford loans. Perkins loans may be awarded to students with extreme need. There’s also the federal PLUS loan for parents and graduate students. If you need more than what these loans offer, you’re veering into private loan territory, which is to be avoided as much as possible. Another possibility for financing college is a home equity loan. It’s also possible to take a 401K loan but isn’t advisable.

If you need to go into deep debt to send your child to college, it’s worth considering another college or another avenue altogether. If you and your child are planning to fund your child’s college with loans, it’s worth reading up so you know what you’re getting into. This article lists the options in detail.

Join our Facebook group: Paying For College 101. This group is a forum for families to ask questions related to how they can pay for college. Topics can range from best ways to save for college, the financial aid process, filling out FAFSA, finding affordable schools, EFC, strategies to minimize income, CSS Profile, merit vs. need based aid, student loans, and on and on.

No Question Is Too Silly!!! Ask other members for help and in return share your knowledge and experience.

Originally published at www.road2college.com on June 23, 2016.