For most families with college-bound teenagers, the financial aid process begins and ends with the FAFSA or CSS Profile. But there is more to the process than just those two forms. When it comes to the financial aid process, there are several opportunities for families to improve their standing, from the beginning of the planning process, to the total amount of awards received, to how to pay for the balance that’s not covered by financial aid.
Here’s an overview of the financial aid process, along with some of the milestones and a description of each.
Understand the Expected Cost of College Specific to Your Family
While it's important that a school be a fit academically and socially, it should also be a fit financially. Although you won't know the exact cost of college until you are through the entire financial aid process, you can get an idea of what specific schools will cost your family by using Net Price Calculators.
Prepare for Financial Aid Forms
While it is possible to still receive some financial aid even if you submit financial aid forms after the given deadlines, I recommend completing the required paperwork prior to these deadlines in order to receive maximum aid. With this in mind, it's a good idea to let your financial professionals know in advance what information you’ll need so that they can prepare your taxes, or at least the estimates, in time for you to complete the forms.
Complete Financial Aid Forms
Once you have an idea of which type of admission you are applying for—regular, early action, or early decision—you can determine when you’ll need to complete financial aid forms. The schools you are applying to will also determine the type of financial aid forms you need to complete—in most cases either just the FAFSA or the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. As previously mentioned, it’s extremely important to complete these forms prior to the deadlines set by the schools in order to receive maximum financial aid.
Receive and Interpret Award Letter
Award letters can be confusing. They are also not all created equal. You’ll want to have someone, even if it is only the school itself, review and interpret this award letter for you. In this way you can know exactly what your offer is and how it compares to others you have received.
Negotiate Additional Financial Aid
Most people assume that the initial award letter they receive is the end of the story. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can increase the amount of financial aid you receive by simply asking for additional funds. Of course, what you say and who you say it to are extremely important.
Understand Financing Options and Payment Plans
Once the financial aid award is finalized, many families are left with determining how to pay for the remaining cost. From navigating education savings plans, to understanding loan options, to evaluating payment plans offered by the school, it’s good to have a resource available to explain your options and provide the pros and cons of each.
Complete Required Financial Aid Forms
Even after filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile, you will likely have to complete additional paperwork required by the school. There are forms and processes used to confirm financial aid forms, essentially audits, and others needed to accept the aid itself. Make sure you have an understanding of all the requirements prior to the start of freshman year.
This article was contributed by Blaine Blontz, Financial Aid Coach