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

Things to do NOW to Prepare for the Upcoming College Financial Aid Process

what you can do now to prepare for the financial aid application processAs 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. Based on my experience applying for aid, I would suggest that parents print out the Federal Form 1040 or 1040EZ (whichever they will ultimately complete) and begin filling it in now, making estimates for the year based on finances to dat and/or your previous year’s taxes. This will help you use the Net Price Calculators described below and 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 you will use to apply for the federal student aid programs offered by the U.S. Department of Education. 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! 

    Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1, even if you have not yet submitted your tax return. This should be relatively straightforward if you have completed an estimated Form 1040. You can download instructions, worksheets and other information about completing the FAFSA at https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/resources#complete.

  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. 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 available starting October 1. Again, if you have prepared an estimated Form 1040 early, it will make completing this online application much easier. If your student is applying Early Decision (ED) to one of the institutions requiring the CSS Profile, you will need to prepare the CSS Profile shortly after the ED application has been submitted.
  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! We highly recommend Paula Bishop, a CPA and college financial aid advisor – www.paulabishop.com.
  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

(c) College Goals LLC 2015