9 Tips For Playing The Financial Aid Game

Playing the Financial Aid GameOver the last decade, the process of getting into college has become one of understanding the rules of the game and then figuring out strategies to maneuver through it. Understanding the game also applies to how to pay for college. Here are 9 tips to help you navigate the financial aid game….

1. If your stats are ivy quality, don’t overlook less selective schools where the money will be. For students with academic stats and test scores good enough to consider highly selective colleges, they should also look at less celebrated school, which are likely to offer more financial aid to attract higher caliber students. 

2. Unless you belong to the 1%, fill out the FAFSA. Even if you think your family makes too much money, you should still fill out the FAFSA. Some schools will only offer merit scholarships if a FAFSA (and CSS Profile) has been filled out. The other reason to fill out the FAFSA, is in the unfortunate case that something happens to the breadwinning parent and family incomes change dramatically. With a FAFSA on file, schools can more quickly help in this type of situation. 

3. They want you BAD!  Colleges don’t always make their “institutional priorities” public, so you won’t know if they are trying to recruit more students from a particular part of the country then they have in previous years. And you won’t know if they are trying to pump up the quality of the debate team. You could be pleasantly surprised to get extra money from a school because they really want you, and you didn’t realize it. 

4. Free money doesn’t come with an interest rate. There are all different types of financial aid, and now-a-days some colleges list loans as part of their financial aid package. Loans, unlike grants, do not reduce the cost of college, though loans with below-market interest rates could reduce the cost of borrowing.

5. Aid may not be a 4 year promise. Just because aid is offered in the freshman year, doesn’t mean the school will offer it in subsequent years. Don’t be surprised. Ask what will happen in the sophomore through senior years.

6. Tuition doesn’t follow inflation, it leads it. But your scholarships won’t. Tuition seems to increase every year, and in excess of what inflation is. Plan for tuition your student’s senior year to have increased 10% or more from their freshman year. Unfortunately, scholarship and grant money may not increase at the same rate. You may start with a scholarship that covers 33 percent of tuition and wind up with that same scholarship covering only 25 percent of tuition in later years.

7. Negotiation is a dirty word, but it works.  Tuition and other costs are printed in brochures and posted on websites, but they are not carved in stone. Let a college know if you have other offers; try to negotiate a better deal. Colleges are particularly receptive if you have an offer from a very comparable school. For example, many selective colleges will match a financial aid package from another selective school. Bottom line is it can’t hurt to ask.

8. Control the controllable – make the deadlines! There so much in the college admissions process that families feel they can’t control – colleges determine what tests they want, essay questions, early decision/action options, institutional priorities, and more. The one thing families can make sure they can control meeting deadlines. So when you miss a deadline, don’t count on colleges being understanding. 

9. Be safe, not sorry. File a new FAFSA, every year, especially if family finances drop. Family financial situations can change year to year, and sometimes dramatically (a sudden health issue, loss of job, etc.). It’s always best to fill out the FAFSA every year. Schools don’t use old FAFSAs to continue to offer aid. Each year starts anew and families must fill out the FAFSA for every year they want to be considered for aid.

A college education will be expensive but maybe less so if students and their families are willing to play the game. Tuition is like airline ticket pricing, everyone on the plane is paying a different price, depending on lots of different factors – business traveler, last minute purchase, decreased route demand, etc. Tuition and financial aid is a similar game. Do your best to be educated on the rules and what you can do about them. 


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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.

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