Financial Aid Info for Parents
A firsthand look
College visits are one of the most important steps in the process towards college selection. Too often, however, they consist of a student guided tour that is carefully planned and shallow in substance. If you've accompanied your college-bound child, don't leave campus until you have visited the financial aid office.

Call the financial aid office ahead of time to make sure that a financial aid officer (FAO) will be there to help you. People sometimes find FAOs, more so than other administrative people, difficult to deal with. Keep in mind that they are often caught between a "rock and a hard place," trying to help out everyone as best as possible. They have a tough job, so be patient and diplomatic when dealing with them. Face to face contact now may "pay off" in the spring of your child's senior year.

Don't forget: When you're asking financial aid questions, ask the financial aid office instead of the admissions office. Don't trust what you hear from admissions about financial aid (or, for that matter, what you will hear on "Financial Aid Night" back at your hometown high school), or vice versa. They may have the general idea, but not all the details.

The questions
OK, here they are. By asking these questions to a FAO at each school in which your child is interested, you will get a much better idea of the ones that are financially feasible for your child to attend. Once you have had a couple of these dialogues with FAOs, you'll get more comfortable with it and able to discern the "good answers" from the less attractive ones.

  1. What are your financial aid deadlines?

    This soft opening question will reveal what forms you need to submit, to whom, and when. There may be both the usual ones, the FAFSA and PROFILE, plus the college's own forms. There may also be different forms for need-based and merit-base aid. It's best to clarify all this in your mind now. By the way, it usually works out that the more forms they require the more money they have, but also the tighter they may be with it.

  2. What is your cost of attendance (COA) for the current year?

    If your child is a junior, colleges won't have the numbers for her freshman college year until April or even June of her senior high school year, so you will have to estimate based on this year's numbers. There are precisely six components to a college student's complete budget:

    • Tuition
    • Fees
    • Room and Board
    • Books and Supplies
    • Personal expenses
    • Transportation

    Many budgets you will see include only Direct Costs, those are the first three items listed, and what you will pay directly to the bursar's office. However, the Department of Education requires colleges to fully inform you as to all of the above costs, so find out specifically what those amounts are.

  3. How much of an increase in the cost of attendance (COA) do you project for next year?

    When you ask for this, ask for the components separately. Tuition and room and board increases are independent of each other. For example, at one school they may expect an increase of 5 percent in tuition and fees, but a 10 percent increase in room and board. Even if it makes little difference in dollars, just asking detailed questions like this gives a good impression that you know what you are talking about.

  4. Do you use your own Institutional Methodology to determine need?

    If you ask this question, the FAO will know that he is having a conversation with an educated customer! Your goal here is to sense how deeply they will delve into your financial profile.

  5. Are you able to meet 100 percent of financial need?

    If they say "no," find out why, and get details. Is it "first come, first served"? What's the average percentage of need they can meet? What percentage is grants and what is loans? Do they have a dollar amount they leave as a gap (unmet need) for everyone?

  6. In what order do you create the Financial Aid Package?

    That is, when creating the package, do they first fill the aid package up with loans, or do they figure a grant for the student first? The answer to this question may tell you a few things. A financially strong school that knows they want your child to attend will say "grants before self-help." But so will a college that understands good marketing -- they know that's what you want to hear. Most colleges will actually begin to build the financial package with student loans, no matter what they claim. You may learn more from how the answer is given, rather than what is said.

    You should also ask if the financial aid office treats parent loans (PLUS Loans) as an option when figuring how the school will meet your need. If so, this is a financial sleight of hand, which usually means that the school simply doesn't have the money. Remember, PLUS loans are for helping with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) after the aid given is subtracted from the full cost of attendance as outlined in Question 2.

    An important fact to keep in mind is that the higher your child is in the applicant pool the greater the chance for more grant assistance. This is called "financial aid leveraging" in financial aid parlance. So you and your child should remember that he wants to apply to colleges where he will stand above the other applicants.

  7. Do you offer Merit Scholarships and how do you treat private scholarships my child may earn on his own?

    If a Merit Scholarship is being awarded, it normally goes into the package first, reducing the amount of need-based aid. Find out if a merit award reduces the self-help in the package, or if it replaces other need-based grants. A true Merit Scholarship can go beyond the "need" level, which means that it can lower your EFC. If it doesn't go beyond your "need" level then the college is being misleading by advertising a need-based award as non-need based. Or at least the award is limited by need, which in effect is the same thing as a need-based grant.

    Note: The prestigious Ivy and "small ivies" (Wesleyan, Williams, etc.) do not offer Merit Scholarships. The scholarships and grants offered at these schools are based on their particular formulas determining need.

Well, there you have it. If you can get accurate answers to these seven questions, you will be miles ahead of most families making college visits. And you'll be well prepared to sit down with your future college student and discuss the academic, social, and financial pros and cons of each college on her list.

Financial Aid FAQ


Q: Are a student"s chances of being admitted to a college reduced if the student applies for financial aid?

A: Generally not. Nearly all colleges have a policy of "need-blind" admissions, which means that a student"s financial need is not taken into account in the admission decision. There are a few selective colleges, however, that do consider ability to pay before deciding whether or not to admit a student. Some colleges will mention this in their literature; others may not. The best advice is to apply for financial aid if the student needs assistance to attend college.

Q: How does the financial aid system work in cases of divorce or separation? How are step-parents treated?

A:In cases of divorce or separation, the financial aid application(s) should be completed by the parent with whom the student lived for the longest period of time in the last twelve months. If the custodial parent has remarried, the step-parent is considered a family member and must complete the application along with the biological parent. If your family has any special circumstances, you can discuss these directly with the financial aid office. (Note: Colleges that award their own aid may ask the noncustodial biological parent to contribute.) 

Q: I will be receiving a scholarship from my local high school. How will this scholarship be treated in my financial aid award?

A: Federal student aid regulations specify that all forms of aid must be included within the definition of need, and need-based aid recipients cannot receive more than the cost of education. This means that additional aid such as outside scholarships must be combined with any need-based aid you will receive; it may not be kept separate and used to reduce your family"s contribution.

If the college has not filled 100 percent of your need, it will usually earmark outside scholarships to close the gap. Once your total need has been met, however, the college must reduce other aid and replace it with the outside award.

Most colleges will allow you to use some, if not all, of an outside scholarship to replace self-help aid (loans and Federal Work-Study) rather than grant aid. 

Q: I know we"re supposed to apply for financial aid as soon as possible after January 1. What if I don"t have my W-2"s yet and my tax return isn"t done?

A: The first financial aid application deadlines usually fall in early February, and many are much later. Chances are you"ll have your W-2 forms by then, but you won"t have completed a tax return. If that is the case, complete the financial aid application using your best estimates. Then, when you receive the Student Aid Report (SAR), you can use your tax return to make corrections. 

Q: Is there enough aid available to make it worthwhile for me to consider colleges that are more expensive than I can afford?

A: Definitely. More than $60 billion in aid is awarded to undergraduates every year. With more than half of all enrolled students qualifying for some type of assistance, this totals more than $5000 per student.

You should view financial aid as a large, national system of tuition discounts, some given according to a student"s ability and talent, others based on what a student"s family can afford to pay.

If you qualify for need-based financial aid, you will essentially pay only your calculated family contribution, regardless of the cost of the college. You will not pay the "sticker price" (the yearly budget listed in the college catalog) but a lower rate that is reduced by the amount of aid you receive.

No college should be ruled out until after financial aid is considered. In addition, when deciding which college to attend, consider that the short-term cost of a college education is only one criterion. If a school meets your educational needs and you are convinced it can launch you on an exciting career, a significant up-front investment might turn out to be a bargain over the long run. 

Q: If I don"t qualify for need-based aid, what options are available?

A: You should try to put together your own aid package to help reduce your parents" share. There are three sources to look into.

First is a search for a merit scholarship during the initial stages of the aid application process. Second is employment, during both the summer and the academic year. The student employment office on campus should be able to help you find a job during the school year. Third is borrowing.

Even if you don"t qualify for need-based loan programs, the Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Student Loan and Unsubsidized Direct Loan programs are available to all students. The terms and conditions are the same as the subsidized loan programs except that interest accrues while you are in college. After you have contributed what you can through scholarships, employment, and loans, your parents will be faced with their share of the college bill.

Many colleges have monthly payment plans that allow families to spread their payments over the academic year. If these monthly payments turn out to be more than your parents can afford, they can take out a parent loan.

By borrowing from the college itself, from a commercial agency or lender, or through the Federal PLUS Loan program, parents can extend their college payments over a ten-year period or longer. Borrowing reduces the monthly obligation to its lowest level, but the total amount paid will be the highest due to principal and interest payments.