Figuring out what your child’s college will cost and how your family is going to pay for it are enough to keep you up at night crunching numbers in your head. You can contact your child’s college for help on the fine print, but in the end it’s up to us individual families to educate ourselves about financial aid before our child applies. Here are eight financial aid mistakes to avoid.
1) File financial aid forms late or not at all, and miss out on aid.
Many people think they need to complete their tax return before they can file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), so they end up not filing the FAFSA until April, but statistically students receive more aid if they file within the first three months of the FAFSA becoming available.
Luckily, in fall of 2016, the FAFSA will be available starting October 1 for the 2017-18 school year, and families will use prior-prior income. That means you can use your 2015 tax return to fill out the form. Don’t miss out! For students applying to selective colleges, learn whether you need to fill out the CSS Profile. It’s used by some 280 selective colleges.
2) Procrastinate on the FAFSA and make mistakes.
Procrastinating leads to rushing and errors, or not having time to ask someone how to answer a question. Making errors on financial aid forms leads to delays that can cost you funding. Common mistakes include filing the wrong year (be sure not to fill out the previous year’s FAFSA), reporting retirement savings (you don’t need to), not counting family members correctly, inputting an incorrect social security number, and inputting extra numbers. Have your spouse or a close friend proofread the form to catch mistakes. Our family paid a small fee to have a college finance expert to go over it with us. She caught an extra zero that I had inadvertently added to our asset amount that made us look significantly more well off than we are.
3) Assume you don’t qualify for aid.
Many families don’t fill out the FAFSA because they know they won’t qualify for a Pell grant at a public university. But colleges and universities use the FAFSA to allocate state aid, institutional aid, scholarships, and work study. A student might not qualify for work study at a public university but might get some at a private college. This was true for my daughter. Each family’s profile is unique, including age of older parent and how many are in college simultaneously, so you just never know. Always, always fill out the FAFSA.
4) Apply only to public colleges.
Private colleges’ sticker prices look breathtakingly high, but many students don’t pay sticker price. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can’t afford it before you’ve explored the financial fit of a particular college. Sometimes a good need-based package and/or merit award can bring the cost down substantially, even lower than a public university.
5) Don’t understand how outside scholarships work.
Families hear over and over again that their student can make college more affordable by hunting for outside scholarships, but many institutions simply deduct the scholarship amount from the awarded federal financial aid. It’s a federal requirement, in fact. Many colleges will lower the loan amount first before cutting into a grant, but every college is different. Be sure to find out the college’s policy before your student spends hours hunting for scholarships. By far, the best type of scholarship to get is an institutional award from the college itself.
6) Don’t understand “frontloading.”
Many institutions will offer an enticing financial aid package to an incoming freshman, and the college appears affordable at first glance. But it’s crucial that families find out if the award is renewable and for how many years. Research the annual increases for your student’s college choice to see what you’ll be facing when she’s a junior and senior, and ask the financial aid office about the award she has received. There’s a reason the federal loan amount for students goes up each year.
7) Mishandle asking for more financial aid.
Colleges don’t feel sorry for us when we freak out about the tuition bill. They see people like us every year who didn’t do their homework. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more financial aid, but handle it delicately and be polite. Don’t use the words “negotiate” or “bargain.” Some colleges will want you to document special circumstances such as a job loss or abnormally high medical bills, while others might be prepared to give a little more to cover travel costs for a distant student. Colleges don’t usually offer more money just because you feel you can’t pay the bill.
8) Borrow too much.
Students can only borrow a maximum of $5,500 their first year, and over four years, a total of $31,000. This rule was put in place to protect students from too much debt, but even this amount can be too much to bear. Parents can borrow too, and sometimes the whole family gets in over their head. Be strategic in your borrowing and know what’s realistic for your family. Keep in mind that private loans are best avoided altogether.