There are several types of financial aid, including scholarships, grants (pretty much the same as scholarships), a variety of loans, and work-study programs. Similarly, there are several sources of financial aid, including the federal government, many state governments, individual colleges and universities, businesses, foundations, civic groups, professional organizations, and private lenders.
Some financial aid is reserved for students who, after completing the FAFSA, are judged to have financial need. Other aid is available without any regard at all for need.
College financial aid packages may include funds from all of the aforementioned sources, and may consist of need-based aid, non need-based aid, or a combination of both. Similarly, aid packages may include only “gift aid” (which does not require repayment), only loans (subsidized and/or unsubsidized), only self-help (work-study) or any combination of the above. Thus, the total amount of financial aid dollars a student receives does not tell the whole story.
As an example, if two students are awarded $10,000 in aid and one receives only gift aid while the other has substantial self-help and/or loan monies, the former has the far better package. Of course, the differences in the packages reflect established financial need and, perhaps, merit money; scholarships awarded for special talents or accomplishments.
Be aware that not even all loans are equally desirable. Students who qualify, by virtue of financial need, for (federally) subsidized loans get those loans at much lower interest rates and will consequently have less to repay. In addition, private loans can have very different terms and requirements, depending on the kinds of loans and the vendors offering them.
There are a lot of variables in financial aid packages and financial aid packaging.
Because of all those variables, when you first receive your financial aid package, take some time to analyze and understand it before you decide how happy or unhappy you are with it. And, be sure to avoid the temptation to evaluate your package by comparing it with those of other students. Remember that even students with financial situations that appear like yours may well be in a very different financial situation. Also, keep in mind that institutions package differently because of their philosophies and financial resources. The better endowed institutions, for instance, are more often willing and able to meet full financial need, and do so with all or nearly all gift aid.
If, after your analysis, you are not pleased with your package, there are a few things you can do. One is to seek outside scholarship help. Try some of the nearly 70 free, online scholarship search sites. Next, check your public library and high school guidance offices (even if you are an adult student) to see if they maintain information on local scholarships for which you might qualify. If you are a working adult, see if your employer might be willing to offer you some initial help or a tuition repayment plan. And, check the professional organizations in your field (or the field for which your studies are designed to prepare you) to see if they may have some funding available for you.
If you have any “special circumstances” as defined by the current financial aid regulations, (like unexpected medical expenses) or major changes in family finances (loss of a job, decrease in family income, or investment losses, for instance), financial aid officers may have the discretion to adjust and improve your aid package. So, if you have special circumstances as discussed above, make an appointment to discuss them with a financial aid counselor. Students may also qualify for more aid than is offered in an initial package if other family members decide to attend college during the same academic year. Remember that, because it can save you and/or your family a lot of money.
For instance, parents of students who wish to return to college (online or on-campus) can often do so much less expensively, because the financial aid formula will treat most of them very kindly. Similarly, the cost of educating siblings may be substantially less when they are enrolled as full time students, both because of the federal financial aid formula (and the fact that a significant number of private colleges will give families with concurrently enrolled siblings a meaningful tuition break). Generally speaking, the greater the number of nuclear family members enrolled in higher education at a time, the better their chances of receiving helpful amounts of financial aid, because the estimated family contribution is divided by the number of family members enrolled in college.
As an example, let’s look at a family in which one person (a parent or dependent child) is enrolled in college. If that student’s estimated family contribution is $6,000 a year at an institution where his/her expenses will be $26, 000 annually, he or she will qualify for up to $20, 000 a year in aid (the difference between $26,000 and $6,000. If a second person from that same family is enrolled, the estimated family contribution for each will then be reduced to $3,000 each, and each will be eligible for $23, 000 a year in aid. Add another family member and the estimated family contribution becomes $2,000 for each, and each become eligible for up to $24, 000 in annual aid.
Once you have put together all the documentation you can and you feel confident of your ability to make your case, schedule an appointment with a financial aid counselor; the sooner the better. Often, early morning appointments and Friday afternoon appointments will be the easiest to get. The sooner you move forward, the greater the possibility that additional aid may be available to you.
Remember, there is nothing wrong with bringing notes to the meeting. Preparation is among a student’s best friend in the world of financial aid. Documentation is another, so save and file all relevant financial information.
It is critical that you understand that your financial aid meeting is a request for help, not a negotiation. If you assume the role of negotiator, nothing good will come of your meeting. Financial aid officers do what they do because they want to help students. There are very few exceptions to that rule. However, there are limits to what financial aid regulations, the institutions they serve, and the law allows them to do.
Your goal is to point out to the counselor with whom you meet that there are new and/or special circumstances that may qualify you for a better financial aid package. The counselor’s job is to put together the best possible financial aid package allowed by existing laws, institutional budgets, and regulations. Ideally, your meeting will result in a better financial aid package. If it does not, at least you are likely to come away with a better understanding of how financial aid works.
After your financial aid meeting…whether you get a better package or not…there may be one more step you can take to reduce your college costs. If your college or university has a scholarship office that is separate from the financial aid office, line up an appointment with a counselor there. Once again, be mindful of the fact that you’re not there as a negotiator. And be mindful that, like financial aid counselors, scholarship counselors are predisposed to want to help you as much as they can.
When making your appointment, ask if there is any information or documentation you should bring with you. However, generally, you will not have to bring any paperwork as, in most cases, the counselor with whom you meet can quickly and easily access any information about you that may be required.
Your goal in this meeting is simple…to find appropriate scholarship opportunities. If you do, get your applications out as soon as you can, and remember that deadlines are not suggestions.
Finding educational financing may not be fun, but as many families know, there are multiple information sources and people willing and able to help.