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    Financial Aid: The Tough Questions

    What you need to know before you visit the financial aid office.

    by Aaron Basko

    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" (page 54) and "Countdown for Cash" (page 62).

    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 do—as 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.

    Be aware that financial aid offices see a lot of special circumstance letters that are not very compelling. They will not award aid because of a circumstance that is clearly a family's choice, such as remodeling the house, purchasing a new car or family travel.

    Just as you ask God for wisdom to make the right decision about which college to choose, ask God to lead you to the right people—wise and caring financial aid staff who can help you through a complex proecss.

    But let's say your family has been impacted by something over which you have no control, and which has had a measurable impact on your finances. In this case, you can often have your aid package reviewed. So if medical bills or a job situation has meant, for example, a $5,000 difference in your income or expenses that are not reflected on the FAFSA, the individual financial aid office has the ability to modify the amount you're expected to pay. This could mean an increase in your aid award. In such cases, it will be very important that you document both the nature of the circumstance and the actual dollar impact on your family's finances. This documentation will probably be done on special forms provided by the financial aid office. A quick call to the financial aid office can give you a better sense of whether your circumstances are unusual and may be worth documenting.

    Should I negotiate my child's financial aid award?
    What do you do when you don't get the money you need? Can you negotiate? That is, "haggle" with the school? The truth is that colleges have different policies about what types of "bargaining" conversations are acceptable. Some want information about what you need and what you might have been offered by other colleges. Others will be put off by any attempt to "work the system" to get a better deal.

    The best approach is to be honest and direct, but respectful of the process. It is appropriate to say, "We want to make this work, but we're having trouble getting there. Is there something else we can do to receive additional consideration?" If the college is opposed to negotiating, they will typically say that this is their best offer. If they are open to negotiating, they will often ask questions to get a clearer sense of how much the aid package differs from what you feel your family can handle. Be prepared to talk real numbers—as in specific financial needs—if the financial aid professional leads the conversation in that direction.

    I don't recommend beginning the conversation by comparing one college's financial aid package with those of other colleges. I know a few colleges will take copies of competing aid packages into consideration, but the majority of financial aid offices won't react well to such comparisons. Financial aid professionals see themselves as educators. They are motivated by providing opportunities to deserving students. They don't think of education as a commodity, like a used car or a TV. If you try to haggle as if you were buying a car, you undercut their reason for wanting to help you. Instead, enter the conversation knowing that your son or daughter is a deserving student and ask for the financial aid officer's assistance in making your child's dream a reality.

    Will outside scholarships hurt the amount of aid my child will get?
    You think you've got it figured out: Your son or daughter filled out applications for all kinds of local and national scholarships and has fortunately won a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars in additional scholarship money. You think this will make college even more affordable. But then you have a conversation with a financial aid officer and discover that these scholarship dollars will be subtracted from your aid package. You suddenly feel like you're right back where you were before your child searched hard for that extra scholarship cash. Is this possible or even fair? You wonder.

    Each college has its own policies about outside scholarships. Some will allow you to add them on top of financial aid and some will simply use them to replace grant money. Others will use them to replace standard loans up to a certain amount. In this case, you benefit because you cut down on the amount of your loan debt. Colleges that absorb (or subtract) outside scholarships are not trying to penalize good students; it is simply one way that they try to be good stewards of the limited funds they have to distribute.

    One college may be more generous in its treatment of outside scholarships, but not meet as high a percentage of need for all students; another will be more strict with outside scholarships, but more generous in giving scholarships of its own. If your student is likely to garner outside scholarship money, a strict policy can be a disadvantage. As your child narrows his or her list of schools, I recommend that you 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, or it may simply give you an idea of whether it is worth aggressively pursuing outside scholarships.

    Can work-study be used to pay tuition bills?
    Federal work-study is a common component of financial aid packages (see explanation in "Terms to Know" on page 54). Although work-study money is not always used to pay upfront tuition costs, it is a benefit because it gives students access to a convenient source of money that can be used flexibly. Most colleges pay work-study funds directly to the student in regular "paychecks." The financial aid office includes incidental costs like books, travel and modest living expenses in putting together an aid package, and most aid offices assume that work-study money will be used toward these expenses. If your family would prefer that work-study money be applied directly to tuition and fees, those arrangements can be made through the college's billing office. If you choose this option, remember that your student will need a little pizza money to make it through the first semester.

    Do you think scholarship search companies are worth the cost?
    "Thousands of dollars in unclaimed scholarships—we can help you find it!" It sounds too good to be true, right? According to financial aid officers, it is. Any financial aid director can tell the story of a family that had a bad experience with a scholarship search company. Even if you find a trustworthy one, it's difficult to know how much of a benefit you will receive. Scholarship search companies offer to hunt for hidden scholarship money for you, but most scholarship information is available free to anyone willing to do a little online research. College-bound teens can sign up for excellent free scholarship searches, like industry favorite fastweb.com, which will keep them updated on new scholarship opportunities that match their profiles. So save that scholarship search fee and put it toward your tuition.

    Why are loans considered aid?
    Loans obviously are not as good as grant money, scholarships or work-study. Even so, they can still benefit families. In most cases, a college can get you a loan with significantly lower interest rate than you could secure elsewhere. Some families will also be eligible for special loans, like the Subsidized Stafford Loan from the federal government. For this loan, the government actually pays the interest until the student graduates. At the very least, the college will have a streamlined process for a range of loan and payment options that would be very difficult to match with the loans you'd get directly from a bank. It is sort of like the college has a membership to a discount club. You still have to pay, but at least the college can get you in the club.

    How do I make sure I've done all I can to get the aid we need?
    What you can do is ask lots of probing questions, like those found in this article. When you run into a situation where you don't know which steps to take, call the financial aid office. Helping families through this process is what they do. If you approach financial aid offices with a positive attitude, a willingness to work with them, and a desire to make a great match between your son or daughter and the college, most financial aid staff will go out of their way to help you. If, on the other hand, a particular financial aid office is not going to be helpful, it is best to know that sooner rather than later.

    And don't forget to take your concerns directly to God. Just as you ask God for wisdom to make the right decision about which college to choose, ask God to lead you to the right people—wise and caring financial aid staff who can help you through a complex process.

    Aaron Basko is an educator, freelance writer and education consultant from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Contact Aaron at edvisor@dejazzd.com or visit www.edvising.net.
    Chris Dooley, Director of Enrollment Management at Tennessee Temple University, and his financial aid staff reviewed this article for accuracy. Aaron and Campus Life would like to thank Chris and his team for their helpful comments and insights.