As an educational consultant, I've helped dozens of families with the college choice. Parents often have questions about the best way to choose a college, how to prepare their kids for life on campus, and what steps they can take in making their own healthy adjustment to this new phase of life. But the toughest questions are always about the financial aid process. Here are some general answers to the most common financial aid questions parents ask me. My answers are not meant to be conclusive, and they aren't a substitute for conversations with the financial aid counselors at the schools your child is considering. Still, these answers can give you an idea of some of the issues you may want to talk about with your financial aid counselor, and provide some background information as you do.
My answers assume the reader has a basic understanding of financial aid terms and process. For helpful information on financial basics, see "Terms to Know" and "Countdown to College Cash."
My wife and I have submitted a FAFSA form and financial aid forms with the schools our student is interested in attending. But the difference between our Expected Family Contribution and the amount we've been awarded is pretty significant. It also varies from school to school. Why is this?
The government uses the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA ) to determine each family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Families new to the financial aid process often assume that the EFC number is the amount they will be asked to pay by all colleges, and are surprised to find out that the financial aid packages they receive sometimes vary significantly.
While the government uses the EFC to get an objective measurement of family finances, each school has its own way of applying that information. For instance, schools with a large amount of scholarship money to award may require its strongest applicants to pay less than their EFC would suggest. Some colleges focus on need-based financial aid exclusively, which means they will follow the amount on the EFC very closely. Other schools may have a high number of very needy applicants, which may create a gap for students between what the EFC suggests and what the college can offer.
Ask each financial aid office to explain its policy regarding aid packages and outside scholarships. The answer may be a deciding factor in choosing a college.
My recommendation is to use the EFC as colleges doas a very loose guideline. Sometimes financial aid offices can give you an early sense of what you may receive, but most of the time it is the actual financial aid packages that show families the amount they will be expected to pay.
Can I have my financial aid package reviewed or appealed?
The amount you're expected to pay a given school can be a shock. But this doesn't mean you have to accept that amount without asking questions. Mistakes can be made and vital financial information can be overlooked.
If you think the college has missed something, you can request an appeal. Most colleges have a formal process for appealing aid awards. The key is to follow that process. Financial aid offices need structure to manage the huge amount of information they receive, so they will be much more inclined to help if you follow procedure, get things to them on time, and provide detailed information. Sometimes they cannot change an award without being unfair to other students. Other times, if they have a clear picture of your financial situation and actual needs, they can help you bridge the gap.
If I have unusual circumstances can I get more aid?
Has someone in your family suffered a prolonged illness that resulted in large medical bills? Does your family care for grandparents in your home? Has your family income fluctuated significantly over the past year or two because of a job change or job loss? If so, make sure the financial aid office knows about drastic shifts in your financial situation. The standard aid forms you complete do not ask about special circumstances your family might have, but most financial aid offices have a form of their own they can send you to document difficult situations.