what you can do now to prepare for the financial aid application process

Start Your College Financial Aid Process NOW

As you are excitedly exploring college websites and imagining yourselves as incoming freshmen next year on the campuses of your choice, many of you (and your parents!) are probably also concerned about the rising cost of college attendance.

There are two options that can help families in facing the cost of college – merit scholarship aid and need-based financial aid. Students/families should consider applying for both. Merit scholarships are awarded to students based on their talents and not on financial need. These talents may include athletics, academics, musical skills or commitment to service. Merit-based money is a measure of how much a college would like a student to attend and is unaffected by the wealth or the need of the student’s family. Many of the most selective private colleges, however, do not award any merit-based aid. Need-based aid is based on a calculation of a family’s demonstrated need. In other words, the cost of attending a college minus the estimated contribution a family can make to cover that cost (EFC) = demonstrated need.

If you think you will need financial assistance in order to attend the college of your choice, there are things you and your parents should do now to prepare for the process of applying for financial aid.

  1. Start gathering and organizing your financial documents and tax information now. Beginning in 2016 for aid applications for the 2017-2018 award year, families will use the prior prior year (PPY) income and tax return information. This is great news, since most families should have their 2015 tax returns already submitted. Use this 2015 income and tax return information on the Net Price Calculators described below and to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile in a timely manner.
  1. All colleges and universities are required to put a Net Price Calculator on their websites to help families calculate their estimated family contribution (EFC), given the specific costs of that institution. You can also find a general net price calculator on the College Board’s website at http://netpricecalculator.collegeboard.org/.
  1. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the online application used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from the U.S. federal and state governments. It is used by colleges and universities to distribute need-based financial aid. It is also used by many institutions to award scholarships and merit-based aid. It is important to complete the FAFSA even if you don’t think you will qualify for financial aid! 

    International students are not eligible for the U.S. government aid programs. However, many schools will ask international students to submit a FAFSA so that they may use the data for assessing financial need. See eduPASS (http://www.edupass.org/finaid/fafsa.phtml) for more information.Beginning in 2016, the FAFSA will be available starting October 1. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete. The switch to PPY data will allow most American families to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool within the FAFSA, thereby simplifying the application process. Information from the parents’ PPY tax return (normally already submitted to the IRS – 2015 return in this case) would be downloaded and automatically populate the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED), you will likely need to submit the FAFSA at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.

  1. Check to see if the institutions on your list require the CSS Profile, in addition to the FAFSA. There are about 200 colleges (mostly highly-selective private colleges) that use this form, which is longer and more complex than the FAFSA. Both U.S. and international students may complete the CSS Profile. We recommend printing out the CSS Profile worksheet (accessible once you establish a CSS Profile account) and filling it in by hand, before transferring the data to the online application. The CSS Profile is also available starting October 1 and will use PPY income and tax information like the FAFSA. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED) to one of the institutions requiring the CSS Profile, you will likely need to submit the CSS Profile at the same time or shortly after the ED application has been submitted. Check each college’s website for deadlines.
  1. If you think you will need assistance with FAFSA or CSS Profile preparation, contact a financial aid expert EARLY, preferably in the Fall and definitely not last minute!
  1. Start exploring scholarship opportunities, both locally and nationally. These are sources of funding that are not administered by colleges but rather by other private organizations, each with its own application process and eligibility criteria. Families should not pay for any of these, nor pay anyone to search them out! Check out this website: http://www.college-scholarships.com/free-scholarship-searches/. Before you spend lots of time applying for scholarships, check with the colleges on your list. Many schools will deduct your scholarships from your awarded financial aid package.

This process can feel overwhelming….. I know, because I have completed the process for both my children! But by starting the process now, getting organized, and having a frank discussion with your family about expectations and financial realities, you will be ready to complete all the relevant forms when the time comes. And, when you have completed the paperwork, reward yourself for your accomplishment!

Written by Carolyn Stewart, Director of Communications