The Nitty Gritty of Financial Aid: How to Prep and Not be Shocked by your Admission Offer

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is open on October 1, 2017 for families to get a quicker and more accurate depiction of their Expected Family Contribution (EFC). FAFSA has created some tools to assist families in streamlining this process. There’s also some really other cool tools that can help you break down what a college will actually cost for your family.

Before we begin, let’s remember, the “sticker price” of an institution (the total estimated cost you see on a college’s website including full tuition, room/board, etc.) is NOT what you will automatically pay. Your “net price” is the price you’ll pay after a college puts together a financial aid package and knocks down the price with things like grants, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.

Actually one more thing….

  • Grants, Scholarships = FREE Money you don’t pay back
  • Loans = Money you MUST pay back.
  • Work-Study is NOT always a guarantee of financial aid, students are responsible for finding a job, can be tough in the first semester during transition, just don’t always bank on this

Okay, now let’s get to the nitty gritty as promised.

How can you find the “net price”?

  1. Use the FAFSA4Caster OR if you’re a senior family, file the FAFSA on October 1, 2017 to get your EFC number Hint: Students and parents each create a FSA ID #. Utilize the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to seamlessly integrate your tax information 
  2. Use the following to estimate a specific college’s financial aid package (what you can expect them to reasonably offer you in terms of grants/scholarships based off your family information)
    • Net Price Calculator Most colleges are mandated to have this tool on their website. Go directly on your college’s website of choice and search for the net price calculator on their financial aid page. Have basic income information available when completing as well as things like test scores/GPA for merit-aid if needed
    • College Navigator provided by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the College Navigator is a tool that can provide in-depth information on financial aid given at a specific institution. Remember, a college can say they offer 80% of their students financial aid, and that 80% could include a mixture of loans, so it’s your job to dig deep and figure out what percentage of that is free money vs. borrowedWisc
    • CollegeData Another website that provides incredibly in-depth information on the percentage of free money vs. borrowed money on colleges and universities
  3. Don’t be afraid to contact a college’s financial aid office directly and ask!

Apply wisely! REMOVE barriers for yourself! Do not limit your options due to lack of research or not applying to colleges in a wise financial way!

How can you apply to colleges in a wise financial way you ask? 

  1. Check out scholarships for out-of-state students
  2. Don’t knock out private institutions, they may have more money to offer you in financial aid and could cost less than your local state school!
  3. Apply to 2-3 likely schools where you can get merit-aid due to having a higher academic profile than the average student. Take a look at average GPA, test scores so see if you’re above and look at their website for merit-based scholarships and priority scholarship deadlines
    • Hint: Also check out Honors Colleges
  4. Apply to non-binding admission plans and weigh your financial aid award packages in the Spring to your admitted institutions. You’ll have until May 1, 2017 to commit to a university and compare (talk to your counselor for more information on binding admission plans and what’s right for you)

Phew! We made it. Take the time to do the research. It literally pays off. Set aside a couple hours of dedicated time, get out past tax information and have a list of interested colleges. Be OPEN to considering other options. Also, breathe! 

Additional Resources

FAFSA College Checklist



Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

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